Tuesday, December 24, 2019

(240) The Miraculous 1914 Christmas Truce of World War I


       In 1914 Europe was a powder keg waiting for a spark to set it off.  Nationalism and militarism were rampant in the monarchies.  The nations competed with each other on colonies, borders, natural resources, and trade interests.  Europe was polarized by complex alliances.  The decline of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) created a power vacuum.  Poland, no longer a nation with borders, had been divided up since 1793 among Germany, Austria, and Russia, which ruled Bulgaria.  The Austria-Hungary Empire was in control of  present day Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Balkan countries of Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, and much of the Ukraine as well as other ethnic groups, all of which yearned for independence.  For an ethnic map of Austria-Hungary see

The spark came on June 28, 1914.  In Sarajevo a Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria, as well as his wife.  After an ultimatum, Austria declared war on Serbia; the allied blocks came to the aid of one side or the other and the war was on…….Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Serbia, Russia, and Romania vs. Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey.  America had immigrants from all of these countries.  The conflict became a full blown world war in 1917 when the United States was drawn into it.

In all of these countries after a lot of pomp and ceremony, patriotic rallies, huge parades with many on horseback, and thousands cheering, the young men were sent out to bring glory for the motherland.  Then reality set in as millions of young men suffered through the variants of weather, the cruel killing, the battle wounds and death for their countries.  

       Since almost all of the countries involved were Christian at the time (much less today), Pope Benedict XV did all he could to stop the killing with numerous appeals.  The Pontiff called for a truce for the birth of Christ; he was ignored, but God apparently answered his prayers by arranging for a truce anyway as we shall see.
      Trench warfare continued for months along the 600 miles of trenches on the Western Front (Northern France).  The trenches were about six feet deep with a couple of inches of water, even knee deep after a couple days of rain.  They would often use periscopes to observe the enemy line.  Under unsanitary conditions in close quarters, dysentery, cholera, typhoid fever, frostbite, lice, and trench foot were common.  The Eastern Front extended from the Baltic Sea down to the Balkans.

       The Western Front was relatively static as they would fight endless battles over small pieces of ground.  Extensive artillery barrages preceded infantry charges over the top of the trench in the face of barbed wire and withering machine gun fire, leaving bodies piled up in “No Man’s Land” between the opposing trenches.  The charging force would finally retreat and the enemy would take his turn to charge.  It was back and forth for the next four years, like a scoreless football game, but here the game was deadly.      
Although the pundits predicted that the war would be over quickly, any thoughts of being home for Christmas evaporated.  By December 1914 weeks of heavy rain had turned both the trenches and No Man’s Land into a cold, muddy morass.  For those on the Western Front, daily life was miserable, but it was a misery that soldiers on both sides shared together, separated by only 50 yards in some places, 25 yards in one case.  They could hear each other sing during lulls in the fighting.

      Then it was Christmas Eve on a frosty well below freezing starlit night, reminiscent of that holy night when the shepherds were tending their sheep in the hills outside of Bethlehem over 1900 years before.  During a lull in the fighting, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) soldiers saw lanterns and small fir trees with lit candles along the enemy trenches.  They heard German soldiers singing such traditional carols as “Stille nacht, heilige nacht……..” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Fos5pibAiQ).   The  British troops applauded.  They responded with “Silent night, holy night…….” and the Germans clapped.  Then both sides together sang the international carol, “Adeste Fidelis” (Latin for “O Come All You Faithful” see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kz13ufATook)  Elsewhere on the front the Belgians, French, and the French Canadians were singing their carols “Douce nuit, sainte nuit…….” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieiDrKToeg0).

British and German Soldiers caroling in the same trench.
On Christmas Day the weather was beautiful and sunny, but cold.  A few soldiers popped out of the trench for a second or two, waved, and shouted “MERRY CHRISTMAS!”.  Nobody shot at them.  A couple of British soldiers ventured out with their arms spread and a few Germans came out.  “They shook hands and then everybody flocked out!”  The enemies swapped cigarettes, cigars, cognac and rum taken from local pubs, badges, souvenirs, even plum pudding which the Queen sent to the British troops, and took photos of each other.  They talked about each other’s wife and kids.  Why can’t enemies do that today?  “We talked about a truce on New Year’s day because the Germans wanted to see how the photos came out.”  

