Truce in the Forest: The Story of a World War II Christmas Eve Truce Between German & American Soldiers During the Battle of the Bulge
Most people have heard the story of the front-line, Christmas-time, truce in France during World War One, partially due to its retelling in the 2005 movie, Joyeux Noël, but not many have heard of the small Christmas Eve truce forced upon a handful of American and German Soldiers by a godly German woman during the Battle of the Bulge in World War Two. In 1973, Fritz Vincken told the story of what young Fritz witnessed as a child, in his home on the German-Belgian border that miraculous Christmas Eve. It is reposted here, in its entirety, for educational purposes:
Truce in the Forest, by Fritz Vincken1
It was Christmas Eve, and the last desperate German offensive of WWII raged around our tiny cabin. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door…
When we heard the knock on our door that Christmas Eve in 1944, neither Mother nor I had the slightest inkling of the quiet miracle that lay in store for us. I was 12 then, and we were living in a small cottage in the Huertgen Forest, near the German-Belgian border. Father had stayed at the cottage on hunting weekends before the war; when Allied bombers partly destroyed our hometown of Aachen, he sent us to live there. He had been ordered into the civil-defense fire guard in the border town of Monschau, four miles away.
“You’ll be safe in the woods,” he had told me. “Take care of Mother. Now you’re the man of the family.” But nine days before Christmas, Field Marshal Von Rundstedt had launched the last, desperate German offensive of the war, and now, as I went to the door, the Battle of the Bulge was raging all around us. We heard the incessant booming of field guns; planes soared continuously overhead; at night searchlights stabbed through the darkness. Thousands of Allied and German soldiers were fighting and dying nearby.
When that first knock came, Mother quickly blew out the candles; then, as I went to answer it, she stepped ahead of me and pushed open the door. Outside, like phantoms against the snow-clad trees, stood two steel-helmeted men. One of them spoke to Mother in a language we did not understand, pointing to a third man lying in the snow. She realized before I did that these were American soldiers. Enemies!
Mother stood silent, motionless, her hand on my shoulder. They were armed and could have forced their entrance, yet they stood there and asked with their eyes. And the wounded man seemed more dead than alive. “Kommt rein,” Mother said, finally. “Come in.” The soldiers carried their comrade inside and stretched him out on my bed.
None of them understood German. Mother tried French, and one of the soldiers could converse in that language. As Mother went to look after the wounded man, she said to me, “The fingers of those two are numb. Take off their jackets and boots, and bring in a bucket of snow.” Soon I was rubbing their blue feet with snow.
We learned that the stocky, dark-haired fellow was Jim; his friend, tall and slender, was Robin. Harry, the wounded one, was now sleeping on my bed, his face as white as the snow outside. They’d lost their battalion and had wandered in the forest for three days, looking for the Americans, hiding from the Germans. They hadn’t shaved, but still, without their heavy coats, they looked merely like big boys. And that was the way Mother began to treat them.
Now Mother said to me, “Go get Hermann. And bring six potatoes.”
This was a serious departure from our pre-Christmas plans. Hermann was the plump rooster (named after portly Hermann Goering, Hitler’s No. 2 man, for whom Mother had little affection) that we had been fattening for weeks in the hope that Father would be home for Christmas. But, some hours before, when it was obvious that Father would not make it, Mother had decided that Hermann should live a few more days, in case Father could get home for New Year’s. Now she had changed her mind again; Hermann would serve an immediate, pressing purpose.
While Jim and I helped with the cooking, Robin took care of Harry. He had a bullet through his upper leg and had almost bled to death. Mother tore a bed-sheet into long strips for bandages.
Soon, the tempting smell of roast chicken permeated our room. I was setting the table when once again there came a knock at the door. Expecting to find more lost Americans, I opened the door without hesitation. There stood four soldiers, wearing uniforms quite familiar to me after five years of war. They were Wehrmacht – Germans!
I was paralyzed with fear. Although still a child, I knew the harsh law: sheltering enemy soldiers constituted high treason. We could all be shot! Mother was frightened, too. Her face was white, but she stepped outside and said, quietly, “Froehliche Weihnachten.” The soldiers wished her a Merry Christmas, too. “We have lost our regiment and would like to wait for daylight,” explained the corporal. “Can we rest here?”
“Of course,” Mother replied, with a calmness, born of panic. “You can also have a fine, warm meal and eat till the pot is empty.” The Germans smiled as they sniffed the aroma through the half open door. “But,” Mother added firmly, “we have three other guests, whom you may not consider friends.” Now her voice was suddenly sterner than I’d ever heard it before. “This is Christmas Eve, and there will be no shooting here.”
“Who’s inside?” the corporal demanded. “Amerikaner?”
