Dec 21, 2014 3
A century ago this week, one of the most miraculous of Christmas miracles occurred. It is known today by some people, but largely has been forgotten. At the time it was scarcely acknowledged and, when discussed, was often criticized. Had it been more widely respected and discussed – if its effects had spread in place and time – we would be living in a different world today.
I refer to the “Christmas Truce” of World War I.
The “Great War,” so called at the time, was what I have called in my historical writing the most useless of history’s many useless wars. It had been a ticking time bomb, so to speak, for years. Rival monarchies of Europe, and their growing economies and colonial empires, were increasingly restive and jealous of each other. Germany was late to the game of unified nations (only having become a country in 1871), and asserted its merchant marine, except that England wanted to preserve her own supremacy; and wanted to stretch its borders to include the German-speaking minorities in neighboring countries, which no neighbor was willing to cede.
Also, the war rolled out as a family feud – as ugly as the drunken wedding-reception brawls you see on TV news – since most of Europe’s “royalty” were related and interrelated, swapping titles for land, to the point that hemophilia was almost as common as dusty crowns and musty robes. Royal cupids shot arrows for the sake of trade advantages and national alliances, many of which proved temporary anyway. It was a pile of dry twigs, a bonfire waiting to be set aflame. When the fire was lit – by a crazed anarcho-patriot from Serbia shooting an Austro-Hungarian archduke – the response became a virtual wildfire, then like a forest-fire of Western Civilization, monarchs tripping over each other to declare war left and right. Secret alliances were revealed; new alliances were formed; old alliances were abrogated.
Doddering royals and their overly decorated retinues strutted, waved flags, and called the masses to defend them. It was like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta except for the bloodthirsty nature of it all. And the gore. And the new inventions of death – “Big Bertha” guns that could land shells six miles away; Zeppelins that could survey and drop bombs from the air; mustard gas that killed soldiers from the inside out; destruction of civilian populations; airplanes that could shoot, drop bombs, and attack each other in the air; submarines that could sink ships from unseen places in the seas.
The war, begun with a burst of patriotic fervor on all sides by the docile masses, was maintained by propagandists and absurd atrocity stories. But after the first few months, the soldiers in the trenches – in Belgium and France, principally, where British and French soldiers squared off against German counterparts – faced each other, sometimes dug in as close as 60 yards apart. And for three years there was virtual stalemate: despite advances and retreats, offenses and repulses, campaigns and campaigns, hardly any land changed hands. Battles made headlines, but the details consisted of tens of millions of dead people, their drained blood and rotting corpses feeding the weary soil.
The first winter of the war heaped cruelty upon cruelty. Cold, wet rain and snow turned battlefields and trenches into flooded swamps. Dysentery, rot, and gangrene visited the soldiers, just as the horrors of snipers and ‘round-the-clock shelling frayed their nerves. The “No Man’s Land,” between sets of trenches, was in fact no land for any living creature, as even trees and bushes were destroyed by the constant withering gunfire.
But a funny thing happened – if you could call Peace breaking out “funny.” It was more Happy than Funny. During Christmas week, a hundred years ago this week, strange things happened. Strange to the war culture that had been whipped up; strange to the hatred that was force-fed the common soldiers; strange to the history and practice of warfare. Peace sprouted, if not fully “breaking out.”
It became known as “The Christmas Truce,” and there was a danger that it would spread. Danger?
Many legends subsequently arose after the Christmas Truce, such as a soccer game between fraternizing German and English troops (not true), but a lot of facts were documented about those days before Christmas. Evidently German soldiers made the first moves. Accounts say that during a lull in the fighting, Germans under a white flag delivered pastries sent from home, to the English, with a request that the Allies hold fire over Christmas so the Germans could sing and worship. The Brits apparently assented, returned Christmas goodies of their own and, when hearing the singing, joined in from across No Man’s Land.
After that, there was an impromptu Peace Offensive. Undoubtedly spurred by the words of love and peace that permeated Christmas carols, soldiers from each side soon left their lines and met in between. They exchanged cigars and drinks, and they sang Christmas hymns together. This reportedly spread along the entire 27-mile battle line, south of Ypres and east of Armentieres, site of the song about les Mademoiselles.
Superior officers, up the chain of command, tried to prevent this fraternization – the root of the word meaning “brother.” But it was futile. Many of the “enemies” could understand each other, and when they couldn’t, chocolates and cigars and beer and photos of each other’s sweethearts, wives, and children, served as a common language. So were familiar Christmas carols and hymns, no matter what words each man sang. So were prayers, as candles and torches lit the scenes.
A British soldier recalled the Christmas Truce almost two decades later: “On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. … Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.
“[The Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. … One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn’t the only one that was fed up with it.” (Frank Richards, “Old Soldiers Never Die,” 1933)
Another history records: “[The British] Brigadier General G.T. Forrestier-Walker issued a directive forbidding fraternization: ‘For it discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys offensive spirit in all ranks. … Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices and exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.’” (Stanley Weintraub, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce,” 2001)
To the military brass, such fraternizing, these celebrations, even prayers and hymn-singing – maybe ESPECIALLY prayers and hymn-singing – were discouraged. “Discouraged” is too mild a word; historian Weintraub records that “strict orders were issued that any fraternization would result in a court-martial.” Summary executions of soldiers who fraternized with the enemy were also threatened.
It is tempting to think of how the 20th century would have been different if peace had in fact broken out. No more carnage, no harsh “peace terms,” no crushing reparations, no nation-building with resentments, no post-war economic crises; likely no rise of Communism and Lenin and Stalin; or social disruptions and Fascism and Mussolini and Hitler. Probably no seeds of the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War.
Hardly less consequential, the men who dared to stop killing, and to sing hymns and pray with other men – most of whom probably died in short order, themselves – would have rejoined their families and led normal lives. A special moment in history, virtually unprecedented; and I don’t think repeated, anywhere, since.
Such moments should not be rare “miracles.” They are what God intended for us, His children. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
There have been, and still are, many such opportunities. What a concept. Men singing Christmas hymns of love and peace, and actually listening to the words. And acting on them.
+ + +
A song written by Garth Brooks was built around the Christmas Truce, moving its location to Belleau Wood, the French site of a mighty battle in 1918. So: slightly fictionalized lyrics, but the powerful memory and message of the Christmas Truce comes forth in this video. A cover version chosen for its excellent and powerful graphics slide show.
Click: Belleau Wood