Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Truce of 1914

The Christmas Truce of 1914
A TRUE ACCOUNT of Peace on Earth
A century ago, before the start of World War I (referred to in the history books as "The Great War" or, naïvely, "The War to End all Wars"), warfare as a means of settling disputes between nations was often regarded as an honorable undertaking. Military officers, which came from the aristocracy, were respected and honored because of their impressive uniforms and the medals and ribbons on their chests.
Five months into the mass slaughter of trench warfare, the Christmas holiday came, holidays that reminded them of the safe home they had foolishly left behind. The physically exhausted, spiritually deadened and combat-traumatized soldiers on each side of No Man’s Land sought some respite from the cruelty of the frozen trenches.
The frontline soldiers were at the end of their rope because of the unrelenting sleep deprivation, hyperalertness, bad food, rats, lice, frostbitten toes and fingers, deadly artillery bombardments, machine gun massacres and suicidal assaults that were stupidly ordered by the commanding officers in the rear. The horrors of No Man’s Land were punctuated by the screams and pleas for help of the wounded soldiers who were helplessly hanging on the barbed wire or lying in the bomb craters, each one dying an agonizing death that often lingered for days.
So, on Christmas eve, December 24, 1914, the troops on either side of the front line, settled down to special food, special liquor, special rest – and the singing of Christmas carols. Kaiser Wilhelm had ordered that 100,000 Christmas trees be delivered to the German trenches for Christmas eve, thinking that the expense of such an irrational act was justified because, after all, the war was soon to be won by the superior German army and so using the supply lines for such unnecessary items seemed to be an acceptable expense.
And then a spontaneous event happened at various spots on the 700-mile-long trench line that stretched between Belgium and France. The singing of Christmas carols started a chain of events that resulted in an event that was never to be repeated in the history of warfare after that night.
The tradition that has emerged from this famous and true story was that the Germans started singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night) and the British responded with another carol. And the French and Scots joined in and all sides sang together in their own tongues, the Scots with their bagpipes, accompanying the German singing.
And the sense of their common humanity, which had been driven out of them in the schools and in basic training, broke through to consciousness. Homesickness may have set in or perhaps the futility of the slaughter became clear or perhaps the realization that they would have had things if they had met in different circumstances. Or perhaps their sheer exhaustion took the fight out of them.
However it started, the soldiers disobeyed the orders to kill (their commanding officers were, after all, celebrating Christmas eve back where it was safe from the killing), dropped their guns and came out of their trenches to meet one another. The former enemies shared pictures from home, chocolate candy, wine – and soccer games were played. Friendships were made and every soldier who experienced the events was forever changed. The motivation to blindly kill a person who had never done them wrong suddenly vanished, never to return.
So powerful was the experience, that most of the affected men had to be withdrawn from the front lines, replaced with fresh troops who had never had the life-changing experience.
Fraternization in time of war was an act of treason that was punishable by summary execution. Unexpectedly, the commanding officers, not wanting to draw public attention to this aberrant but potentially contagious episode, and knowing that such actions would threaten the war effort if it somehow became widely known, ordered no executions. There were punishments, however, with many of the German soldiers who refused to fight being transferred to the eastern front to kill and die in the war with Russia.
The prize-winning movie that beautifully characterizes the spirit of the Christmas truce of 1914 is Joyeux Noel (French for Merry Christmas). It is a moving tale whose basic story comes directly from surviving veterans who experienced the event and from letters from soldiers who wrote home about it, letters that somehow survived military censorship.
Near the end of Joyeux Noel there is a powerful scene, a confrontation between the Christ-like chaplain and his Scottish bishop just as the chaplain was giving last rites to a dying Scottish soldier. The bishop had come to relieve the chaplain of his duties and abusively ordered him to return to his home parish because of his "treasonous and shameful" behavior (being merciful to the enemy) in a war zone.
The chaplain tried to explain to the authoritarian, pro-war, German-hating bishop that he had just performed "the most important mass of my life" and wanted to stay with his troops who were losing their Christian faith. On Christmas eve, German, Scottish and French Christian soldiers (and one Jewish German officer) had all gathered for the mass on Christmas eve, had prayed together and had listened to a powerful rendition of Ave Maria. The bishop denied the request.
The bishop then delivered a pro-war sermon (the exact words having been obtained from a sermon that was delivered by an Anglican bishop in England later in the war) to the troops who were being brought in to replace the suddenly reluctant soldiers. The dramatic response of the chaplain represents a serious warning to the Christian church in America and also to its war-justifying citizens and their political leaders.
Today a simple cross on the side of a road on the lowest part of the Messines ridge near Ploegsteert Wood in Flanders marks the spot where peace broke out on Christmas Day 1914. A plaque calls it the "khaki chums' Christmas truce". The privately erected cross is just metres from the Prowse Point military cemetery where the bodies of three Australian privates lie: Vivian Main, Charles Jennings and John McGuire, all of the 27th (South Australian) Battalion.

They were killed on Christmas Day 1917.

The above was sent to me by a kind reader. This Christmas Truce was a real event that showed that the common man has no great interest in war, when he comes to realize its true horror and nature.

No comments: