(Testimony from the trenches, 1914 – 1
Private Albert Moran of the Second Queens Regiment
“It was a beautiful, moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere. And 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they started signing.”
Rifleman Graham Williams of the First London Rifle Brigade:
“We could see makeshift Christmas trees adorned with lighted candles that burnt steadily in the still, frosty air. First, the Germans would sing one of their carols, and we’d sing one of our, until we all started up “O Come All Ye Faithful” in the Latin, so we could sing together. It was the most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”)
SERMON – 1
Christmas 1914 arrived only about six months after the start of the first World War. Having repelled the first attacks by German forces in several major battles over the summer, as the fall started the allies – Britain, France and Belgium – formed a western front to push the Germans back. To stop the allied advance and protect their gains, the Germans began building trenches, which protected their soldiers from machine gun and artillery fire. The trenches succeeded in holding off the allies, so the British and French began building trenches of their own, sometimes only dozens of yards from the German trenches. The trench system expanded as each side attempted to flank the other, stretching eventually from the North Sea to Switzerland.
The two sides jockeyed back and forth, but by November 1914 they had settled into a stalemate of sorts, faced off against each other in their trenches across a “no man’s land” of a hundred yards or less. The trench system had the advantage of slowing the loss of life, which had been catastrophic in the early days of war – hundreds of thousands dead – with more precise artillery and automatic weapons multiplying the rate of mortality.
But conditions inside the trenches were abysmal. Soldiers were continually mired in sticky mud and due to heavy autumn rains there was standing water, sometimes up to several feet, in the most of trenches. Even worse, amid the foul conditions – latrines were a luxury few had access to – the trenches attracted rats and lice and diseases of all sorts.
Soldiers on both sides had enlisted in the war as an adventure that their leaders confidently predicted would be over in a month or so. As winter set in, soldiers began coming to terms with the notion that this war would drag on for some time. Under lowering skies in early December, a British commander was reported to have been concerned that a “live-and-let-live theory of life” was spreading among the troops on both sides. Neither side was firing at the other during meal times, he said, and on occasion there was friendly banter across the lines. The initiative usually came from the Germans, a number of whom had worked at British seaside resorts before the war and so knew English.
To counteract this creeping fraternizing, British commanders mounted several attacks to prompt an aggressive response from the Germans, but it had little effect, and in one case it worsened things, when, due to poor aim, some artillery barrages struck British positions.
The approach of Christmas had soldiers on both sides feeling blue. Governments responded with gifts to keep them happy. German businesses sent packages with sausages, chocolates, cigars and cigarettes, not to speak of hundreds of evergreens so that the soldiers could have their tannenbaums. Some two million British soldiers received brass “tins” embossed with the image of Princess Mary that contained cigarettes or a few sweets and a note from the Princess, and British businesses also provided chocolates and plum puddings.
Christmas Eve settled in cold and quiet along the trenches. A dusting of snow covered the ugliness of the battered landscape, and guns along the front were quiet.
No one knows where it started, though the best guess is somewhere near Ypres, Belgium. British soldiers saw one, then another, then rows of sparkling evergreen trees appearing at the edge of some of the forward German trenches. British high command had issued a warning to be wary, that the Germans might take advantage of a lull at Christmas to attack. So, the allied soldiers watched warily, but before long the lilt of Christmas carols began floating out of the German trenches.
One hundred years later, all we have is brief snatches from the letters of soldiers at the time like Private Albert Moran and Rifleman Graham Williams, but somehow all along the western front something like peace spontaneously broke out. Some British, French or Belgian soldiers replied in song of their own, or waved white flags to exchange cigarettes, or simply rose from their trenches calling out, “we no shoot; you no shoot.”
Hands were shaken, food was exchanged and the stillness of the night and the silence of the artillery on this singular night was how the angels sang.
HYMN 253: Adeste Fideles, first verse
(Testimony from the trenches – 2
Captain Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarian Regiment
“I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the Britain shouted, ‘No shooting!” Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same, and so we came together and we shook hands – a bit cautiously.
Lieutenant Kurt Zemisch of the 134th Saxons Infantry:
“Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”)
SERMON – 2
After all the singing of Christmas Eve, the light of Christmas Day brought another prospect. The bleak expanse of no-man’s land was dotted with corpses of men from both sides who had died in one foray or another. Some had lain there for weeks, since venturing out to retrieve their dead comrades put soldiers at risk of joining them. With hostilities suspended – no one really believed that they were ended – soldiers at different locations approached the other side and suggested they take the opportunity to bury the dead. And so they set to it, collaborating in digging the graves of each other’s dead with crosses made from British biscuit boxes marking the graves. At some locations, chaplains from the two sides led prayers, alternating between English and German.