Mother looked at each frost-chilled face. “Listen,” she said slowly. “You could be my sons, and so could they in there. A boy with a gunshot wound, fighting for his life, and his two friends, lost like you and just as hungry and exhausted as you are. This one night,” she turned to the corporal and raised her voice a little, “This Christmas night, let us forget about killing.”
The corporal stared at her. There were two or three endless seconds of silence. Then Mother put an end to indecision. “Enough talking!” she ordered, and clapped her hands sharply. “Please put your weapons here on the woodpile, and hurry up before the others eat the dinner!:
Dazedly, the four soldiers placed their arms on the pile of firewood just inside the door: three carbines, a light machine gun and two bazookas. Meanwhile, Mother was speaking French rapidly to Jim. He said something in English, and to my amazement I saw the American boys, too, turn their weapons over to Mother. Now, as the Germans and Americans tensely rubbed elbows in the small room, Mother was really on her mettle. Never losing her smile, she tried to find a seat for everyone. We had only three chairs, but Mother’s bed was big, and on it she placed two of the newcomers side by side with Jim and Robin.
Despite the strained atmosphere, Mother went right on preparing dinner. But Hermann wasn’t going to grow any bigger, and now there were four more mouths to feed. “Quick” she whispered to me, “get more potatoes and some oats. These boys are hungry, and a starving man is an angry one.”
While foraging in the storage room, I heard Harry moan. When I returned, one of the Germans had put on his glasses to inspect the American’s wound. “Do you belong to the medical corps?” Mother asked him. “No,” he answered. “But I studied medicine at Heidelberg until a few months ago.” Thanks to the cold, he told the Americans in what sounded like fairly good English, Harry’s wound hadn’t become infected. “He is suffering from a severe loss of blood,” he explained to Mother. “What he needs is rest and nourishment.”
Relaxation was now beginning to replace suspicion. Even to me, all the soldiers looked very young as we sat there together. Heinz and Willi, both from Cologne, were 16. There German corporal, at 23, was the oldest of them all. From his food bag he drew out a bottle of red wine, and Heinz managed to find a loaf of rye bread. Mother cut that in small pieces to be served with the dinner; half the wine, however, she put away, “for the wounded boy.”
Then Mother said grace. I noticed that there were tears in her eyes as she said the old, familiar words, “Komm, Herr Jesus. Be our guest.” And as I looked around the table, I saw tears, too, in the eyes of the battle-weary soldiers, boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home.
Just before midnight, Mother went to the doorstep and asked us to join her to look up at the Star of Bethlehem. We all stood beside her except Harry, who was sleeping. For all of us during the moment of silence, looking at the brightest star in the heavens, the war was a distant, almost-forgotten thing.
Our private armistice continued next morning. Harry woke in the early hours, and swallowed some broth that Mother fed him. With the dawn, it was apparent that he was becoming stronger. Mother now made him an invigorating drink from our one egg, the rest of the corporal’s wine and some sugar. Everyone else had oatmeal. Afterward, two poles and Mother’s best tablecloth were fashioned into a stretcher for Harry.
The German corporal then advised the Americans how to find their way back to their lines. Looking over Jim’s map, the corporal pointed out a stream. “Continue along this creek,” he said, “and you will find the 1st Army rebuilding its Forces on its upper course.” The medical student relayed the information in English.
“Why don’t we head for Monschau?” Jim had the student ask. “Nein,” the corporal exclaimed. “We’ve retaken Monschau.”
Now Mother gave them all back their weapons. “Be careful, boys,” she said, “I want you to get home someday where you belong. God bless you all!” The German and American soldiers shook hands, and we watched them disappear in opposite directions.
When I returned inside, Mother had brought out the old family Bible. I glanced over her shoulder. The book was open to the Christmas story, the Birth in the Manger and how the Wise Men came from afar bearing their gifts.
Her finger was tracing the last line from Matthew 2:21, “…they departed into their own country another way.”
Not long after Vincken’s story appeared in Reader’s Digest, a short video was produced based on that event:
1 Vincken, Fritz, “Truce in the Forest,” Readers Digest, January 1973, pp 111-114.
Chaplain Robert P. Canis Describes How Religion Follows the Troops
Washington, D.C. [ca. 1945] – Chaplain Robert P. Canis now assigned to a general hospital in Europe has described to the General Commission on Army and Navy Chaplains, Washington, D.C. how he has conducted services in strange and inconvenient places. He pays high tribute to the response given to spiritual matters by American men in uniform. Chaplain Canis said:
“Three weeks after arriving in England, I was assigned to a general hospital. Our chapel was a Nissen hut completely furnished with every aid to worship. In May we took leave of it and ever since have worshiped in a chapel in the fields. In our England staging area that chapel was a long tent with mother earth for pews and a rough board covered with the chaplain’s blanket for an altar.
