When War Was the Only Casualty

From The Illustrated London News of 9 January 1915: "British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches"

From The Illustrated London News of 9 January 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”

This is my favorite Christmas story, after the original one, of course. It deserves to be told as long as war still exists.

It was Christmas Eve one hundred years ago, the first year of the Great War – the “War to End All Wars.” All was indeed quiet on the Western Front. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. On 7 December 1914, Pope Benedict XV had suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but in the trenches on Christmas Eve, English and French soldiers on the one side and German soldiers on the other, declared their own unofficial truce.

The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Proper burials took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral in “No Man’s Land,” soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from the 23rd Psalm.

It was a welcome respite for a group of lonely British soldiers who had become all too familiar with the roar of the cannons. As they reclined in their trenches, each man began to speculate about the activities of loved ones back home.

“My parents are just finished a toast to my health,” a lad from Liverpool said slowly.

“I can almost hear the church bells,” a man from Ely said wistfully.

“My whole family will soon be walking out the door to hear the concert of the cathedral boy’s choir.”

The men sat silent for several minutes before a soldier from Kent looked up with tears in his eyes. “This is eerie,” he stammered, “but I can almost hear the choir singing.”

“So can I,” shouted another puzzled voice. “I think there is music coming from the other side.”

All the men scrambled to the edge of the trench and cocked their ears. What they heard were a few sturdy German voices singing Martin Luther’s Christmas hymn:

From Heaven above to earth I come,

To bear good news to every home;

Glad tidings of great joy I bring,

Whereof I now will say and sing. . .

When the hymn was finished, the British soldiers sat frozen in silence.  Then a large man with a powerful voice broke into the chorus of a traditional English carol:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,

Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;

To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.

Refrain:

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;

O tidings of comfort and joy. . .

Before he had sung three bars, a dozen voices joined him. By the time he finished, the entire regiment was singing.

Once again there was an interlude of silence until a German tenor began to sing Stille Nacht! This time the carol was sung in two languages, a chorus of nearly a hundred voices echoing back and forth between the trenches:

Stille Nacht!/Silent night. . .

Heil’ge Nacht!/Holy night. . .

Alles schläft/All is calm. . .

Einsam wacht./All is bright. . .

 “Someone is approaching!” a sentry shouted, and attention was focused on a single German soldier who walked slowly, waving a white cloth with one hand and holding several chocolate bars in the other. Slowly, men from both sides eased out into the neutral zone and began to greet one another. In a few minutes, each soldier shared what he had with the others – candy, cigarettes, and even a bit of Christmas brandy. Most importantly, the soldiers showed the battered, but treasured pictures that they carried of loved ones. On Christmas Day, men from both sides again joined together, even visiting the other’s trenches.

With “No Man’s Land” cleared of dead bodies and throngs of men milling about, it was only a matter of time before a ball materialized and a soccer game was afoot! The depth to which these men enjoyed the game was evidenced by the ingenuity in their producing balls in the middle of a war zone! These games, by all accounts were filled with excitement and joy at getting to kick the ball about. There were no referees and goals were marked by headgear. The size of the teams opposing one another could number as many as one hundred or more, yet there is no account of an opposed foul or scuffle over a play. In most of the reports, the Germans won most of the games 3-2.

The spontaneous truce was largely over by New Year’s Day, however. Commanders on both sides ordered their troops to resume hostilities under penalty of court-martial. The Great War stretched on through another three Christmases and beyond, but all subsequent attempts to organize similar truces failed, and millions more died before the armistice of 11 November 1918 finally ended the Great War for good.

As a celebration of the human spirit, the Christmas Truce remains a moving manifestation of the absurdities of war. Frederick Niven, a Scottish poet during the Great War, may just have it right in his A Carol from Flanders, in which he writes these words:

In Flanders on the Christmas morn

The trenched foemen lay,

the German and the Briton born,

And it was Christmas Day.

The red sun rose on fields accurst,

The gray fog fled away;

But neither cared to fire the first,

For it was Christmas Day!

They called from each to each across

The hideous disarray,

For terrible has been their loss:

“Oh, this is Christmas Day!”

Their rifles all they set aside,

One impulse to obey;

‘Twas just the men on either side,

Just men — and Christmas Day.

They dug the graves for all their dead

And over them did pray:

And Englishmen and Germans said:

“How strange a Christmas Day!”

Between the trenches then they met,

Shook hands, and e’en did play

At games on which their hearts were set

On happy Christmas Day.

Not all the emperors and kings,

Financiers and they

Who rule us could prevent these things —

For it was Christmas Day.

Oh ye who read this truthful rime

From Flanders, kneel and say:

God speed the time when every day

Shall be as Christmas Day.

One hundred years later, a Christmas truce seems an impossible dream from a more simple, vanished world. It appears that peace, however brief, is indeed harder to make than war.

 

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