With the ceremonies done, soldiers from the two sides began talking. They shared stories of home and family as well as newspapers and cigarettes. At some locations German soldiers rolled over barrels of beer and the English responded by handing over plum puddings. At other places the French responded with cigars. Elsewhere, liquor and chocolates were passed around
Amid the conversations soldiers from the two sides began trading souvenirs – buttons, belt buckles, badges and such. And then here and there, from one side or another, a soccer ball or some approximation of it – a sand bag or a food tin – was rolled out and the soldiers organized informal football matches, often across the pock-marked expanse of no-man’s land.
Those who were slowest to join in the festivities tended to be the officers, who had their eyes out for treachery from the other side amid the good feelings. But in time many did come forward to shake the hands of their counterparts and marvel at the sight of their troops toasting each other and trading chocolates.
Of course, not everyone was taking part in the soccer games and singing. Both sides took advantage of the truce to move supplies forward, fortify their trenches and improve their dug-outs. And some soldiers on both sides who had recently lost friends to the fighting hung back resentfully and never took part.
Altogether, some kind of Christmas truce was observed along around two-thirds of the trenches. But as remarkable as the sight was of combatants dropping their rifles and laughing together like old friends, what may have been most distinctive about it was that in a war driven by geopolitical strategy and the ambitions of kings and princes, it was one event that was the initiative of the ordinary soldier. In a conflict that for the first time introduced killing on an industrial scale, a moment arrived when the soldier’s humanity took hold.
Christmas gave them that opening – a holiday dear to the hearts of both sides, full of warmth and cheer that touched a faith they held in common, a faith honoring love and forbearance and light amid the darkness.
Song – “Good King Wenceslas,” first verse
(Testimony from the trenches – 3
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps:
I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposition troops. To finish the war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse.
Captain Charles Stockwell of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers:
At 8:30 I fired three shots into the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas on it. A German put up a sheet with “Thank You” on it and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots into the air, and the war was on again.)
SERMON – 3
How quickly the war got back underway varied from place to place along the front, but it was months before the attacks resumed their former level of ferocity. And in many places it took the substitution of fresh troops who hadn’t taken part in the truce for both armies to get back at it with a will.
It took a week for news of the truce to find its way into the media, and official reports from the front and later histories downplayed the significance of the Christmas truce. It was an aberration that the command staff was determined the troops would put behind them, else, as General Smith-Dorrien put it, it might sap their “fighting spirit.”
But not all observers saw it that way. A 1915 New Year’s editorial in Britain’s Daily Mirror reflecting on the Christmas truce observed that wartime hostility was to be found “mainly at home.”
“The soldier’s heart rarely has any hatred in it,” the editorial argued. “He goes out to fight because that is his job. What came before – the causes of war and why and wherefore – bother him little. He fights for his country and against his country’s enemies. Individually, he knows, they’re not bad sorts. He has other things to think about. He has to work and win.”
We could say that many circumstances conspired to make the Christmas truce of World War One a singular event. After all, it took place at a pivotal moment in history between combatants that, despite efforts by each side to paint the other as monsters or barbarians, held much in common culturally, ethnically, religiously that came together in the celebration of Christmas.
Also, the truce came early in a war that would change the nature of warfare, before soldiers became inured to the notion of total war, before the introduction of such atrocities as chemical warfare. As the poet Phillip Larkin remarked in 1964 at the 50th anniversary of the war’s beginning in 1914, the soldiers of World War One brought with them a kind of innocence that we were not to see again in the 20th century.
All that is true. And yet we are left to wonder whether the Christmas truce was not so much as an aberration as a high-water mark, one of those shining moments when our common humanity shone clear and our fears subsided, at least for a bit. It wasn’t the first or the last time that people saw past the causes that divided them to a greater unity that gathers us all, but that we still recall such events with surprise, as novelties amid so much carnage in human history, is a good reason to raise it up as a gesture we are each capable of making.
There is hardly a more important message for us to attend to today. We live in a time when so much divides us – race, class, religion, national origin – and those divisions make it hard to see the truth of our common humanity unites us and is the source of our greatest hope.
We may not be soldiers under fire in trenches, but we struggle all the same, fearful for our safety, for our economic well-being, for our children’s, our grandchildren’s future. We hunker down with those we know, fearful and wary of the motives of others.
Might this Christmas be a moment to break out of that pattern, to take the risk of extending ourselves beyond our familiar boundaries, into a no-man’s land where we are present to others without pretense or guile? At the turning of the year when we take account of what we have made our lives and what is to come, when our hearts are made lighter by the story of an improbable birth of light and love the invitation is plain.
What is left merely is for us to step out of our trenches onto the uncertain ground before us, into a meeting where the promise of possibility opens before us. As we look ahead to the New Year, let us as individuals, as a community commit to making this so.
Song – Silent Night – German, then English
Stille Nacht! Heilge Nacht! Silent Night! Holy Night!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht All is calm, all is bright
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar. Round yon godly tender pair.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar, Holy infant with curly hair,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Sleep in heavenly peace,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Sleep in heavenly peace.