Is there a war at Christmas?

First World WarThe Christmas miracle of 1914

"Here, we have many, many reports about this place. We are here in Santive and back there in the little wood of Plugstead, but the English soldiers called it Plugstreet. The British soldiers call the whole area Plugstreet."

Francious Makelberg explains to me. We are on the Belgian-French border on the Belgian side. Here in the woods another, murderous border ran during the First World War. Even today the area is littered with small and large cemeteries. In December 1914, when the war was only a few months old, units from Saxony were lying here in the trenches on the German side. Opposite them were Englishmen of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Francious Makelberg tells.

"There is a story of how a German called good old Warwick. The German knew which English regiment was on the front line and in English he called, good old Warwick."

"A German sang the English national anthem"

In the first months of the war, the German units had been able to advance quickly. But then it went no further. Not forwards or backwards. Here at this point the front line between the Germans and the British was only about 100 meters apart. So close that you could hear the others. Also on Christmas Eve. What happened next, something like that, says Francious Makelberg, who lives here and has dealt intensively with the events of that time.

"A German soldier began to shout, comrades, comrades don't shoot, don't shoot, and the Germans sang" Silent Night "or" O Tannenbaum "and the English responded by singing their national anthem. And a German then sang the English one too National anthem. That was right here. "

Tens of thousands of mini Christmas trees to the front

Every British soldier had received a packet of chocolate and biscuits. The German Army Command had tens of thousands of mini Christmas trees sent to the front. These little trees, placed on the edge of the trenches on Christmas Eve, triggered, as one reads in the stories of soldiers, Christmas feelings on both sides. In many places on the front, not only here, the Christmas miracle, as it was later called, happened. Soldiers ventured out of their trenches from both sides. Soldiers who had just shot at each other exchanged small gifts, some exchanged their addresses and arranged to meet for the time after the war. In some places you played soccer against each other, says Francious Makelberg.

"There was a match about a kilometer from here, a football match with two officers. Semisch on the German and Bairnsfather, Bruce Bairnsfather on the English. It was reported that an English soldier had come out of the trenches with a good football. Surely a Christmas present from Family. With that he came out of the trench and the game began. "

Monument in the middle of the field

Bruce Bairnsfather, the English officer who played German football here in no man's land, later became a well-known caricaturist in England. Even after decades he kept talking about the Christmas peace he had experienced here. Today a small memorial with a number of small and large balls in the middle of the field reminds of this memorable football game. In Germany and England even then the newspapers reported on the fraternization at the front. In France, however, these events remained a closely guarded taboo for many decades, Christian Carion tells me.

"In England pictures were published that had been made by soldiers. In Germany the same thing. In France there was nothing, not a single line."

Memorial to the memory of soccer games in no man's land in the Christmas days of 1914 (Deutschlandradio / Dieter Wulf)

Christian Carion is a filmmaker. He grew up around here with all the cemeteries and war memorials. As a Frenchman, however, he first heard of the fraternization in the Christmas days of 1914 about twenty years ago.

"I always read books about World War I, and I discovered this fraternization in the early 1990s. It was just a short paragraph in a book that puzzled me. I had never heard of anything about it. I called the author , contacted a historian and wanted him to show me evidence of it. I went to the British War Museum in London and read a lot of eyewitness accounts from soldiers who had witnessed it. I knew it was a big deal. "

After years of research, his German-French feature film "Merry Christmas" with actors such as Benno Führmann, Diane Kruger and Daniel Brühl about the events at the trenches during the Christmas days was released in cinemas in 2005. In France, the film became a box office hit and the taboo was broken here, too, says Christian Carion happily.

"You can't say today that it didn't happen. The emotions of the film helped us a lot. That's why I believe in the power of cinema."

Landscape littered with military cemeteries

To learn more about the First World War, which here in France is called "Grande Guerre" the great war, I drive to Arras, the city that was marked by the fighting like no other in France at the time. It goes past on country roads through small villages. A landscape still littered today with military cemeteries. Then I stand in front of an old house in downtown Arras. Only a small round sign indicates that you can stay here overnight.

