The Christmas Truce of 1914

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Any traveler touring rural England often first stumbles upon a village by spying the distinct silhouette of an ancient Norman church. Buttressed by low stone walls, spring-time dafodils and ancient graveyards, the house of worship date back to eleventh century and are a living memorial to those who lived, toiled and died within the shadows of its spire.

Upon entering the narthex of these sacred places, alcoves and recessed memorials are dedicated to those who fell in the Great War.

World War I left a deeper and more jagged scar on the British Isles than any conflict in its nation’s history.  The human losses were incomprehensible – – 60,000 dead in the first few hours of the Somme, 1,000,000 dead at Verdun. Soldiers were often recruited and organized from villages and districts. The result was close knit regiments, brigades and battalions that fought and died together in close quarters – -often holding one another’s heads above the clutching mud, searing gas and devastating artillery.

On September 15, 1915, 10,000 British soldiers were ordered to attack a German salient near the town of Loos in Northeastern France.  Over the course of a 3 ½ hour slaughter, the brigades from Manchester, Northumberland and Connaught lost 8,246 men with no German casualties.  In a single engagement, entire villages within a fifty kilometer radius lost every man between 18 to 40 years old.  In the Memoirs of Flakenhayn, the German General Lundendorff was heard to comment to another officer, “The English soldiers fight like lions” – – to which the other German officer quipped, “True .  But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys”.

In WWI, the last gasp of 19th century civility was suffocated by the brutal advances in the technology of killing and the arrogant and incompetent military leadership that valued bravado over brains.  In the sumer of 1914, the initial German had ground to a halt resulting in a vicious stalemate and hundreds of miles of jagged trench line that stretched like a sutured wound from Belgium into Southern France.  British officers emboldened by decades of success in Colonial wars fighting third world native forces naively the war would be over in a matter of weeks.  Completing the confederacy of incompetence were French officers who believed that honor and élan could overcome kill zones of enfilading artillery and a no man’s land of unmerciful and interlocking machine guns.  Millions were ordered “over the top” of their trench lines to certain death.

Those alive in December, 1914, say it started with a spontaneous truce afforded by each side to bury those left dead on a denuded battlefield.  Letters that would be smuggled past censors to loved ones in Germany and England attested to the miracle that began with a snowflake of compassion — Germans and Brits meeting On Christmas Eve to exchange small gifts such as cigarettes, chocolate and food.  Peace became infectious and the entire Western front soon fell into an unintended armistice as small pockets of soldiers met drank beer, sang Christmas carols and even played games of soccer with tin cans as footballs and spiked helmets as goal posts.  “Fritz” and “Tommy” joined together in the common humanity of Christmas – – creating an enduring mythology that rose like a heavenly chorus above the bullets and bombs that had savaged and broke a generation of  young men.  From Ypres to the La Basee Canal, it was truly a silent night.

In some sectors of the trench line, the Christmas truce was occurring in direct contradiction to military orders.  Officers were urged to round up enlisted men who were engaged in “ the destructive action of fraternization with the enemy”.  Sir John French, in command of British forces wrote disdainfully, “individual unarmed men run from across the German trenches to ours holding Christmas trees above their heads.  These overtures were in some places favorably received and fraternization took place throughout the day. It appeared that a little feasting went on and junior officers, NCOs and men on either side conversed together in No Man’s land. When this was reported to me, I issued immediate orders to prevent any reoccurrence of such conduct and called the local commanders to strict account….”  Before being relieved of command for incompetence, French was successful in presiding over the systematic slaughter of thousands of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers in exchange for, in some cases, meters of ground won.

The truce became a heroic stand for common man in his struggle against the insanity and the cruel machinery of war.  It also proved that the only thing stronger than hate and war — was indeed love and the humanity that it nurtures.  The world may never again witness a war as senseless, devastatingly efficient in its slaughter or tragic in its consequences.  As your fingers trace the names of the dead, etched in marble, you can feel the souls swirling and rising –the voices of young men taken too soon, ripped from the moorings of a life whose book was sill unwritten.  Yet, in the darkness and hopeless moments, a light flickers in all men.  Each understood being so near to death the precious gift of life and in recognition, they offered Thanksgiving for the chance to rise to see another dawn. If you stand at Ypres and concentrate, you can almost see them – haunted, muddied gray and green khaki shadows moving like echoes and memories across a wooded landscape long since silent.  You can see their faces in pale candlelight, the shattered eighteen year old German from Munich shaking hands with the ancient 24 year-old NCO from Stow-on-the Wold.  They perhaps gesture, exchanging a canteen and hang a piece of ribbon on an ersatz Christmas evergreen, both men longing for a Christmas at home.  One might try to describe his tradition of cutting a hunter green fir in the deep snows of a Bavarian mountain forest while the other listened, dragging on a cigarette as he imagined the warm light of the pub, spilling across a crisp, frosted pasture on an ebony Gloustershire night.