Isolated spontaneous events like this occurred all across the front.  One British soldier mused:  “It’s just didn’t seem right to be killing each other at Christmas time.”  A British chaplain and a German divinity student had a joint Christmas service together.  Both sides gathered their dead in No Man’s Land and buried them.  They even had a joint burial service with military honors.  

The combatants of both sides come together to celebrate the birth of the Christ child.

         In another part of the front, the British troops heard a shout:  You no shoot; we no shoot”.  Miraculously, the shelling stopped and the guns went silent…… at least for a little while along 2/3 of the 30 mile British front.  This was one of many usually independent, isolated, spontaneous, impromptu mini truces all across the western front.  According to one veteran, “It just happened.  No one expected it, let alone organize it.”  Mostly Christians on both sides could not kill on Christmas day.  So many men on both sides were involved in forbidden fraternization that there was little the generals could do.  Is that a miracle or what?

German and British soldiers gathered together in the same trench for some caroling on Christmas.  Then they come together for a little partying and drinking outside a trench.  They all realized that the enemy soldiers their governments demonized in propaganda aren’t much different than themselves with the same aspirations, love of family, etc.  “They seemed to be decent fellows”, one Brit observed.   They must have felt like brothers killing each other…..Saxons on the German side, Anglo Saxons on the British side!  To their surprise some of the German soldiers spoke English, a few visited Britain, even lived and worked in London for a while.

See the Appendix for links to videos and excerpts of eye witness accounts of the combatants through the letters they sent home. 

Soccer. Then in the afternoon there were several friendly soccer matches between the combatants.  Apparently there was a soldier or two who loved the game so much that they managed to stuff a soccer ball into their backpacks.  In other games they improvised soccer balls with sandbags or whatever.  Some of the results even hit the London newspapers.  Among the scores were Brits 3 Germans 2.  In another game it was Germans 4 Brits 1.  These friendly games were more meaningful and historically noteworthy than when Britain would play Germany for the World Cup.  

   Wouldn’t it be nice if we could settle our political, economic, and ideological differences on the soccer field instead of shooting each other’s heads off?   That’s just a dream of course, but it makes more sense than this war which caused 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded.  About half of all combatants were either killed or wounded. 
If only both sides could confide in a neutral international court or arbitrator to settle differences.  The Pope was just that arbiter at one time among Catholic countries.  Portuguese is spoken in Brazil today because Pope Alexander VI arbitrated a demarcation line at 47.6 degrees west longitude in 1494 in the Western Hemisphere.  Spanish speaking countries are on the western side of the line.

       The truce was not observed everywhere along the Western Front.  The fighting continued in some places and casualties did occur on Christmas Day.  Two British soldiers were killed by snipers while giving gifts to the enemy.  The Bavarians apologized.  On the Eastern Front a group of Russian soldiers came with a white flag and invited their Austrian counterparts for Easter dinner……another respite or break from the hate and the killing.
       After a few days or after New Years in some places, as the Christmas trees were taken down in their home countries, it was back to the cold, damp, rat infested trenches with the incessant shelling and the gunfire as first one side and then the other would emerge from their trenches to raid or attack the enemy and then move back.  World War I was trench warfare and a war of attrition while the lines remained rather static.

Nevertheless, Christmas 1914 was extraordinary and this truce was miraculous……In the midst of some of the bloodiest warfare ever known, peace could break out, not war and erstwhile enemies could reconcile, even if temporarily. Let us take their example today in both international and interpersonal relations. 

       The top commanders on both sides were alarmed by the Christmas Truce for fear of fraternization and a decrease in the fighting spirit of their men.  It was probably the junior officers who allowed it, while the senior officers did not stop it for fear of hurting morale.  During the Christmases of 1915, 1916, and 1917 before the war ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918, commanders made sure that the Christmas Truce of 1914 would never happen again.  It is really a unique event in military history.  For the rest of the war there were only lulls and tacitly agreed brief pauses or mini truces sufficient to bury the dead and repair the trenches and dugouts.  It was known as the “Live and Let Live” system in the more quiet sectors of the front line.
       Clearly, the grunts who are drafted and forced to make the enemy die for his country would much rather be at home with their loved ones.  War is hell!  War is started and waged by power hungry, nationalistic, and greedy politicians or fanatical ideologues who force their youth to fight as their proxies. 

