One hundred and five years ago tonight, on the first Christmas Eve of World War One, a curious thing happened.

World War One, or the Great War, began in 1914. Like other long conflicts in history, many soldiers had gone to the battlefields enthusiastically, believing the war would be brief. When the first wave of soldiers departed for the front in July 1914, many imagined they would return home in a month or two, flushed with victory. By December 1914, they had been thoroughly disillusioned. So many soldiers had perished on the battlefield already, and both sides now understood the war would be a prolonged death grapple, one in which they fervently believed their own army must triumph.

The Catholic church had a new Pope that year. At the beginning of December, Benedict XV pleaded for a temporary truce for Christmas. His proposal was dismissed by Allied and German leaders.

French troops – from historynet.com

The dreariness of the trenches on the Western Front— and the No Man’s Land that stretched between them— was all too familiar to the soldiers. The battlefields were dotted with ruined buildings and barbed wire. Continual rain made the ground muddy, adding to the nightmarish scene. The soldiers lived in a terrifying state of eternal readiness. Even in their sleep, they were on edge, never sure when machine gun fire or gas attacks might disrupt their fitful dreams. It was a miserable life.

But on Christmas Eve, the temperature dropped and the rain turned to snow. The crackling gun fire and shrill whistle of incoming mortar fire on the battlefield became sporadic, then it ceased altogether. The German emperor William II sent Christmas trees to the front in an effort to bolster the morale of the troops. And it worked. The German soldiers, longing for home and Christmases past, were delighted with the trees, and began to sing the carols that were familiar to them since childhood.

Across No Man’s Land, startled French, Scottish, and British soldiers heard a familiar melody. The German soldiers were singing “Still Nacht”. The Allied troops were missing their homes and loved ones too, and soon they were singing the familiar old songs.

 

WWI Troops from historysstory.blogspot.com

 

The unofficial ceasefire lasted through the night. When the soldiers awakened the next morning, it was not to the sound of gunfire and shouting. Instead, they plainly heard the other army calling to them. To the great surprise of the German soldiers, they distinctly heard the Allied troops calling out: “Fröhliche Weihnachten!”

Calling back “Merry Christmas!” and “Joyeux noël!”, the German soldiers climbed out of their trenches unarmed, waving to the Allied soldiers to signal they meant no harm. Not a shot was fired at them. In a moment, the Allied troops followed suit, leaving the safety of their trenches. The opposing sides met and greeted each other in No Man’s Land. They had no common language but they managed to convey goodwill toward each other, shaking hands and offering the few luxuries they possessed as gifts to one another— cigarettes and baked treats mailed from far-away homes. In at least one instance, an impromptu game of soccer was played.

 

Armistice Day football match to remember the famous Christmas Day truce – from The Independent

 

The festivities lasted throughout the day and into the evening, when candles were placed on the Christmas trees sent by William II. And along the Western Front, there was singing in French, German, and English.

Later in life, a German Lieutenant named Kurt Zehmisch remembered, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

Gretha, now reborn as Mata Hari, soon had the whole of Europe at her feet. She was a popular exotic dancer who presented herself as someone thoroughly acquainted with the dancing of the East. And she did not confine herself to Paris. Men in Milan, Vienna, Berlin, and Madrid flocked to her shows.

 

Mata Hari presented herself to the press as an Indian woman. She had invented a suitably interesting back-story that began with “I was born in the south of India near Jaffna Patnam on the Malabar coast.” She found ways to darken her naturally fair skin to achieve a more Indian appearance.

The French novelist Colette, who also adopted an Eastern style (albeit less successfully), accused Mata Hari of being a fraud and wrote uncharitably that her skin might look amber at night, but in the daylight it was “mauve and patchy” from artificial dye.

Men were undeterred by the patchiness of Mata Hari’s skin hue. She was a sought-after courtesan who attracted many rich, powerful, and aristocratic clients. After the Great War began in 1914, her clientele inevitably included a number of military men. These were not poor soldiers, but high-ranking officers who gave her expensive jewelry and long, elegant furs.

Colette, Mata Hari critic

 

When, how, and how deeply Mata Hari’s foray into espionage goes is not known. There are theories but the facts are obscure and contradictory. The only definitive facts are that Mata Hari had German and French lovers, many of them were officers, and occasionally, she repeated information one had told her with an enemy on the other side.

Her career as a spy began in the spring of 1916, when Mata Hari was living in The Hague. Karl Kroemer, the honorary German consul of Amsterdam, sought her out. He came to her home– everyone knew where she lived– and presented her with a supply of secret ink and 20,000 francs (adjusted for inflation, that’s about $80,000). In exchange, the officer wanted to know any secrets Mata Hari picked up during her liaisons with the French officers. That was how it began.

 

 

Mata Hari seemed to have come to the attention of intelligence officers across Europe all at once. Later that year, she was traveling between France and the Netherlands, and questioned at a British port. MI5 files have survived that included a British officer’s assessment of her. “[She] Speaks French, English, Italian, Dutch and probably German. Handsome, bold type of woman. Well and fashionably dressed.” Though nothing incriminating was found in a search of her person and luggage, the officer wrote:  “Not above suspicion . . . most unsatisfactory . . . should be refused permission to return to the U.K.”

In Paris, Mata Hari had French clients who were able to facilitate a connection for her. Shortly after her arrival, she discussed spying on the Germans for the French. At last the dancer offered the French a deal. She wanted a million francs to spy on Germans in her unique capacity (about 4 million dollars in today’s currency).

The French took her up on it. Mata Hari was packed off to Madrid where she would meet Major Arnold Kalle, a well-connected German officer. It all worked according to plan. Mata Hari arrived in Madrid, Kalle was properly enchanted, and told her of a plan the Germans were sketching out to move rifles through Morocco. The information was then given to the French.

 

Place de l’Opera, Paris, 1916

But the Germans had been crafty – or Mata Hari had been sloppy. Either way, they fed her false information, and allowed it to slip to the French through other channels that Mata Hari was acting as a German spy.

Now, neither the French nor the Germans trusted Mata Hari, and viewed her as a traitor and worse. If she noticed, Mata Hari was undeterred from returning to Paris in January 1917.

Next, the finale: With her head held high