Since Cain slew Abel, humans have proven quite adept at killing one another. Waging war comes quite easily for our race. From Carthage to Gettysburg to Flanders, there probably isn’t a corner of the earth that hasn’t seen blood spilled in conflict. What has changed through the ages is the efficiency with which we’re able to slaughter one another.
World War I was so horrific that it when it ended, the universal hope was that “it was the war to end all wars”. This war witnessed the widespread use of advanced weaponry – the airplane, poison gas, machine gun and tank – for which military tactics of the day were not fully prepared. The result was carnage on an unimaginable scale. These horrors were already evident in December 1914, just a few months after the war had begun.
Two armies were entrenched opposite one another on the western front in late 1914. Snipers and machine gunners watched for any soul foolish enough to peer over the trench. Artillery pounded away incessantly; fruitless charges were mounted and repulsed, leaving a wake of corpses in “No Man’s Land” between the trenches.
The first Christmas of the war was approaching, and each respective home front put plans in place to provide the boys at the front with some Christmas cheer. The British expeditionary forces were treated to Princess Mary boxes – named after George V’s daughter – tins containing some treats, tobacco and the King’s greeting to the troops. The Kaiser sent gifts to his troops as well, a pipe and cigars. In addition, miniature Christmas trees – tannenbaum – were sent to German troops.
In his book “Silent Night – the Story of the World War I Christmas Truce”, Stanley Weintraub documents the remarkable and unlikely peace that spontaneously broke out on sections of the Western Front. Since the war began in late summer of 1914, it was prosecuted so furiously that already there were hundreds of thousands of casualties. As Christmas approached, a cease-fire was deemed a complete impossibility by both sides. In fact, the harsh conflict caused some to question whether even celebrating Christmas was appropriate. The New Republic suggested, “The stench of battle should rise above the churches where they preach good-will to men. A few carols, a little incense and some tinsel will heal no wounds.”
But for some of the men at the front, Christmas was to provide a welcome if brief respite from the war. The Germans began lining their trenches near the Belgian town of Ypres with tannenbaum. They expressed their joy by singing Christmas carols. The trenches were close enough that none of this escaped the attention of British forces. They two sides began bantering back and forth, then singing together, and soon, some brave soldier ventured into No Man’s Land under a flag of truce. Despite the bleak surroundings, a festive mood prevailed in both sets of trenches, and the ceasefire was on.
The impromptu truce continued Christmas day, with men from both sides mingling in No Man’s Land, exchanging rations, cigarettes souvenirs and other gifts. Burial parties retrieved the dead. One soldier who was a barber before the war gave haircuts to enemy soldiers. A football (soccer) game was played. Death took a holiday, but the brass on both sides, enjoying Christmas safely far from the front, did not approve. When word of the unofficial truce filtered back behind the lines, the higher-ups were indignant. Stern orders were issued against fraternization, because “it was imperative to make even temporary peace unappealing and unworkable.” Of course the spontaneous Christmas truces didn’t last, but the fact that they occurred at all was remarkable.
News of the truce was not immediately reported back home because of unofficial “pressure” placed on the media not to cover the story. It was the soldiers’ letters back home describing their participation in the unlikely ceasefire that brought the story to the public’s attention. First-hand accounts taken from letters found their way into newspapers, and eventually photographs. It became a front-page story.
What made two mortal enemies lay down their arms temporarily and not merely tolerate one another, but seek out the other’s company and behave like friends, not combatants? It was a powerful, shared value. At this time in history, Christmas was that shared value. Christmas and all it represents was a faith and cultural icon to which both sides in the conflict highly esteemed. What happened on the battlefield that Christmas day in 1914 shows us that a way to reconcile two parties in conflict is to identify values they share. When shared values are present, they are an emotional rallying point for the relationship. Conversely, a quick way to polarize two parties is by identifying differing or opposing values.
This historical incident also reinforces just how magical Christmas is; the celebration of an event so powerful that it transcends time, culture, politics, race and conflict. The first Christmas, as documented in the Gospel of Luke (2:14), records that angels announced the birth of Jesus by saying “Peace on earth”.
Of course the spontaneous Christmas ceasefires of 1914 didn’t last. The war quickly resumed and continued through four more bloody years. Christmas ceasefires occurred again in 1915, but they were fewer in number because of sternly worded orders prohibiting them. What happened on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914 may have just been an aberration. But like the Truce in the Forest during World War II, it shows us that Christmas can indeed be a time when “all is calm”.