Throughout history, during some of the most vicious wars, a “ceasefire” was observed on this day, Christmas? One such example was one of the history most powerful yet forgotten Christmas stories. Nearing the Christmas of 1914, in the fifth month of World War I, which had claimed hundreds of thousands of killed, wounded, and missing, but sometimes the greatest beauty emerges from deep tragedy. The Christmas Truce was one of histories most beautiful moments, made all the more beautiful in light of the carnage that followed it.
The Christmas Truce
It began on Christmas Eve, when many German and British troops fighting in World War I sang Christmas carols to each other across the bloody line of death. It is said that when the German soldiers lit and placed candles on their trenches and on small Christmas trees, the British, French, Belgian, and German troops continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols to each other, and at certain points, the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing. Extraordinary, but not as extraordinary as what followed next.
At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenched and approached the Allied lines across “no-man’s-land”, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed, they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a soccer game.
They were naively hoping that the war would be short-lived; the truce lasted through Christmas night, continuing until New Year’s Day. Until angry superiors ordered them to recommence the shooting, many men aimed harmlessly high overhead. This reminds me of Charles Yale Harrison who authored an anti-war novella from first-hand experience as a young soldier who fought in World War I. In his book, Generals Die in Bed, Harrison helps us realise that war is a game of strategy fought between generals, and soldiers are the ones who suffer.
The Christmas Spirit of Peace
Man has argued about the ethics of war for generations. For instance, the “Just War Theory” is a tradition going back to St. Augustine in the 5th Century and St. Thomas in the 13th Century. In stark contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament –the Christian ideal is total elimination of war and brotherly love among all people. The Christmas spirit hinges on this spirit, the spirit of peace and not war that prevailed over those soldiers of World War I.
To quote British soldier, Murdoch M. Wood, speaking in 1930: “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”
During World War One, the soldiers didn’t expect to celebrate on the battlefield, but not even a world war could destroy the Christmas spirit.