Fast forward a few years in history, and we see that alliances and the enemy change over time.  In the Cold War between Soviet Communism and NATO (U.S., Canada, and Western Europe), World War II enemies Germany, Italy, and Japan became our allies while the Soviet Union went from ally to enemy.  Today we do business with North Vietnam and even visit the country.  In the USA the people of the North and the South, once bitter enemies in a tragic fratricidal civil war, are now citizens of one prosperous and powerful country.
All of this shows the folly and the tragedy of war, all the money, resources, and human lives spent for what?  True, Poland was reborn as a nation in 1918 and eventually the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Croats, the Slovenians, the Bosnians, and the Ukrainians obtained their independence.  But the human condition due to old fashioned sin is such that we will always have to maintain a vigilant military to preserve our freedom that throughout our history has been so costly to maintain.  Often however, the “enemy is us” as Pogo observed.  We allow our country to decay from within due to collapsing morality while our religious freedom erodes.

Similarly, may Christmas bring a pause in our spiritual cultural war between the left and the right, between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.  Let us all celebrate together the true meaning of Christmas which would be a step in finding some common ground and even a degree of reconciliation.  That would make it just a little easier to work together at least on some issues and be civil in discussion and negotiation.    

May God help us to take a path of righteousness and faithfulness to Him.  Let us pray the rosary every day for peace and for the conversion of sinners as Mary taught us at Fatima in 1917.   Then the angels’ announcement to the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke will come true today:  “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men of good will” (Luke 2:14).  


Videos, Documentaries, and Articles

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbQvjNHWLRc – a BBC documentary with interviews of veterans as eye witnesses in their own words. 


https://www.history.com/topics/christmas-truce-1914-world-war-i-soldier-accounts - “What Happened When World War I Paused For Christmas”

Eye Witness Accounts of British Soldiers From Letters Sent Home
(Taken from the National World War I Museum and Memorial Kansas City, MO)

           Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘a happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches” (Cpl. Leon Harris, 13th Battalion, London Regiment).

         “We would sing a song or a carol first and then they would sing one and I tell you they can harmonize all right” (Pvt. G. Layton, A Company, 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment).

          “All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ” (Rifleman C. H. Brazier, Queen’s Westminsters of Bishop’s Stortford).

           “On Christmas Day we were out of the trenches along with the Germans, some of whom had a song and dance, while two of our platoons had a game of football.  It was surprising to see the German soldiers ---some appeared old, others were boys, and others wore glasses…A number of our fellows have got addresses from the Germans and are going to try and meet one another after the war” (Pvt. Farnden, Rifle Brigade).

          “Between the trenches there were a lot of dead Germans whom we helped to bury.  In one place where the trenches are only 25 yards apart we could see dead Germans half-buried, their legs and gloved hands sticking out of the ground.  The trenches in this position are so close that they are called ‘The Death Trap’, as hundreds have been killed there” (a junior officer).

       "On our right was a regimen of Prussian Guards and on our left was a Saxon regimen.  On Christmas morning some of our fellows shouted across to them saying that if they would not fire, our chaps would meet them half-way between the trenches and spend Christmas as friends.  They consented to do so.  Our chaps at once went out and when in the open, Prussians fired on our men, killing two and wounding several more.  The Saxons, who behaved like gentlemen, threatened the Prussians if they did the same trick again.  Well, during Christmas Day our fellows and the Saxons fixed up a table between the two trenches and they spent a happy time together, and exchanged souvenirs and presented one another with little keepsakes” (a British soldier).

        “The mist was slow to clear and suddenly my orderly threw himself into my dugout to say that both the German and Scottish soldiers had come out of their trenches and were fraternizing along the front. I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football, which seemed to come from nowhere, and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee.  A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm” (Lieutenant Johannes Niemann).

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