“On our last Sunday in England this chapel became the scene of a most unusual departure Communion Service. All else was already on its way across the channel. A few hymn books, and a field organ borrowed from a neighboring hospital chaplain constituted the equipment of our tent filled with officers, nurses and enlisted men seeking that extra bit of spiritual strength needed on the shores of Normandy. But in spite of the absence of every traditional touch of a normal chapel service, the atmosphere seemed more alive with honest faith than ever before. Members of all denominations came to the altar to receive the Communion. Some knelt, some stood, and some cupped their hands to receive the bread. Others received it directly in their mouths. While still others served themselves.
Continue reading this article, Religion Follows the Troops…
In the 1980s the Army Chaplain Corps produced a number of 24″ x 36″ “motivational” posters that were apparently distributed to unit chaplains to hang in their areas. When I was enlisted in the ’80s, serving at Fort Riley, KS, I remember seeing a couple of these hanging in the HHC Orderly Room of DIVARTY, 1st ID. Here are four that I recently came across (author’s collection).
See the rest of the posters by following this link to the “Posters” page.
Fort Marion, now a U.S. National Park site, is the oldest existing masonry fortress in the United States. It sits at the harbor entrance at St. Augustine in Florida. The Chapel of St. Mark, which was part of the original fort built by the Spanish, is an excellent representation of Spanish-Catholic commitment to providing a worship space for their garrisoned soldiers.
The Spanish arrived at the present site of Fort Marion in August if 1565 and established the colony of San Agustín in September. Having barely survived attacks from the French and British with their hastily-built forts, on 2 October 1672, the Spanish broke ground on what would become Castillo de San Marcos but it would take 84 years to complete.
In 1740, enough of the fort was completed to offer safety to the besieged garrison and citizens of San Agustín when James Edward Ogelthorpe, from the British colony of Georgia, attempted to conquer it. The fort proved to be impregnable as canon fire from Ogelthorpe’s guns did little damage. During the 27-day siege, “the garrison chapel was the scene of daily Masses, and occasionally marriages and christenings…”1
The French began building on the site of Fort Niagara in 1679. The third building project on the site was the “French Castle” built in 1726-27. As you go up the stairs to the 2nd floor, on the left is the “Jesuit Chapel,” which may be the oldest military chapel in the United States (depending on the criteria used for assessment). The inclusion of a chapel at the fort would have proceeded with little thought, since France was a Catholic country at the time and the majority of its Soldiers would have been devout Catholics, needing an appropriate place to celebrate Mass. When in control of the British, the worship space would have been used for Anglican services, before returning to Catholic use again later in its history.But throughout the life of Old and New Fort Niagara, there has been a chapel available for the worship of God.
This Christmas season (2015) I came across an interesting article entitled, “Washington’s Christmas Poem…” As it turned out it was less about the Christmas poem that for years people thought Washington, at about the age of 13, wrote and more about the influence that Christianity had on the General of the Continental Army and first Commander and Chief of U.S. forces as well as his subsequent Christian influence on the military and nation.
Many modern scholars deny, or at least down-play, the impact that Judeo-Christian values have had on the United States but if we’re going to be honest with history, we need to acknowledge and accept that influence. Perhaps the fear that modern scholars (or at least those who are pressured by politics) have is that an acknowledgement of the influence of a particular religion in our nation’s history would suggest insensitivity or intolerance to other religions thus denying a foundational principal of our Constitution which both prohibits the establishment of a particular religion by government and protects the free exercise of religion by its people. But I contend that recognizing the role of a particular religion in our history is only that, an acknowledge of our history, and not an establishment of religion or a denial of its free exercise.
With that in mind, I offer the aforementioned article without edit (except for formatting) or additional commentary and with all links intact, for your education and edification. It was written by Ali Meyer and first appeared on cnsnews.com on 24 December 2014, more recently on the same website on 23 December 2015.
I want to share with you a death notification I was recently part of. I share it partly for therapy but mainly so you know a little about the experience of both the families of Soldiers who die and the Soldiers sent to notify those families of their loved one’s death.
A chaplain is usually half of a notification team when a Soldier dies and their family members are notified. The chaplain never (or is never supposed to) give the notification, but is rather there to be spiritual and moral support for those now suffering loss. If the chaplain makes the notification (which sometimes happens when the notifying officer is unable to, being too choked up for example–though the notification officer who I went with did an excellent job!) the chaplain is then saddled with the bad news that he/she just gave and then finds it hard to be received as a comfort agent. The family equates the chaplain with the bad news he/she just gave.
