Great War Wednesday: The Christmas Truce of 1914

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The London Times from January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”

“Had he and I but met
      By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
      Right many a nipperkin!

     “But ranged as infantry,
     And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
     And killed him in his place.

     “I shot him dead because —
     Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
     That’s clear enough; although

   “He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
   Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
   No other reason why.

    “Yes; quaint and curious war is!
    You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
    Or help to half-a-crown.”

Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed”

Men in their natural state show little inclination to go off and kill one another. The taboo against homicide is so ingrained within us that those who would be soldiers have to undergo desensitization to killing and interestingly enough, one key way of doing this is using violent video games, but that’s a post for another time. As a society we have labels for those who like to kill or enjoy killing or aren’t even bothered by killing. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths or simply “monsters.” Some studies of combat troops have found as many as 1 in 5 soldiers never fired their weapons during battles in which they participated. It seems despite all the sensational novels and television shows, even in the face of The Fall and our broken human natures, enough of God’s image remains within most people to cause severe distaste and discomfort when faced with taking the life of another Image-bearer of our Creator. Few events throughout history show this proclivity towards peace more clearly than the spontaneous Christmas Truce of 1914.

Ever since August, Tommy, Pierre, and Fitz had been killing one another on an industrial scale from the border of Switzerland to the English Channel. What began as a war of movement now degraded into a stagnant morass of trench warfare with misery compounded by machine gun fire. By the time Yuletide came around, men on all sides realized they had been lied to — the war certainly would NOT be over by Christmas. So it was along the Western Front as the troops hunkered down in their muddy trenches on December 24, 1914 and prepared to spend the most miserable Christmas Eve of their lives cold, damp, and utterly devoid of cheer. Then, something changed.

By most accounts, the Germans started the affair up around Ypres by singing Christmas hymns and lighting candles. As the strains of “Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht” drifted across the shell-pocked moonscape of No-Man’s Land, a few adventuresome Brits climbed atop their trenches to listen and then join in. When they didn’t tumble back into the trench with holes through their heads from snipers, more soldiers climbed out of their burrows to join in the singing.

At some point, accounts say, some German lad attached a bit of white cloth to the top of a small evergreen tree, climbed out of his trench, and walked towards the British.  When he didn’t fall to an Enfield round, more of his comrades joined him. The Brits, realizing this wasn’t a ruse, climbed out and the two erstwhile enemies met in the midst of the barbed wire and shell holes between their trenches.

Their first action was to gather up the dead, some of whom had been lying unattended for weeks, and carry them back to the rear for proper burials. That grim work accomplished, the two groups began some tentative conversations and the spirit of Christmas took over from there. The troops began exchanging small gifts — the English had a surfeit of tobacco; the Germans an abundance of chocolate — so these two commodities rapidly changed hands. Some men exchanged caps or buttons or whatever trinkets seemed to interest the other party. They sang more carols together. In some places up and down the front a game or two of football — soccer for the Yanks — broke out. As the old cliche’ says, “a grand time was had by all.” Then, some hours after the festivities began, it ended. Both sides embraced and returned to their trenches with the knowledge they would soon begin the unsavory work of trying to kill one another anew.

Officers on both sides were appalled by the impromptu ceasefire. They knew actually meeting the enemy and seeing he had a regular face and neither horns nor fangs made killing said “enemy” much more difficult. Orders went up and down the chain of command. The Christmas Truce of 1914 would be the last for the duration of the war. The enlisted were threatened with court-martial or worse should any of them be so silly as to attempt such a humane action ever again. The old men who send the young men to fight and die for the wars the old men started had spoken.

Still, for a brief shining moment in the midst of Satan’s playground, the Prince of Peace reigned supreme. The joy of Christmas stopped the mouths of the artillery and silenced the bark of rifles, if only for a time, proving for anyone who cared to ponder on the topic that peace is stronger than war if only men would embrace the light.

Love y’all and Merry Christmas! Keep those feet clean during these celebrations.

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