"Hello Dieter, welcome to the La Corne d´Or nice to see you, bon jour Dieter. So here you are and we show you the rest of the house if you like."

Philippe Payet and Rodney Muir, the two owners of the Bed and Breakfast "La Corne d´Or", greet me at the door. The Australian Rodney Muir has been fascinated by France since his youth, he tells me with a smile.

"I have always been fascinated by France. To me it always seemed like the epitome of culture, beauty and elegance."

Australia's blood toll

He came to France from Australia over thirty years ago and lived in Paris for many years. When the Australian embassy was looking for someone to take care of the preparations for the centenary of the First World War, he got in touch, got the job and therefore kept coming back to the area in northern France. According to Rodney Muir, Australia, a country with a population of just four and a half million at the time, sent 330,000 soldiers to war, which is mostly forgotten. No country, neither Germany nor France, paid such a high blood toll in proportion to its population as Australia.

"Of the 330,000 at least 60,000 were killed and many more wounded. Every family was affected by the loss or by relatives returning seriously injured. My grandfather, for example, fought on the Somme and was injured several times by gas attacks. only to come back here on the battlefields. Soon after he returned to Australia, he died because his lungs were so damaged by the gas attacks. "

18th century stained glass window

So the war is somehow present here too. Rodney came to France - we are at Du after a few minutes - not because of the war, but because of the beauty and culture. And you can tell that here in the house at every point as he leads me through the house.

"When we come up the stairs you can see the old glass windows. They are still from the 18th century. Most of them are still originals. That's what makes this house so special, Dieter. Almost everything here is originals. Before me Show you your room, let's go to another room. It's not finished yet. Edit our "femme de menage" is coming soon. But you can't see that much has changed since the 18th century. The wood, the floor, the wall cladding, everything from the 18th century. "

The name of the house also goes back to that time when it was built by a merchant who had his business just a few steps further on Grande Place. "He built the house here because he wanted to be away from the business, but gave it the same name" La Corne d´Or ", or the golden grain, because he was a grain dealer. It was later sold to a count. He was a consultant by Louis the sixteenth before the French Revolution. He used the house for entertainment, but also as an office. "

The war destroyed most of the buildings

More precise information about the use of the house is no longer known today. With the city archive destroyed in the war, such memories are lost forever. But at least the house still stands here and can tell stories with the rooms and its furniture. It is one of the very very few houses in the city center that was not destroyed at the time.

The almost completely destroyed town of Monchy-le Preux in the Arrondissement of Arras in northern France - archive photo from 1917 (picture alliance / UPI)

Just a few hundred meters further on, I meet Pascal Losfeld from the Arras tourist office on Grande Place, the large market square. A side entrance leads into the late Gothic town hall, built in the 13th century, with its impressive bell tower. While you can hear the bells in the background, Pascal explains the history of the actually so venerable old-looking buildings.

"This tower was destroyed very early in the Great War in 1914. Because it was of course a lookout tower. After the war, all these historical buildings were rebuilt completely identically, the tower, the town hall, everything."

"Everything has to do with the war"

We come to the town hall. The huge entrance hall with impressive cross vaults gives the feeling of a Gothic cathedral. "Now we take the elevator that takes us all the way to the top of the tower. It's almost 75 meters high."

While we are still standing at the bottom of the elevator, the bells begin to ring upstairs. The fact that we can find an elevator here in this building, which seems centuries old, has, of course, to do with the war like everything here, explains Pascal.

"From the outside you have the impression of a very old house made of limestone, but inside you can see the new materials. Here inside you have used concrete everywhere during the reconstruction and of course installed an elevator. Very practical for us."

Then the elevator takes us almost to the top within a few seconds. "We have now come to the bells, the three bells of the tower."

From here there are more metal stairs up and then out into the open. Today it is hazy and cloudy. Normally, however, says Pascal, from here you have a fantastic view far into the country: "From here you can see Notre Dame de Lorette and, from this side, Vimy Ridge."