This notification was to the father of a Soldier who died of suspected self-inflicted wounds. A suicide. Suicide deaths, for me, are harder than combat deaths. In combat, at least the Soldier died for something they believed in or for a cause greater than themself. A suicide is a death which is so much more difficult for us to understand. Nevertheless, as a Soldier on active duty, the Soldier’s family members deserve the honor of an “official” notification of their loved one’s passing regardless of how they passed. Even under these circumstances, however, being part of a death notification team is still an honor as we acknowledge the service of that Soldier as well as the memory of the soldier which the family holds onto. One of the primary roles of the chaplain is to “honor the dead” regardless of how that death occurred.
The advance of technology with cell phones, rapid texting and social media has made the need for the notification team to get to the next-of-kin quickly even more important. To hear about your son or daughter’s death from a Facebook post or a phone call can be devastating and does not give the Soldier or the family member the honor which is deserved. But many times, we arrive to make the notification only to discover that they had already received a call from another family member or friend so have been able to process the news a bit before our arrival. While this is never ideal, it does make the notification a bit easier just because the family members aren’t hearing from you the news for the first time. However, the goal remains that the families are first notified of their loved one’s death by an official notification team representing the Secretary of the Army.
When we arrived at the home of our Soldier’s father and knocked on the door he came out onto his porch very friendly and introduced himself. My thought was that he had already heard about his son’s death and was trying to put us at ease realizing the difficult situation we were in. We introduced ourselves and confirmed that he was the man we were looking for, saying that we were there from Fort Leonard Wood to speak with him. He then proudly said with a smile the words that caused my heart to drop, “I have a son in the Army!”
He didn’t know.
We asked if we could go inside and sit down, so he called into his wife to put the dog into the kennel, that a couple of Soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood were here to see them. After she did, he invited us in and offered us a seat. My partner asked if his wife could join us but she said she had to get the ice cream put away first, that she would be there in a minute (they had just returned home from the grocery store as we arrived). While we were waiting for her, the father talked more about his Soldier-son, about how he was trying to get him to Fort Leonard Wood to be closer to home.
Again, my heart sank and I could barely hold back the tears knowing the news we were there to share with him about his son.
Still waiting for his wife, I changed the subject to his hobby of amateur radio and asked what his farthest communication was, to which he answered, “Belgium” and that when he gets back on he expected to talk to someone in Hawaii.
Finally his wife joined us and the Master Sergent with me started sharing the news. Slowly and respectfully he began with something like this:
The Secretary of the Army has asked me to share with you his deepest regrets . . .
He then went on to give as many of the details as we had surrounding his child’s death. I watched as tears welled up in the father’s eyes, as they did in mine. I wasn’t sure what to expect, you never do in these situations, but he took the news calmly and with dignity.
He explained how his son had been going through some tough situations and that he had seemed depressed lately. He said that he told him he could always call if he needed to talk, and seemed disappointed that he hadn’t called but instead took his life. I tried to assure him that knowing that his father was there for him was most certainly a comfort to him, to which he agreed and added that his son really loved the Army, though.
I asked if there was anyone we could call for them but they said they would call their minister later. They went on to describe their faith as something that was a vital part of their life. I suggested that it was that faith that would help them through this difficult time.
One of the hard things that must be done during the notification visit is to try to confirm and get as much information as possible to aid in the rest of the casualty assistance the Army provides to the family. The Notification Officer did a good job going through the paperwork and asking the important questions while being very respectful of the family’s feelings.
Finally, with the notification complete and the information gathered, I asked if there was anything at all that I could do for them, to which they thanked me but said that they would be fine. I assured them that as God brought their faces to my mind that I would say a prayer for them, so they were not alone. They seemed to appreciate that.
We left the house and got on our way. The Notification Officer called the Casualty Assistance Office and let them know that the notification had been made … then we were finally able to breathe.
On our way home, an interesting discussion ensued. The Notification Officer that I was sent with is a black man. He told me that when he saw the father, a big guy with a bandana tied around his head who lived out in the backcountry of Missouri, he was concerned about the response he would receive when giving the news. This Master Sergeant has been the brunt of some unfair hate and prejudice in the past and admitted he expected the same from this man by the looks of him. I then confessed that I had thought of the same thing when I laid eyes on him. We both quickly agreed, however, that this couple exhibited anything but hate or prejudice. They were loving and compassionate, even as they were receiving the worst news you can receive about your son. The father even thanked us for coming, and for our service.
So while this was a very tough notification as I watched a father learn of his son’s death, I was also encouraged. I was encouraged because it is always a privilege to honor men and women who have served their country. I was encouraged because this couple could testify that their faith in God can -and will- help them through this most terrible time. I was encouraged because in the midst of tragedy, these people could still express love to us- the bearers of such bad news. Maybe there is still hope for us.
Photo credits: Praying Soldier from backyardworkshop.com; Soldier in front of flag from docstoc.com; Garden with sun rays from fanpop.com.