It was 98 years ago tonight, Christmas Eve, that two armies faced each other in hastily dug trenches in the mud of France and Flanders. The opening salvos of the First World War had been fired, and the race to outflank each other had ended in stalemate. What began with an assassination in Sarajevo would not end for four more horrifying years.
I'm not going to give a history lesson -- no one, including me, ever learns from history's lessons anyway -- but mean to celebrate that, amid the barbed wire and craters of No Man's Land, amid the carnage of perhaps the most ghastly conflict of all time, enemies met under a white flag ... and shook hands in peace.
Most have heard of the story. The bare facts are that at several spots along the line separating the Germans and British, a spontaneous truce broke out on Christmas Eve. In at least one place, they played football -- soccer -- and elsewhere exchanged cigarettes and alcohol, sang hymns like Silent Night in both languages, looked at each other's photographs.
It was a magical moment in a world gone mad, and, of course, it didn't take long for chateau generals far from danger to order an end to the fraternization. And those orders were carried out.
There are times, though, when I wonder what would have happened had the high command been ignored that night. Just suppose, for a moment, that a majority of those huddled in the frozen mud had said: "This is crazy." Just suppose they had really thought about the songs they were singing. Peace on Earth. Goodwill to men. Tidings of comfort and joy. Holy night. Would they have -- could they have -- continued?
I know, I know, it's naive even to think the question. No one wanted to end the war, not then. It was far too soon. Millions would have to die before any serious demand for a halt would be heard. From king to kaiser, from padre to politician, from field marshal to foot soldier, all believed God was on their side -- the German Army's belt buckles even said so -- and that right would prevail.
Did it? The aftershocks from that war are felt still, right around the world. The War to End Wars in reality ended any possibility for peace, maybe forever. Injustices begun then continue, the causes obscured, a solution insoluble.
I'm no pacifist -- my grandfather and his brothers were in the Great War, and my father and uncles and at least one cousin in the next. I was in the militia in the 1960s, at a time when it wasn't popular, even in a country that wasn't fighting anywhere, that had instead invented the concept of peacekeeping to separate belligerent sides. My ratty old uniform with its corporal's stripes now hangs in the local Legion hall, alongside the military memorabilia of women and men far more deserving, going back 200 years to the War of 1812. I'm proud of the connection with them and what they did, however tenuous that connection may be.
But ... yet ... if there isn't to be a lesson learned from that memorable Christmas Eve, can there not at least be a moral? Maybe it should be in the form of a fable, since it was so clearly a fabulous event. The song John McDermott sings contains the line "at each end of the rifle, we're the same". Surely that's true, whether it's a Kalashnikov or a Colt. Do ideologies really matter so much that we're prepared to ignore that which makes us the same?
It can't always be about cant -- can it? Can't it be about ... hope?
" 'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore."
-- From "Christmas in the Trenches"
by John McCutcheon