Arras was like a field of rubble

Notre Dame de Lorette is the largest French military cemetery with over 40,000 French buried. Vimy Ridge is reminiscent of another of the many battles that were fought here around Arras. Even today in bad weather you can see two slender white marble towers on the horizon, about 15 kilometers from here. They are reminiscent of the Easter offensive in 1917, when Canadian troops were able to push back the front here by over ten kilometers in just a few days. Over 6,000 Canadians paid with their lives for it.

From the autumn of 1914 until this offensive in the spring of 1917, the German trenches were only about two kilometers outside of Arras. From three sides the city was within range of German artillery. The city, held by English troops, looked like a total field of rubble at the end. The historic city center was completely destroyed. All the more astonishing is the view we now have from high above of the medieval-looking city center right below us.

"From here you can see the two marketplaces. The small and one large marketplace, which were built as early as the twelfth century. Why two squares? The small square was for daily needs and the large square was used by tapestry dealers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and then later used by grain traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. "

The oldest house in the city dates from 1467

Now in the Christmas season, a wonderful Christmas market invites you to stroll on the Grande Place, the larger of the two marketplaces. The market has been attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors in December for over ten years. The square, about the size of a soccer field, is framed by old houses, all in the same style, Pascal explains to me after we have left the tower again.

"There are a lot of house facades here, over a hundred house facades all in the same style. They were built in the 17th century in the so-called Flemish Baroque style. The owners were obliged to build all of them in the same style. There was a model and then they had to work all judge. With one exception, there on the corner you will see a brick house. This is the oldest house in Arras. "

Military cemetery in Ypres, Belgium - just under 100 kilometers from Arras (picture alliance / dpa / Frank Schumann)

This, the oldest house in the city, dates from 1467 and miraculously survived the war almost undamaged. Of all the other buildings here in the center, however, only ruins remained.

Fortunately, a photographer had captured the city center in great detail in the years before the war. With the help of these photos, at least the city center could be reconstructed. So these old Flemish facades now form a wonderful, graceful backdrop for this Christmas market.

"Never heard a bad word against the Germans"

It is only a stone's throw from the market square to "La Corne d´Or". There I meet Marie Genevieve. She is in her mid-seventies and still remembers exactly how her father talked about the war, the great war.

"My father was a soldier in Verdun and he was lucky enough to live. I never heard a bad word against the Germans, only against the war, because war is something terrible for everyone."

The reason why she tells me her story in German is very simple. She was a German teacher here at the grammar school. Generations of students learned from her the language of their former enemies. Germany, the German language, the German culture, that's wonderful, she says and she beams at me. And of course her love for Germany, like so much here, has to do with Christmas.

"Because I had a very nice German teacher, because she had brought us Christmas cookies in the Advent season and brought us a pyramid nativity scene, and she had told how the children in Germany found a plate of Christmas cookies baked by their mother in the Advent season next to their bed on Christmas morning and all of that touched me very much. "

From here I go with Marie Genevieve to the Grande Place again, where we stand under the balcony of the town hall.

"On St. Nicholas Day around 5:00 am, St. Nicholas is let down from the balcony here and then he will throw candy for the children and first the legend of St. Nicholas will be told."

Warm to the heart

An old children's carousel does its rounds with the sounds of Christmas. A wooden house is built on the smaller of the two marketplaces. It's Santa's house. A queue with smaller children and their parents stand in front of it and wait until they are let in one by one to give Santa Claus their wish lists. In the large square there are handmade gifts, Christmas pastries and, according to Marie Genevieve, an atmosphere like in a Christmas wonderland.

The Christmas market in Arras - the Christmas miracle of 1914 took place just a few kilometers from here (picture alliance / dpa / Elise Chiari)

"I am very happy that for the first time there is a huge pyramid nativity scene at our Christmas market and it is very nicely done. The wings that move with the wind, you can see the holy family and then the three kings and then the shepherds , that is really very, very nicely done. There is a special Christmas atmosphere at the Christmas market. "

My heart is also warm here. In this square, which was completely destroyed by the war a hundred years ago and where soldiers from all over the world fraternized with them instead of shooting at their opponents on Christmas Eve.