A Christmas Truce: The Incredible True Story of Harmony Among World War One Combatants
"The War That Will End War"---H.G. Wells
A beautiful and fascinating event happened on and around the Christmas holiday of 1914---a widespread yet unofficial ceasefire along the Western Front during the First World War. It was the controversial Civil War General William Sherman who once said, ”War is hell” during his ‘total war’ marauding campaign across the Southern United States. The combatants who participated in WWI experienced a hellish war, the likes of which had never been seen in human history. In fact, it was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, claiming the lives of an estimated 9 million soldiers and seven million civilians. Warfare had turned ‘modern’ by the time “The Great War” rolled around, with the advent of machine guns, tanks, heavy artillery, chemical warfare, etc. No longer could you fight out in the open or you’d quickly be cut down. This led to the popularization of “trench warfare” which became the prevailing tactical strategy for both sides. I make mention of this, because it directly contradicts the events that occurred during that Christmas holiday of 1914. A fleeting break from some of the ugliest manifestations of the human condition.
All Is Loud On The Western Front
To give you an idea of how extraordinary this moment of congregation between two warring factions was, it’s important to note the level of malice and brutality exhibited along that Western Front. Being a soldier hunkered down in a trench during WWI, has to be one of the worst spots to be(in the history of military conflict). The fighters were packed in like sardines and perpetually on the receiving end of artillery shelling. Seventy five percent of casualties in the trenches were a direct result of shell fire, because those shells contained debris that were much more likely to leave a wound infected , as opposed to a gunshot. Antibiotics had yet to be discovered around this time, so suffering a wound from artillery shrapnel was essentially a death-sentence(no matter the severity). Gangrene and infections was the coup de gras for many trench line soldiers. On top of that, the sanitary conditions in these “foxholes” were less than poor with common infections including cholera, dysentery, and typhus. Many also suffered from parasites that led to nasty fungal infections, fittingly known as 'trench mouth' and 'trench foot'. Can you imagine wading in what was practically a cesspool, whilst trying to avoid bullets, artillery, and chemical projectiles...and still maintain your sanity? Many couldn’t and were left afflicted with shell shock. “War is Hell”
Triumph Of The Spirit
I felt it necessary to give you the shocking details of life in the trenches, in order to set-up the incredible juxtaposition surrounding the eventual “Christmas Truce” along the Western Front. If “War is Hell” than trench fighting was the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno. The brave soldiers entrenched in these ‘hell pitts’ were well aware of their dire circumstances; this is why I surmise the truce and ceasefire came to pass...a human being can only endure so much. In an incredible act of humanity, soldiers from France, Germany, and Great Britain crossed trenches and exchanged seasonal greetings. In some areas, men from both sides ventured into “No Mans Land”, to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs! On Christmas Eve & Christmas Day, there were joint burial ceremonies, prisoner swaps, and even carol singing! According to several sources, men could’ve even been seen participating in games of football(‘Soccer’ for us Americans). This act in my opinion was a triumph of the human spirit and I’d go as far as to say a microcosm of the realities of war. The reality of war is summed up by a quote from the great General William Westmoreland, “The military don’t start wars. Politicians start wars.” Could that be any more true? How many times have you heard soldiers past and present ask themselves rhetorically, “What am I really fighting for?”
A Snowball's Chance In Hell
The come together moment involving roughly 100,000 soldiers on both sides, is a perfect paradigm of human beings yearning for harmony. Most of us would prefer not to play the role of grim reaper, a harbinger of death unless absolutely necessary. The Christmas Truce of 1914 is proof of that. Through their actions(or in this case inaction) on those couple of days, these brave men were figuratively screaming into the ear of humanity that “I know we’re supposed to be devils fighting through hell, but we’re human after all…” That said, perhaps the most interesting piece of this story was how the wheels of goodwill were set in motion. The initiators were the Germans, who placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The British then responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Eventually there were trips across No Man's Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. It was a beautiful snowball effect, that kept rolling on through the hellish Western frontline, and had more than a chance.
Back To Reality...
The sobering truth about the Christmas Truce, however, was the moment it stopped. What I’m meaning to convey here is the obvious question, “How could you train the scope of your weapon on men you just shared with---in good-will and good-faith?” I’ve heard it said before, that it’s a lot easier to take a life from far away but up close and personally is a different dilemma. The sad part of it all is that during this grain of sand in time, these men did humanize one another and shared moments of glee and intimation. Personally, I would find it difficult to snatch the soul of a man I just so happened to share souvenirs and a smoke with after we sang carols together. I put it that way, because I’m sure this crossed many minds when all the fun came to an end. I guess war truly is hell, and you must masquerade as a demon to get through it all and justify the lives you’ve broken. In this particular case, it must’ve been the case.