In the end, the truce would not last.  The Generals and the killing machines prevailed. The march of folly carried on for three more bloody years.  In May of 1915, Lieutenant Col. John McCrae wrote a poem to memorialize the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, 22 years old, who had been killed in battle the prior day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

In this holiday season, it is important to remember that miracles still happen.  As in all things, miracles come in the form of people – – soldiers hunched and homesick in a cold foreign bivouac,  a person acting against injustice or the those who choose to put the interest of others above themselves.  As was the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914,  the love of God, stubborn humanity and a common instinct to survive, found a way to grind the great machinery of war and hate to a standstill. And though it lasted for a few brief moments, it’s power reminded everyone that peace, not war, remains the greatest conqueror of all time.

A Veteran’s Day for Red Ormsby

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This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.  ~Elmer Davis

In 1934, the Great Depression had cast a shadow across the entire United States like the great plumes of scorched earth that choked out the sun in the dust bowl of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas panhandle.  An estimated 20% of the US population was unemployed.  Agrarian and industrial communities alike were struggling to stay afloat – swimming against the riptide of geographic turmoil and economic uncertainty.

It was a hard time to be a veteran – particularly a veteran of WWI where a nation’s memory of war was fading to be replaced by more domestic and immediate concerns.  Names like the Somme, Verdun and Ypres that had carved deep and visible scars across the psyches of an entire generation of Europeans were but distant echos and accoustic shadows from fairy-tale, haunted lands with names like  Belleau Wood and The Argonne.   The fighting had taken its toll on our young country whose brawny idealism had been wounded by the machinery of modern warfare. This was a new kind of conflict fought in trenches and against an unseen and lethal enemy.  There were battles with 90% casualty rates fought with such vicious ferocity that men often simply disappeared under a barrage of artillery.  Victories were sometimes measured in yards of ground. It was a new generation of guns, germs and steel that would serve as a chilling prelude to a next great war that would claim 20m souls. Yet, for those who lived through it, The Great War was like a brief and violent storm whose lessons were endured and then set aside like so many badges of youth, tucked away and forgotten – along with the memories of 320,000 casualties marked by monuments of those missing, killed and wounded.  It spared no one including those young immortals in pinstripes playing America’s greatest game – baseball.

Emmit “Red” Ormsby was born on April 3, 1895 in Chicago, Illinois.  He grew up as a physical force of nature – enjoyig all sports but excelling at baseball.  As a strapping right hander who mixed an above average fastball with a delightfully wicked spitball, he opted to play semi-pro ball in 1912 for Green Bay in the Wisconsin-Illinois Minor Leagues. Red pitched well enough to graduate into a starting rotation of St Paul in the American Association. That year, he shined hurling several complete games while racking up impressive stats  – – a dominant ratio of strikeouts to hits and fewer earned runs. Red was going places and baseball was his meal ticket.

In 1914, war broke out in  far off places like the Dardenalles of Turkey and along wispy meandering rivers in Belgium and France.  By 1917, the US had been drawn into the conflict and Red had not hesitated to do his duty – he joined the Marines.  At Quantico, he briefly played on an armed forces baseball team along another green recruit, all-star second baseman Eddie Collins.  He was quickly shipped off to France with the Fifth Corps– a fighting unit that would soon be decorated for valor in several battles including the decisive Argonne Forest campaign. 

In the Argonne, Red’s strong arm earned him a spot on the grenade throwers roster.   Grenaders  were essential elements to bolster the conventional fire power of infantry units.  The massive Allied offensive in the Argonne would include confusingly close hand to hand combat with trench lines sometimes exchanging hands multiple times across a no man’s land as short as 25 feet.  If the bloody stalemate was to be broken, the Allied Expeditionary Force under General “Black Jack” Pershing would need to be its catalyst.

In what would go down as the bloodiest campaign to date in Marine Corps history, the Argonne became a killing field shattered by unsurvivable enfilading machine gun fire, errant artillery and a deadly swirling ground fog of poison mustard and phosgene gas.  On a late Autumn afternoon, Ormsby had infiltrated toward the front lines of the fighting — preparing for a suicidal offensive when he was wounded in the back.  In addition to this injury, he was overwhelmed by poison gas which partially seared the lining of his lungs.

