Randy Boswell, Postmedia News · Friday, Dec. 17, 2010
A Canadian soldier's letter from Vimy Ridge is being hailed by a European scholar as a "fantastic find" that provides evidence of a previously unknown "Christmas Truce" — the impromptu, Dec. 25 laying down of arms by German and Allied soldiers during the First World War.
University of Aberdeen historian Thomas Weber, whose own great-grandfather fought with the German army during the 1914-18 conflict, said the letter home from a Toronto soldier details an exchange of gifts between enemy soldiers just months before the horrific battle remembered as Canada's coming of age.
The letter is all the more poignant because the young Ontario soldier who wrote it — 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon — was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, a bloody but successful Canadian charge up a strategic height of land in the French countryside.
A few months earlier, Pte. MacKinnon had written to his sister in Toronto about a remarkable event on Dec. 25, 1916, when German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines to share Christmas greetings and trade presents.
"Here we are again as the song says," the young soldier wrote. "I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. ... We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars."
The passage ends with Pte. MacKinnon noting that, "Xmas was 'tray bon,' which means very good."
The best-known Christmas truce from the First World War took place in 1914, when German and Allied soldiers are said to have sung Christmas carols together and otherwise fraternized in a brief moment of peace amid the killing fields of the Western Front.
But historians have long debated the precise details of that event, and Prof. Weber told Postmedia News that most scholars believe such episodes did not recur as the gruesome war dragged on and feelings of hatred and revenge came to fill the minds of men on both sides.
The historian said he was alerted to the MacKinnon letter following a lecture he gave this fall in Toronto. An audience member approached him afterwards and said his family had direct evidence of the sometimes friendly relations exhibited between enemies during the First World War.
"The letter was a fantastic find and clearly demonstrates that there was an attempt to downplay these small-scale Christmas truces when they happened," said Prof. Weber, noting that official military records make little or no mention of such events — largely because they could be interpreted by army commanders as a failure to maintain discipline and a fighting frame of mind among front-line soldiers.
Text of letter written on Dec. 30, 1916 to Jeanie Gregson in Toronto.
Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. I had long rubber boots or waders. We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was "tray bon" which means very good.
I am at present in an army school 50 miles behind the line and am likely to be here for a month or so. My address will be the same, No. 3 Coy., PPCLI. I left the trenches on Xmas night. The trenches we are holding at present are very good and things are very quiet.
I have had no Xmas mail yet but I hope to get it all soon. How is Neil getting on in the city? I'll write to him some of these days. Remember me to all my many friends at home.