December, 1914. For over four months, Europe has been embroiled in war. What was initially conceived to be a quick conflict has become a stalemate unlike anything the world has yet seen. With the advent of newer, deadlier weapons of war, the word slaughter has been redefined to accommodate the new world of mass killing. In the first Battle of Ypres, a.k.a. Bloody Flanders, the month long battle that had just ended on 22 November, saw over 290,000 total casualties on both sides to include, 19,530 Germans and 7,960 British soldiers killed. It is difficult to find numbers of French and Belgians killed in this battle. Unfortunately for Europe, in the modern vernacular, “They ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Instead of being home with their loved ones, the soldiers on either side of “No Man’s Land” are equally blighted by life and death in the horrendous trenches. Each man, exposed to the relentless cold and wet winter weather, covered in mud, and surrounded by the dead and decaying bodies of their friends they are unable to bury, yearns to be home this Christmas season. For those claustrophobic few who wish to peer over the trenches to peruse the landscape of their own personal hell, care must be taken every moment because well placed sniper rounds to one’s forehead quickly ends any feelings of morbid curiosity. Yes, the battlefields of France in the early days of WWI were a miserable, sorry place. So much more so on the first Christmas in this new age of warfare.
Yet on this Christmas, an amazing, an almost unthinkable thing happened. Whether the motivating factor was fear, homesickness or the love of Christ, or all the above, common men who had been taught to hate and kill their enemy without regard or mercy, rebelled and came together to celebrate life, rejoice in the birth of Christ and to end, albeit momentarily, all the tortuous killing. Yes, folks, the Christmas truce of 1914 really happened. It is no myth or allegory. It happened. Men were willing and able to put aside war and accept peace, if only for a short time. Humanity shone through the overcast of hate.
Every Christmas season I am reminded of this event. Surprisingly, not many people have ever heard of it. There have been dozens of articles written about it and at least one book. The 2005 movie Joyeux Noel, worth watching, likewise chronicles this event.
So what prompted the truce? Several factors played a part. On December 7, 1914, after the slaughter in Ypres, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary cessation of the war for the celebration of Christmas. Though Germany agreed to the temporary cease fire, they unfortunately stood alone. Regardless, on Christmas Eve, many German soldiers put candle decorated Christmas trees on the tops of their trenches and through the darkness, the British soldiers heard many of the Germans celebrating. Peering over their own trenches many Allied soldiers saw Christmas trees for the first time. Throughout the night, singing and the occasional cat call was shouted out toward the British lines. In thick German accents the British could hear a hearty, “happy Christmas to you Englishmen!' The British responded in kind and the friendly jesting went back and forth.(2) Soldiers exchanged songs like, “O Tannenbaum,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “The First Noël.”
By Christmas day, soldiers took it upon themselves to risk death and entered the killing zones between the trenches. “We won’t shoot if you don’t shoot” was the word of the day. Slowly at first, men from both sides slowly made their way up and over the trenches to meet their dreaded enemy face-to-face. French, Belgians, Brits and Germans. No hate, probably some fear and trepidation, but no regrets. One German soldier recorded, “It was a day of peace in war. It is only a pity that it was not decisive peace.” One British soldier wrote, “while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding!” (2) Astounding it was.
All along the front, these men spent the day shaking hands, trading personal items, sharing food, future dreams, photos of loved ones, the warmth of fire, songs, prayers and the love of Christ amid the horrors surrounding them. An extreme example of the fraternization was a soccer game played in the middle of No Man's Land between the Bedfordshire Regiment and the Germans. A member of the Bedfordshire Regiment produced a ball and the large group of soldiers played until the ball was deflated when it hit a barbed wire entanglement.(2) To the surprise of many men on both sides, other than different uniforms, they were the same. It was reported that the Germans got a kick out of the Scots running around in kilts when they realized they really don’t wear underwear. A day of “mooning” caused great laughter on both sides.
Throughout history, Christmas truces have been called as a way of burying the dead and on this Christmas, it was reported that in at least one instance, the British and Germans held a combined service for their fallen comrades.(2) It was reported that in some areas of the front, this celebration was called off at midnight Christmas Day while in other areas; it lasted until New Year’s Day.
Informal truces are not necessarily historically isolated occurrences. On individual levels, soldiers have always aided other soldiers and in WWII pilots escorted damaged enemy aircraft back toward their own lines. German mega-ace Hans-Joachim Marseille was notorious for flying through deadly anti-aircraft fire in order to drop notes about downed airmen to their home base or not applying the coup-de-grace on an already damaged opponent. When faced with death and killing, humanity often prevails and although the Christmas truce of 1914 certainly does not stand alone in the annals of armed conflict, it is arguably the greatest example of its kind in modern warfare.
Common soldiers as well as some high ranking officers voluntarily took place in the events that spread across the front that Christmas in 1914. There is also evidence that while some generals opposed the fraternizing actions of their subordinates, they seemed to tolerate and indeed encouraged actions which allowed stress relief, if only temporarily. There would clearly be plenty of time to get back to killing their fellow men.(1) Although certain military leaders were not too happy about this rare form of fraternization, and indeed it was strictly forbidden in following years, the truce was fully publicized from the moment the news reached Germany and England.
Publishing a year later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his history of 1914 called the Christmas truce "an amazing spectacle" and in a memorable description, saluted it as “one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war”.(1) Keep in mind that this “truce” took place only five months into a war that dragged on for another 47 and took the lives of over 8 million people. The humanity shown in December of 1914 would certainly face more difficult times in the years to come.
In many ways, the 20th century was defined by war and the many newfound and quite imaginative ways of killing other people. Trench warfare, mustard gas, machine guns, the advent of airpower, submarines, tanks, atomic weapons, fuel-air bombs; you name it. Mass killing is certainly one of the lasting legacies of the last century and we clearly see that in the city busting of Dresden, Coventry, Berlin, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki to name just a few. It has been said human love and decency can only be matched by our unending desire to suffer pain and death up on our own race. It is refreshing, however, at the tactical level of war, where men, like those in 1914, are pitted against other men and killing becomes not just a right but the only way of self-survival that the love of men, each of us created in the image of God, can overcome hatred and the fallacious orders of those who order the soldier to kill those whom they would rather befriend. This is a common theme I found in ALL of my interviews of German Luftwaffe pilots from WWII. Top ace of all time, Erich Hartmann with 352 aerial victories, told me that he hated the war and would much rather have played soccer against the young Russians and Americans that he killed. To him, war was old men telling young men to kill, often without reasons why.
This Christmas season, let us celebrate the love of God and His perfect peace. Those petty differences that separate each of us cannot stand before God’s majestic greatness. If soldiers, almost 100 years ago, hell-bent on killing one another in the desolation of worn torn France can set aside their differences and celebrate the birth of Christ in peace, why can’t we?