In September 1914, British soldiers headed for the front lines in France and Belgium said they’d be home by Christmas.
The German attack through Belgium into France was thwarted outside Paris by French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. In the subsequent Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to push through the German line. Each side dug trenches and the fighting quickly sank into a stalemate.
As the first Christmas of World War I approached, a hundred British suffragettes wrote an open Christmas letter to the women of Germany and Austria pleading for peace and the return of husbands, sons, and brothers on both sides of the conflict. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV asked that guns fall silent at least on the night upon which the angels sang – Christmas Eve.
There were many spontaneous truces throughout World War I, but the most notable armistice of that conflict started on Christmas Eve 1914. German troops decorated the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yves with Christmas trees and candles. By all accounts, the night was bitter cold, the air crisp with a thick, white frost. After dusk the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to the British troops. The British men returned the Christmas greetings of the Germans and then both sides left their trenches, unarmed, and exchanged food and souvenirs, like buttons from uniforms, in no man’s land. There were joint burial ceremonies, prisoner swaps, carol-singing and football matches.
Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the unofficial cessation of hostility along the Western Front. Indeed, not a single shot was fired. The truce continued until St. Stephen’s Day at which time the men were ordered to return to their trenches and pick up their weapons. The silence ended and the killing resumed. One soldier reported that the Christmas Truce of 1914 was a short peace in a terrible war. Many of the men present described that Christmas Day as the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable.
The December 1914 Christmas Truce remains the most vivid example of non-co-operation with the spirit of war. The Bible says, “When a man’s ways please the Lord he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Men on both sides refused to fight that Christmas Eve. For the remainder of the war, unofficial truces continued to break out along the front lines as did mutinies, strikes, and peace protests.
I often wonder how different the world would be today had those 100,000 troops refused to pick up their rifles again once ordered to do so and simply left the front lines and went home. The total number of military and civilian casualties in WWI was more than 41 million: there were over 18 million deaths and 23 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
President Kennedy famously remarked that world peace was possible because all men inhabit this small planet, breathe the same air, cherish their children’s future, and are mortal. The Christmas Truce proves that human beings, though ordered to be hostile, chose instead to be tender. Mankind is capable of the most heinous acts imaginable, but so too is it adept in performing the highest acts of human decency. Humanity can lift up the lowliest amongst us with Christ’s grace and love.
War is manmade. The solution to all conflict also resides within man. The right to live without the devastation of war is a basic human right.
Let us pray for an end to conflict everywhere this Remembrance Day, so that all may live in peace.