Ormsby would survive his encounter with the Germans and return to the US as a decorated veteran.  His injuries eliminated any possibility of his continuing to compete as a player.  Yet, his love of the game, could not move him away from the cut grass and red dust diamond.  Red Ormsby decided to become an umpire.

Over the next 19 years, Ormsby would rise to become one of baseball’s premiere umpires including presiding over four world series and league championship series.  Ormsby had a booming voice that sounded “ like two steam ships bickering for their right of way along a lakefront.” He was also master and commander at home marrying and fathering a dozen children. Like many veterans, his injuries never fully healed and he spent his entire career suffering from severe back pain.  In the days before unions or employment protections, workers understood that the inability to perform one’s job –  even as a result of temporary disability or illness – essentially meant unemployment.

According to his grandson, Red secretly donned “a back brace in almost every game he umpired for 19 years. Nobody in the American League, except the other umpires knew about his back. If the league front office had known about it, he wouldn’t have been umpiring. If they had checked the records at Hines Veterans Hospital they would have seen that he was listed as 74 percent incapacitated. But with straps and braces of an umpire, nobody could tell and if they did, they never said anything.”

On this day at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, it was hard to tell that the depression was still raging like a fever across America’s working class. The stands were filled to capacity as the White Sox were squaring off against the hated Detroit Tigers. Birdie Tebetts was catching for Detroit with catcher Mike Tresh catching for the White Sox. Ormsby was calling the game from behind home plate and he was in pain. Author and historian C. Brian Kelly chronicled Ormsby’s story in a November, 2006  Military History magazine article that described the veteran umpire’s difficult circumstances. “During the depression, an injured day off work was tantamount to a pink slip. A good American League umpire could make up to $300 a month, according to catcher Birdie Tebbets – a tidy sum in those days. ‘With 12 mouths to feed, we all knew that Red Ormsby needed his job. On that particular day, we were not about to see him lose it.”

Tebbets could tell that Ormsby was hurting and laboring to breathe.  The scarring on his lungs from the phosgene gas was now regularly impeding his ability to catch his wind. It was on this day, according to Kelly, that Tebbets and Tresh caught the best games of their careers when they threw this disabled veteran ump a lifeline.

“A guy hit a ball up the right field line and Emmett ran up the line to make the play. When he came back to home plate, he said, ‘‘Birdie, I’m getting very dizzy and can’t see the ball right now. It’s  from my Army (injury) thing and don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to quit as I’ll probably lose my job.”  For the first time in Tebetts career, an umpire was actually admitting to being blind.

“I said, ‘look Red, you just sit tight and when I raise my right hand after the pitch, it’s going to be a  strike. If I raise my left glove, it’s gonna be a ball.’ Sure enough, the pitch came in and I raised my right hand. ‘ S-T-R-I-K-E!’  bellowed the veteran umpire. And we went through the hitters this way until the end of the inning. “

It was now Tresh’s turn and he did not hesitate to replicate the secret pitch call code for Ormsby.  For the next several innings, both catchers called the game until Ormsby recovered his breath and vision.  At one point in the sixth inning, Tebbets saw Ormsby lean in and whisper something to the White Sox catcher.  The following pitch, Tresh did not raise his hand.  Red Ormsby was back in charge of the game.

Years later, Tebbets revealed this story in an amusing biography,  Birdie: Confessions of a Baseball Nomad.  Tebbets shared that he would never expect that kind of relationship between players and umpires to exist in today’s free agent, self-centered game.  “But in the 30’s and 40’s, it was a different place and time.  We looked out for each other.”

For Red Ormsby, father of 12 and World War I veteran, there was never any doubt about duty – – to his family, to his country and to his sport. He ruled across a 19 year diamond studded universe of all-stars like “Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Bitsy Bobby Shantz, Leo Durocher, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Babe Ruth, Jack Dittmer, Joe DiMaggio and others. ‘Ty Cobb,” he would say, was the greatest of them all.”

Emmit “ Red” Ormsby was just one of many veterans who gave so much and then came home just to “get on” with his life.  He did not expect anything in return for his service – except  perhaps a chance to work.  On that day, Red’s umpiring career was in jeopardy at Comiskey Park. It was only when two wily catchers found a way of paying back an aging veteran that they added yet another colorful footnote to humanity and to the grand narrative of America’s greatest game.