Just last month, we watched as nations from around the world gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
When the war erupted in the summer of 1914, it spread like wildfire across Europe and other parts of the globe. It was conflict on such a massive scale that people started calling it “the war to end all war,” a name that proved too optimistic.
In one of the great ironies – or perhaps tragedies – of the 20th Century, at the war’s beginning, three of the combatant nations were ruled by Queen Victoria’s grandsons: King George V of England and Tsar Nicholas of Russia on one side, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany on the other. Both sides believed the conflict would end quickly. They were wrong on a grand scale.
In fact, the war lasted more than four years, and it was dreadful even by war’s grim standards: a battle of 19th century tactics enmeshed with 20th century weaponry. The inevitable consequence was death at an appalling rate of efficiency – on average, more than 6,000 men died each day of the war.
In the opening battles Germany made quick advances into France and Belgium, but the combined French, British and Belgian forces managed to halt the German progress. For all their efforts though, the Allies couldn’t push the Germans back. The hoped-for quick victory turned into a “long war of attrition,” and the stalemate on the Western Front produced a grotesque network of trenches stretching for three hundred miles across the French and Belgian countryside.
Life in the trenches was as close to hell on earth as men had ever seen. Artillery shells and machine guns produced quick death; disease and a quagmire of mud and filth brought prolonged suffering.
Amidst all this gloom, a truly extraordinary event occurred on the battlefields of Western Europe on Christmas Eve 1914. It’s an incident that, over the years, has achieved a sort of mythical status. But historian Stanley Weintraub, in his book – Silent Night – stripped away the embellishments and rescued the story from myth.
Although the war was only about four months old, already more than a million men were dead, and the misery had firmly taken hold. The falling temperatures on Christmas Eve froze the ground, bringing welcome relief from the mud, but the young soldiers in both trenches were homesick and weary.
Precisely what happened that night is difficult to say – accounts vary up and down the line – but the overarching story is easy to summarize: a spontaneous, unauthorized truce broke out along the Western Front.
In the twilight of Christmas Eve, the British soldiers saw strange figures silhouetted against the darkening sky over the German trenches. As they watched, lights began to appear and the British soon realized that the strange figures were hundreds of little Christmas trees that the Germans had placed at the parapets of their trenches and decorated with candles.
The British were suspicious – was this a trick? They held their fire and watched. Here and there, soldiers on both sides erected signs wishing the occupants of the opposing trench a “Merry Christmas.”
The trenches were separated by about 200 feet – the area known as No Man’s Land – a denuded strip of earth strewn with barbed wire, shell craters and corpses. They were close enough that raised voices – usually taunts or rude comments – could easily be heard.
But on this night, as soldiers in one section of the battle line described it, the British heard the Germans singing, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” – Silent Night, Holy Night. When they finished, the British answered with The First Noel. The Germans applauded, and then struck up O Tannenbaum. When the British sang O Come All Ye Faithful, the Germans joined in, singing the hymn in Latin.
One soldier wrote, “I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The Germans began yelling, “Hey Tommy, you come over and see us.” The British, still cautious, answered, “No, you come and see us.”
Incredibly, men began emerging from both trenches, warily making their way over No Man’s Land, unarmed, to meet the soldiers that, only hours before, they’d been trying to kill. Handshakes led to talk and talk led to laughter. Gifts were exchanged – food, beer, cigarettes, souvenirs. They showed one another photos of families and girlfriends back home. As the informal truce took hold, war-weary soldiers from warring nations gave themselves a reprieve from the death and suffering.
The truce lasted all night and through Christmas Day – even extending to New Year’s Day in many areas. Both sides took the opportunity to bury their dead. In some instances, joint burial services were held. Enemy soldiers posed next to one another for photographs.
At the time, the truce was not widely reported in the press. The higher-ups on both sides were none too thrilled. As novelist Graham Greene wrote, “An enemy had to remain a caricature if he was to be kept at a safe distance: an enemy should never come alive. The generals were right – no Christmas cheer ought to be exchanged between the trenches.”
But for the soldiers on the Western Front, commiserating in common misery, the men in the other trenches had become “yesterday’s enemy.”
Nevertheless, for all its beauty, the spontaneous Christmas Truce didn’t stop the war; it raged for another forty-six months, until an uneasy armistice ended it. Just two decades later, an even bigger war ripped across the globe again.
Mr. Weintraub once observed, “Peace is harder to make than war.” But for one brief and wonderful Silent Night, when humankind was doing its worst, the spirit of Christmas gently touched down upon the battlefields of Europe and gave us all a glimpse of what could be, if only we would follow our better angels.
Merry Christmas everyone.