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December 19, 2023

A Christmas Truce on the Western Front

A moment of Peace amid death and destruction: “Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright.”

On Christmas Eve and Day in 1914, along the Western Front entrenchments near Ypres in Belgium during World War I, there were many, albeit unofficial, truces between combatants. It was five months after hostilities commenced between the allied British and French forces and the Germans.

Of the truce, my Christian historian friend William Federer notes: “On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914, an estimated 100,000 British, French and German troops … ceased fighting. The thunderous booming of artillery fell silent that night. German troops started decorating their trenches with Christmas trees and candles in their branches. They began singing ‘Stille Nacht’ — ‘Silent Night.’ As this was one of the Christmas carols that soldiers on both sides knew, English, French and German troops all began to sing across the battle lines.”

Soldiers from East and West ventured into “No Man’s Land” between the trenches to have some fellowship with each other. Greetings were shouted between the lines and, once meeting in the middle, the adversaries exchanged food, tobacco, and alcohol, and small trinket souvenirs, including buttons and hats. Some played games while others joined in caroling.

There were prisoner swaps and even joint burial ceremonies for their fellow dead.

British soldier Bruce Bairnsfather wrote:

I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything… I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons… I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange…“

A young London Rifle Brigade private Henry Williamson wrote:

Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a "dug-out” (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?

Lance-Corporal Imlah of the Gordon Highlanders wrote:

Our padre then gave a short service, one of the items in which was Psalm XXIII. Thereafter, a German soldier, a divinity student I believe, interpreted the service to the German party. I could not understand what he was saying but it was beautiful to listen to him. The service over, we were soon fraternizing with the Germans just as if they were old friends.

Captain Robert Miles of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, who was killed on December 30, just days after the truce, had written of the event:

Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. … The thing started last night — a bitter cold night, with white frost — soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting “Merry Christmas, Englishmen” to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement — all on their own — came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.

Miles wrote of the Germans: “They are distinctly bored with the war… In fact, one of them wanted to know what on earth we were doing here fighting them.”

Federer also noted, “When General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, heard what was happening, he was irate and issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops.”

However, British soldier Murdoch Wood remarked 15 years later, “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

Conversely, a German Corporal who was, at the time of the truce, with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, later observed of the momentary cessation of hostilities: “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor?” His name was Adolf Hitler, the rising leader of the NAZI (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) fascists who would attempt to resurrect a Third Reich.

World War I continued for four more years, concluding with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, a date that marks what we now observe as Veterans Day.

There were 5,525,000 Allied Powers deaths, with an estimated 4,000,000 allied civilian deaths. There were 4,386,000 Central Powers deaths and an estimated 3,700,000 civilian deaths.

For me, in the context of the 1914 Truce, a pause amid the abhorrent violence, and all of the human suffering before and since, “Silent Night” stands alone in its message because it was the Christmas poem that spoke most clearly to another poet, my Mother, and her embrace of the Peace, which passes all understanding.

“Silent Night” was written by a priest, Father Joseph Mohr, with the melody composed by Austrian headmaster Franz Xaver Gruber. The song’s origin dates back to Christmas Eve, December 24, 1818, at Saint Nicholas Church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria.

The words are familiar to most:

“Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.”

“Silent night, holy night, Shepherds quake at the sight, Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing alleluia; Christ the Savior, is born, Christ the Savior, is born.”

“Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light Radiant beams from thy holy face, With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.”

“Silent Night” has since been translated into many languages and is perhaps the most recognized of carols celebrating the birth of Jesus.

President Ronald Reagan, in his 1983 Christmas Address, declared: “Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations we forget that the true meaning of Christmas was given to us by the angelic host that holy night long ago. Christmas is the commemoration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, whose message would truly be one of good tidings and great joy, peace and good will. During this glorious festival let us renew our determination to follow His example.”

Indeed.

We could use a truce today on so many fronts.

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776


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