In the spirit of Christmas and the holiday season, I decided to write a piece in honor of one of my Dad’s favorite Christmas stories.
The Christmas truce of World War I is a wonderful story of humanity at its finest. 1914, deep into the horrors of WWI, men were dying daily in the trenches and it was only the beginning of the new age of war that brought us bigger and bigger machines, chemical warfare, and the grotesque war for overwhelming profit that entices the big money businesses to continue finding ways to feed the monster.
December of 1914 “German emperor William II contributed to the holiday atmosphere when he sent Tannenbäume (Christmas trees) to the front in an effort to bolster morale. On December 23 German soldiers began placing the trees outside their trenches. They sang hymns such as “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”), and voices from the Allied lines responded with Christmas carols of their own.”
A few days before Christmas 1914, and throughout the war, British leaders in the trenches would coin a practice of “live and let live” which meant their men were not to fire unless fired upon. This was practiced in many of the lesser active parts of the front line. These small steps began to solidify the wonderful acts that would occur on December 25, 1914.
This is a story of a Christmas miracle showcasing the best of humanity. A private with the British army wrote his mother, from France’s western front; telling that he was sitting in the trenches smoking his pipe with German tobacco given to him by a German soldier. On Christmas Day the men called an unofficial truce and spent the holiday celebrating properly with caroling, football (soccer), and obviously gift-giving. According to the story, the German troops were the first to make the move toward a truce in the spirit of the season. The troops called to one another offering cigars to the British troops, obviously, neither side wanted to make the first move in case it was a setup. Finally, one German soldier stepped up from the trenches and soon others followed. The men met in the middle of the infamous “No Man’s Land” war zone and shook hands.
More men slowly came to meet in the 50, or so, yards of No Man’s Land. They learned about the opposing side, talked, laughed, and shared food and drink celebrating a time of peace and understanding between them, if only for an evening. It is said that there were even shared burials for the dead from both sides as a sign of respect for the shared misery that these soldiers endured each day of their service to their respective countries. Games of football broke out and the men played together merrily.
It was not all fun and games as many men chose to use this time of cease-fire to reinforce their trenches as everyone understood that this was only a moment in time. Albeit a beautiful one, and one that has lasted throughout history as a sign of shared humanity and oneness across the cultures of the world, even in times of horrific war. The day after Christmas, Boxing Day was the end of the unofficial truce, and wartime returned to business as usual. But this single act, which was so very small in the grand scheme of the war effort, made such a deep impact that even almost 90 years later, we still reflect on the actions of these brave men.
The letter from this British soldier to his mother was later sent to a newspaper and published the following year. It was not as well received by the higher-ups in either country and it is said that the leaders demanded that such an incident should never happen again to quite as public of a display. Funny how the powers-that-be do not appreciate acts of human kindness, even when their war machine continues to roll.
Still, it is a beautiful thing to see how a single idea leads to courageous action and can send positive ripples into our world that leave lasting marks that we all can appreciate examples of the strength of the human spirit.
Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays, and I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend.