Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Christmas Truce

Gather round everyone I want to tell you a story. It's the story of The Finest Christmas Dinner in the World by Francis Schroeder.

...About ten o'clock on Christmas Eve, some five or six middle aged men, one or two of whom walked with canes, would cross the court and climb the narrow oak stairs to the green door with the brass knocker that marked Mr. Cockburn's flat. (pronounced Coburn) In later years they generally brought a few younger men with them...

There would be a clean cloth and a miniature Christmas tree on the gate-leg table. A decanter of sherry and some biscuits on the sideboard, and some sprigs of holly tucked behind the framed engraving of Lord Blackstone. There was always a coal fire in the grate and the brass work gleemed like gold. Mr. Cockburn's dinner jacket was a bit greenish at the elbows, but he bustled about hospitably.

The young men warmed their tails at the fire, sipped the sherry, and generally longed acutely for a really dry martini, ice cold, at the Savoy. The older men talked about the weather, and good old Stanley Baldwin, until Mr. Cockburn produced a chafing dish, polished as brightly as the fender, and some rounds of toasted French bread, and served the following dish:

3 cups boiled rice
1-8oz. can American salmon
4 med. onions, chopped
2 small German cervelat sausages, sliced thin
1/2 wineglass brandy
1 tbs. butter
1 cup water
salt, pepper, dry mustard to taste

Mr. Cockburn dressed the chafing dish carefully, then simmered the whole thing until it was the consistency of a thick stew, and served it to his guests on the toasted bread.

The young men approached this mess manfully, and as they ate, they heard a story. It was always the same story, and it came in snatches first from one, and then from another of the older men. It was the story of the Christmas Truce of 1916

That story has since been told and printed many times. It happened along the Somme, scene of some of the bitterest trench warfare of the entire war. The week before Christmas the interminable rains seemed to stop. The weather was cold, but clear. The wind, as usual was from the East, blowing from Germany toward France.

Nobody knows just how it started. Some say it was the sound of some Bavarian troops singing Christmas carols on the fire step. Others say it was a single foolhardy soldier who climbed on the parapet with his arms full of cigarettes. At all events, suddenly like wildfire it spread up and down the lines.

Laughing, shouting, men went over the top barehanded, to meet at the wire and help each other through. For mile after mile the flicker of lighting matches gleamed like fireflies the length of No Man's Land. There was considerable clinking of canteen cups. For a little while it seemed as though the High Commands would have to give up the war.

Gerald Cockburn was 40 even then, a messenger attached to the Royal Engineers. He happened to be in the front lines on Christmas Eve delivering some sealed orders to a company commander, when the Christmas Truce caught up with him.

"What's all the bloody row?" said the young Captain looking up from his dugout table, and the next thing they were both in the thick of it. Gerald Cockburn found himself squatting on the edge of a shell hole with his back against a willow stump. A morose Irish corporal was scouring the inside of a trench helmet carefully balancing it on a fire built on a tin can. A pimply faced German boy was excitedly waving a string of sausages. Somebody had a bottle of brandy, somebody else had a handful of rice. Cockburn remembered four onions in his greatcoat pocket, and there was plenty of bread. When the stew was half ready, a passer-by proffered a tin of plum and apple jam, but the German objected to this violently and he was supported.

The Christmas Truce didn't last long, of course. In two or three hours word got back that the war was getting out of hand, and from miles back, on both sides, the heavy howitzers opened up. It never happened again, and we're fighting a very different kind of German today. Still Mr. Cockburn and his friends continued to hold their Christmas party, and tell the story of the Christmas Truce over again, remaining heavily humorous about the manufacture of their special stew. The young men generally finished their plates and enjoyed it. For there was another spirit beside the brandy in Mr. Cockburn's dinner, the spirit of Christmas.

This article was found in the December 1943 issue of American Cookery Magazine; editor Imogene Wolcott. The year stated in the article is 1916 but I have to wonder whether this was a typo as the year cited in most internet articles is 1914.

  • 1. The Christmas Truce
  • 2. Operation Plum Puddings
  • 3. Christmas Truce @ The History Channel
  • 4. World War II Timeline - 1943

    1. What a great story and intriguing recipe. I may have to try making it this year!

    2. That's really cool! I love that story!

    3. Merry Christmas and a Happy Prosperous New Year, dear Louise. I just love reading your articles here - they are a wealth of information on the various festivals, very well researched and written by you. This is better than going to the Library! Thank you for sharing with us. :D

      With peace and joy,


    4. Hi Erica, Thanks for stopping in. Please let us know if you experience this recipe.

      I do too Duckie. It's a GREAT story but then so are your tales of whimsey.

      Oh thank you so much choesf. I feel the same way when I visit your blog. I LOVE all you have to share.

      Have a delicious holiday:) everyone!


    Through this wide opened gate,
    none came too early,
    none returned too late.

    Thanks for dropping in...Louise