This holiday season marks the 100th anniversary of the World War I Christmas truce, in which opposing troops along the war’s western front spontaneously climbed out of their trenches to exchange gifts, sing carols, and play soccer. Especially in the United Kingdom, the anniversary has been the subject of much discussion. Prince William unveiled a new monument to the truce in mid-December, and a major supermarket chain has referenced the truce in its holiday ad campaign. The article below explores the spiritual realities reflected in that remarkable display of the Christmas spirit a century ago.
As they looked out across no man’s land, British soldiers were alarmed at flickering lights in the German trenches. Some of the British opened fire, while others readied their ammunition and weapons for fresh combat. A German cried, “Don’t shoot!” but there seemed no reason to trust him. Then from across the way came the strains of “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (Silent Night, Holy Night), and the English realized that those lights were makeshift, Christmas tree candles. They laid down their arms and joined in the carol.1
Christmas 1914 was bitterly cold for those at the Anglo-German front in northern France and Belgium, but that was cause for rejoicing. The mud had frozen, and the troops were able to dry out. Still, it was a miserable time, for they were locked in a war of attrition, one which would take the lives of almost ten million soldiers.
In the midst of this carnage, Christmas Eve proved to be an island of peace. While there were some skirmishes here and there, they were lighter than usual, and the overwhelming majority of troops enjoyed an unofficial truce. The music ranged from “Silent Night” on a French harmonica to Handel’s Largo on a German violin. A German regimental band even played the national anthems of both Germany and Britain.
The battle for Europe had given way to the “battle of the carols”:
They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang “The First Nowell,” and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, “O Tannenbaum.” And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O Come All Ye Faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words “Adeste Fideles.” And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.2
Christmas dawn ushered in more of this extraordinary goodwill. As camaraderie and trust grew, opponents met in the open and exchanged such gifts as wine for cake. A German barber cut Scottish hair. One British private sent his wife a postcard with six German signatures.
Burial parties were arranged. The 6th Gordon Highlanders and the 15th Infantry Regiment, a Westphalian unit, joined in a moving ceremony for the dead. As Scotsmen, Englishmen, Saxons, and Westphalians lined up on both sides of a communal mass grave, the Reverend J. Esslemont Adams, minister of the West United Free Church, Aberdeen, and chaplain of the 6th Gordons, read the Twenty-third Psalm in English. A theology student then read it in German . . . The Lord’s Prayer followed, sentence by sentence, in both languages: “Our Father Who art in Heaven. Unser Vater in dem Himmel . . .”3
In many sectors, peace continued through New Year’s Day, in others through mid-January. Not surprisingly, the soldiers were reluctant to resume hostilities.4
Pacifists and other romanticists will cite this occurrence as evidence of the folly and dispensability of war. Certainly they are right that many wars are foolish and unnecessary, but they must ignore both man’s depravity and the demands of justice to denounce all war. There will always be Hitlers, and they must always be stopped.
This incident does, however, illustrate the scandal of supposedly Christian nations’ taking up arms against each other. Brass buttons on the leather German equipment belts read, “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”),5 and the British no doubt felt the same way about their cause. But God is not divided. Even without exploring the roots of the First World War and the rightness or wrongness of the sides’ perspectives, it is fair to say that at least one party missed the Lord’s directions, and so their involvement was deplorable. They needed to repent, not attack.
It has been said that democracies never go to war against democracies, a phenomenon borne out in history. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about nations and factions who claim Jesus as Lord. Whether at Belfast, Gettysburg, or Ypres, Christians have taken up arms against Christians and made a spectacle of themselves before a watching world—a sorry testimony, unlike the splendid testimony of carols sung across no man’s land on Christmas Eve 1914.
1 The bulk of this account is found under “Peace on Earth” in Morris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), 109-114.
2 Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914 (London: Pan Macmillan, 2001), 58-59.
3 Eksteins, 111.
4 Brown and Seaton, 149. “The difficulty began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck. Herr Lange says that in the accumulated years he had never heard such language as the officers indulged in, while they stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer, ‘We can’t—they are good fellows, and we can’t.’ Finally, the officers turned on the men with, ‘Fire, or we do—and not at the enemy!’ Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. We spent that day and the next,’ said Herr Lange, ‘wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.’”
5 Ibid., 96.