The moon was full and bright, the damp air had turned into a crisp cold, and white frost lay on the ground all around. The guns were silent, the sky was clear; and the thoughts of the men were of home and the miracle birth of the Christ Child. 101 years ago something miraculous happened in the midst of chaos and death, it was the Christmas Truce of 1914. The power of love, grace and forgiveness, that is embodied in Christ and the celebration of Christmas made it’s way to the battlefront. Though it was short lived it is a tiny testament to the power of commonalities of men in desperate circumstances.
In December of 1914 the great powers of Europe were only 5 months into “The Great War”. The world was just beginning to realize that this would not be a short war and that the number of dead would surpass the the most horrible nightmares of anyone at the time. This war would claim the lives of 15 million and change the course of world history, especially in Europe. I have heard it described by Dan Carlin of the podcast “Hardcore History” as the “cannibalization of Europe”, and I find that to be a disturbing, but true statement. The glimmer of hope that was the Christmas Truce was unfortunately quickly forgotten and the wounding and dying would go on for another four years.
It is unclear exactly how the truce began. There are hundreds of letters, diaries, and personal accounts made of the event that all seem to point it beginning with the singing of Christmas carols on Christmas Eve. Eventually the men began to shout back and forth to each other from the trenches. In the morning a heavy frost lay on the ground and men began to carefully venture out to greet one another. They exchanged presents, food, cigarettes and talked with one another. Many of the British were surprised at how many Germans could speak English. In some areas the men even organized football games. The truce also served as a time for men to bury dead and make repairs to barbed wire trench fortifications. The entire Western Front was not part of the truce and there were areas were the fighting continued and men were killed; the BBC calls it “a scattered series of small-scale ceasefires”.
In the BBC 2 documentary “Peace in No Man’s Land” veterans shared some of their experiences. One man recalls:
“The Germans were celebrating with candles and small fir trees. We could hear them singing “Silent Night” in German. We replied with “The First Noel” and then they sang “O Tannenbaum”. Well I thought this was rather an extraordinary thing really- to think of the two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of the war.”
I think this is so cool, the Christmas tree tradition itself started in Germany.. and here they are in the middle of WWI celebrating with make-shift Christmas trees. Check out my article about Christmas trees HERE.
In a letter to his parents that appeared in the London Monitor and New Ear Journal on January 9th 1915, Private B. Flynn recounted the event as follows:
“About 5 O’clock on Christmas Eve we started with ‘God Save the King’ and a few Christmas carols, and then three cheers. It went along the line for about two miles. They retaliated with ‘The Watch on the Rhine’ and some of them were very good singers. We went that night as there was nothing doing. On Christmas Day the ground and trees were covered with heavy frost. About 9 am some Germans ran over to our trenches and started talking to us. One of their officers gave us cigars and a photograph of himself for some of our cigarettes. He could speak good English. He also told us that he lived in London for three years. All the morning our boys were running over to one another’s trenches. They were walking about and shaking hands with each other, and no one would think they were enemies. This is the truth.”
The unifying power of religion and the birth of Christ brought these men together, but their superior officers quickly put an end to it. The high command on both sides saw this truce as dangerous. They were afraid that the men would began to question the war and wonder whose purpose they were really serving. The commanders were quick to squash the truce and embark on campaigns of demonizing the enemy. By the end of the war the seeds of bitterness and hate were sown so deep in the hearts of Europeans that war would happen again just twenty years later.
I often wonder what if the men had forged more of bond. What if they had spent more time focusing on their togetherness, their mutual loves and search for life’s purpose. What if instead of finding purpose in fighting for one’s country they had found it in trusting in Christ- together. Would they have put down their weapons and stopping fighting? I think the answer is simply “no”. They believed they were following a divine purpose, doing the right thing, and participating in an honorable cause. Furthermore, I believe in God’s greater plan for humanity and therefore I must believe that the terrible suffering that this war inflicted on the world didn’t happen in vain. Though you or I may never see it come to fruition in our lifetime; perhaps in God’s grand plan it will make sense someday.
In studying this war I always come away with an intense feeling of sadness, but also hope. The personal stories of those who fought and died are so heartbreaking, but yet their is always hope in the stories of those who survived. One could spend all day coming up with “what if” scenarios for this war, but ultimately we can’t change the past. We can only look forward, put our faith in God, pray for peace and forgiveness, and find the joy in our lives- after all that’s what Christmas is all about.
Further Reading: For more information, pictures, and first hand accounts of the Christmas Truce check out these websites..
Bajekal, Naina “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914” Time Magazine. www.time.com/364889/christmas-truce-1914/
Mason, Amanda “The Real Story of the Christmas Tree” The Imperial War Museum. www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-real-story-of-the-christmas-truce (2014)
“Letter from Private B. Flynn of the RAMC to his parents” London Monitor and New Era Journal. January 9, 1915.
“What Really Happened in the Christmas Truce of 1914” BBC One. www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zxsfyrd