The story of the cease fire that took place during World War I, Christmas of 1914, has been popping up all over the place lately. I thought it would be an interesting topic to write about because there were so many lighthearted stories that took place once the truce got underway and for the short period of time the fighting stopped.
After gathering some of the facts behind the truce, I was ready to begin telling the story. However, I found myself starting, stopping, then starting over, then stopping, starting over different, then stopping again, and so forth. Although the truce was a monumental moment in history, with multiple displays of humanity being demonstrated between the soldiers on both sides, I was finding it difficult to generate the kind of take away message I thought would be relevant in today’s world. It got so bad; I began to research new topics to write about. But, the importance of telling the story of this truce kept coming back to the forefront of my mind.
The message would eventually materialize, thank goodness.
Christmas Truce, 1914
In December 1914, the “Great War,” later named World War I, was in its early stages and was already developing into one of the ugliest conflicts the world had ever seen to that point. Trench warfare had become the staple of major fighting, and the casualty numbers that piled up in the “no man’s land” sandwiched between the two sides were growing. Worse still, any attempt to remove a fallen comrade only meant certain death for any would-be hero. As one might imagine the psychological toll experienced by the ground troops on both sides of the conflict was excruciating. Which is why when the rumors of a Christmas truce began swirling about, it came as welcome news.
Pope Benedict XV reached out to military leaders in the hopes of influencing the possibility of a cease fire. Unfortunately, neither side trusted the other to honor such a truce, and likewise opposed the idea due to the expectation that the war would be reaching its conclusion by the time Christmas arrived. Or so they hoped. Either way, leadership felt that any form of armistice would delay the war’s end.
Very late the evening of Christmas Eve, one set of trenches reported German soldiers singing “Silent Night” or “Stille Nacht.” Their trench line had been decorated by small Christmas trees, or Tannenbäums, given to them by the German emperor, William II. Soon after, British soldiers would follow suit singing carols of their own.
As Christmas day broke, what sounded like an argument was overheard coming from the German side of the battlefield and then in broken English, the Germans called out to British saying, “You come over here!” To which a British sergeant replied, “You come half-way. I come half-way.”
Slowly, and with extreme caution, soldiers began to emerge from their respective sides to meet each other in the middle of “No Man’s Land.” The two armies shook hands and laughed as if to be old friends, or neighbors long separated by the inconveniences of battle. Because many German soldiers worked in the United Kingdom before the war, they were able to speak English well enough to facilitate many of the conversations springing up along the front.
One soldier juggled to entertain the crowd, a gift exchange took place among the troops, and even one report stated that a British sergeant recognized his old barber among the German forces, and that the sergeant asked if the barber would not mind giving him a haircut and a shave for old times’ sake. The barber obliged the request of his former client.
Probably the most popular story to come out of the truce was that of the impromptu soccer match that came about. One war fighter recalled that the match was a crude form of soccer “on a frozen pitch where there were about a couple hundred taking part.” A memorial stands at the National Memorial Arboretum in England commemorating the event and the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Likely one of the more solemn details of the truce was the clearing and burial of the fallen comrades who had littered “No Man’s Land” for months. Men were allowed to mourn their friends and pay their final respects.
Unfortunately, there were large parts of the battlefront in which fighting did continue. In France, the French armies would not consider a truce due to the invasion of German forces deep into their country early in the war. They considered the Germans evil, unwanted, and untrustworthy.
But in the areas where fighting would cease, cases were well documented in diaries, letters home, and other testimonials of the goodwill and good deeds shared by mostly German and British militaries. For some trench lines, the truce would only last Christmas Day, however, there were some areas where fighting had stopped through the new year.
As it would happen, the Christmas truce would end. And in subsequent Christmas seasons, military leaders would take measures to ensure there would not be a repeat of the unofficial truce of 1914, going so far as to classify an attempt at initiating a truce as a treasonous act punishable by death. That along with increased bombings and heavy artillery campaigns would suffocate the idea of a cease fire altogether.
I am a firm believer in listening to your inner voice, trusting your instincts, and that a higher power does exist. Also, I think it’s obvious that we are living in difficult times, full of anger and tension between those who are unwilling to learn or understand one another. Moreover, I feel strongly that the tension that exists between the “average joes” are exacerbated by individuals of power who are supposed to have our best interest in mind, but seem to care little about the needs or concerns of the people they are supposed to represent.
ALL OF THAT BEING SAID…
If we look at the Christmas Truce event, I believe there’s one very important message that can be singled out. That message is, when the opportunity presented itself the soldiers in the trenches took it upon themselves to bring about peace. They successfully managed to cultivate a harmony amongst themselves, at the exact point where the war was real and personal. Far away from those whose view of the battlefield were pawns and pieces.
Among the mess, the smells, and the fallen dead, they found the figurative and literal middle ground where they could view each other as equals, rather than adversaries. This is the takeaway.
For us as a country, as a people, and as a community of human persons, in order to find the peace we all seek, we will need to have the courage to emerge from our proverbial trenches and face our “adversary” eye-to-eye, in the middle of the chaos. Just as it was in the Great War, the way to reconciliation and understanding can only be found by those of us in the trenches. Not the empowered few whose only view of the world is that of a game to be won, instead of a battered entity in need of healing.
One important point made clear during the truce was that in order to manage some amity in the moments of tension, they needed to acknowledge the humanity in the other person. Soldiers on both sides came to realize that their enemy was in fact human, and not the monsters portrayed in their books and media outlets.
So too is the case today. The conflicting opinions, perspectives, and positions of a person are easily discredited because those points of view have been categorized for us by our so-called leaders, and forms of media.
But if we follow the example of the WWI truce participants and gather up the courage to venture out into the world of another person’s viewpoint, then maybe we can come to realize that all our beliefs and desires are motivated by the same goal. Peace and Happiness. In my opinion, that peace can and will only come about in the trenches; amongst those of us who live in the world as it is.
Have courage, have faith, and most of all have a safe and Happy Holiday, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
May the Lord bless and keep each and every one of you. EACH and EVERY ONE of you.