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

Views: 343

Comment by Matt Paust on December 24, 2012 at 7:46am

Thanks, Bo.  This is one of the most surprising inspirational events in the history of our species.  I doubt something this magnificent could ever happen again.

Comment by JMac1949 Memories on December 24, 2012 at 8:22am

The first war of unbridled technology and the last war of gentlemen... WWI was a classic.

Comment by Phyllis on December 24, 2012 at 8:42am

In some alternate universe, the soldiers did ignore the generals, and peace came forward. Would that it were this universe. I just can't fathom why we don't have peace when so many people want it.

Comment by Alan Nothnagle on December 24, 2012 at 8:43am
I loved this, Boanerges. My mother's father served in the US Navy during the Great War, and while he never saw action, he marched in the great Boston victory parade (apparently because the actual returning soldiers and sailors were too drunk to walk!). While my father's father was a little too young to serve, my grandmother had two brothers on the Western Front. One survived heavy combat and never spoke of what he saw, while another died a few years after the armistice of complications from the lung damage he endured in a German mustard gas attack. My dad served in WWII and barely made it out alive.

I love John McCutcheon's song, and regard the Christmas truce as one of the most touching but also most frightening stories to emerge from the Great War - frightening because hatred, blind obedience, and peer pressure always seem to trump peace on earth and goodwill toward men, at least on the other 364 days of the year. Isn't it sad that today, after 98 years of "progress," the notion of a Christmas truce in our own various wars is about as marketable as a Model T Ford? I think those men in the trenches knew a lot more then than we do now.
Comment by Procopius on December 24, 2012 at 9:41am

                                                        O ye who read this truthful rime

                                                                From Flanders kneel and say:

                                                        God speed the time when every day

                                                                Shall be as Christmas Day.

Frederick Niven, Christmas, 1914

Comment by L in the Southeast on December 24, 2012 at 9:51am

I saw a movie based on this incident and its story stuck with me for days.  I know there are soldiers in the trenches even today who ask themselves "What did this guy I'm about to kill ever do to me?"  War is hell, but even in the midst of carnage, the spirit of Christmas can take hold.  Thank you for reminding me of this wonderful story.

Comment by Chicago Guy on December 24, 2012 at 10:25am

That this even HAPPENED gives hope. Beautiful!

Comment by Kenneth Sibbett on December 24, 2012 at 10:28am

Just imagine, fighting and shoting at a man one moment and shaking his hand the next. I may have went back to war, but I would not have shot at that man. I just wouldn't have.

Comment by femme forte on December 24, 2012 at 10:32am

i loved this the first time you posted it, Bo, and just as much this time. humans are still human, some of them still recognize the kinship with other, even those they disagree with or war against. it's friends like you who write like this, on a subject like this, that give me hope, still. merry christmas, dear friend.

Comment by Kim Gamble on December 24, 2012 at 11:50am

Unfortunately, Mr Bo, it seems ideologies really do seem to matter that much.

We're looking for the differences, not what we have in common. Whether it's Muslim/Christian or Dem/Repub, black/white, it seems differences are what drive the media, to which we all are in thrall. It's an object lesson, this. Thank you for bringing it, and thank you for introducing me to John McDermott.

Peace be with us all, for at least this day.


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