The Power of Christmas: The Christmas Truce, 1914
To many, particularly in the last 30 or 40 years, it represents the "Spirit of Giving", which to kids, means gifts and plenty of them; to adults...many of them...it means charity and charitable donations they can deduct from their income tax.
On the battlefront of the long ago days of World War One, Christmas meant much more, and in the long run, that 'much more' became the saving of many lives on both sides of enemy trenches.
The first five months of World War I was an enigma to both German and Allied forces. In the lower ranks there reigned supreme discontent, confusion, and unanswered questions as to what these men, on both sides, were fighting and dying for. German troops attacked through Belgium into France, but were repulsed outside of Paris by both French and British troops. No matter which side initiated a battle, neither side progressed as those in command thought they should. Allied and German troops were met with stalemates when neither side would give ground, and neither side could outwit or outfight the other. The "Race to the Sea", as the commanders called it, was little more than an exercise in frustration, as both sides continued to push forward but maintained little progress.
Fraternization, the peaceful and sometimes even friendly interactions between opposing German and Allied forces, became a regular feature during the early months of this war. Sometimes, it manifested itself as merely passive aggression, where neither side would engage in threatening behavior. Other times, it included conversations and occasional visits from one force's trench lines to the other. The main reason this was so convenient for both sides is that the trenches were seldom more than forty feet apart...Germans in one trench, British or French in the other. The forty feet between these trenches became known as "No Man's Land," and were considered to be neutral territory.
By November, 1914, both sides were having their rations brought to the front lines after dark, and there was observed a period of peace while soldiers collected their food. In early December of that year, a German surgeon recorded a regular half-hour truce each evening, in which each side recovered their dead, and French and German soldiers exchanged bits of news from the home front.
When news of these peaceful interactions reached the highest ranking officers of both the Allied and German armies, they were quickly repulsed, and word was passed down on both sides that such fraternization must cease immediately. If not, those involved would be militarily punished forthwith. For the most part, that order was ignored. On December 7th, 1914, Pope Benedict XV asked that "the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sing." Officially, this request was rebuffed by both Allied and German commanders.
By December, 1914, there were approximately 100,000 British and German troops maintaining unofficial and unapproved cessations of hostility along the Western Front. The first truce was held on the Belgian front in a small, ancient town called Ypres. As dark fell on Christmas Eve, British troops saw lights glowing across No Man's Land. The Germans had cut down small pine trees and decorated them with candles, as well as lining the outside edges of their trenches with more candles. British soldiers gathered along the edges of their own trenches to listen as German voices reached them across the small piece of neutral territory.
Stille nacht, hellige nacht...
The British looked at each other in confusion, never having heard those words before. Then one of the men translated: Silent night, holy night...
They smiled and applauded as the song finished. One of the British began singing
The first Nowell, the angel did say...
Immediately, all the British joined in, and when they finished, applause came from the German trenches. Then, the German voices rose again in song...
O Tannenbaum, o Tannebaum...
When the song ended, the British applauded, and began singing again...
O Come all ye faithful...
This time, however, the Germans joined in, singing in Latin...
When the singing ended, both sides began shouting Christmas greetings to one another. A few minutes later, a German soldier stood and held a large sign over his head. In crudely printed English, the sign said, "We no shoot, you no shoot." He ventured slowly out into No Man's Land, still holding up the sign. A few of the Brits put down their rifles, and carefully went out to meet him. When no shots were fired from either side, more and more men, sworn to be enemies, chose to lose that fateful epithet for the time being, and joined in the celebration.
The truce continued through Christmas Day, with soldiers from both sides exchanging small gifts, such as food, tobacco, alcohol, even such things as hand-knitted socks and scarves sent from both British and German families. Stories were shared about Christmases at home, and the traditions of each country, as well as family experiences. Soldiers teamed up together for ball games, with both sides on one team. Finally, in the late afternoon, both sides went out onto the battlefield to bring back the bodies of their recently slain comrades. British and Germans held joint services for their fallen friends. Hostilities were forgotten. As night drew near, they shook hands with one another, and retreated back into their own wet and muddy trenches, knowing that the dawn of the new day would end new-found friendships, and the fighting and killing would begin once again.
Along the Western Front
Ypres was not the only place where hostilities ceased on that remarkable Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, in the year 1914. It was simply the most historical. All along the Western Front, in muddy battlefields, in the broken houses destroyed by both Allied and German fire, across narrow inlets of water, German, French, Belgian, and British forces simply ceased fire. In many places, the soldiers met on neutral ground, chatted, exchanged Christmas stories and pleasantries; in others, where neutrality was difficult to come by, there was, at least, a mingling of minds across the battlefield, and for twenty-four hours or more, all fighting ceased.
The prevailing attitude of all the men, no matter where they came from, seemed to be the question "Why are we here killing each other?" Even the higher-ranking officers of all the forces seemed unable to answer that question. They were merely following the orders of those who prevailed as Commanders-in-Chief, and who were not in the middle of death and destruction.
The Cease Fire lasted until the late hours of Christmas Day. In the early morning light of December 26th, 1914, the battles began again, as men who had sworn to be enemies, yet had become friends for twenty-four hours, started shooting at one another once more.
The amazing thing about this Christmas Truce was that for many days following, in Ypres, Belgium, and in other places along the Western Front, the death toll dropped. It seemed that the men of the Allied Armies, and those of the German Army, had suddenly forgotten how to hit a target.
Today, our world seems consumed with fear. Terrorism is the primary thought in everyone's mind, no matter how we try to hide it. It is an enemy we don't yet know how to fight, for it is not so simple as seeing someone you are supposed to hate across forty yards of muddy ground.
My prayer for all of you, Americans and Canadians...as well as any others who may read this blog...is that for today, live in the true Spirit of Christmas. Enjoy your families and friends, and remember that Christmas is really all about the Spirit of Love, Hope, Joy, and Peace. Make that remembrance the focus of your lives, and put fear where it belongs...in the back of the closet. We can't ignore the face of Terrorism, but we are stronger than Terror is, and we, Americans and Canadians, will prevail in the face of Evil.
Remember: The Force is With You! And so is the Power of Christmas.
Merry Christmas Everyone!