Day 725: Christmas Day, 1914

originally published December 25, 2013

No matter what you’ll be doing today, there will be no escaping that subtle shift in the light, the quirky zigzag of distorted collective energy – it’s Christmas, and the world always looks, sounds and smells a little different on Christmas. For some it’s a holy day, for others a welcome day off, and for many it’s simply a day to eat and drink to excess in an effort to counterbalance the unspeakable chore of having to spend the day with one’s extended family.

I don’t get sentimental around Christmas, a trait (some might say a flaw) that has caused my wife no end of irk. It would be foolish, however, to deny the power of the day.

Ninety-nine years ago, Christmas may have executed its most formidable coup, bringing an oasis of calm and reason to the most grotesquely bloody conflict in the history of the world to date, and providing a common ground – indeed the only common ground – among men who had literally devoted their lives to destroying one another. As cynical as many will be for the next few hours, there is nary a heart on this planet that couldn’t be softened somewhat by the tale of the Great Christmas Truce of 1914.

World War I was topping the hit parade in December of 1914, with German, British, French, Russian… well, mostly every European soldier trying to shoot some other European soldier. The war had been raging for five months, and the Germans had blasted through Belgium into France, only scantly repelled from entering Paris. They dropped back to the Aisne valley, where both sides dug their trenches and subsequently fell into a stalemate. No one could advance, and no one was willing to retreat.

As each side would try to race around and outflank the other, the stalemate line kept growing longer and longer. In the midst of all this Sisyphean bloodshed, moments of downtime occurred. Soldiers would reach mini-truces, each allowing the other side to head into no man’s land and collect their dead. In early December, there were even bouts of brief fraternization between German and French troops, as they’d exchange newspapers and pleasantries.

Around this time a group of 101 British women suffragists published an Open Christmas Letter, calling for an end to the conflict. The letter was addressed to the women of Germany and Austria, imploring them to do what they can to bring about peace. The letter eventually earned an equally kind response from a group of Germanic feminists, but the more immediate response was the pervasive air of impending quiet as Christmas approached. Pope Benedict XV jumped on board also, issuing a speech on December 7 that begged both governments to end the war.

Well, that wasn’t going to happen. But on Christmas Eve, close to 100,000 men who had just one day earlier been firing bullets at the other side simply stopped. The Germans began by decorating their trenches with candles and trees, then singing Christmas carols. The British responded with carols of their own, and while I wish the matter could have escalated into an all-out crunk-heavy dance-off, it instead kicked off a day of genuine peace.

Soldiers began wandering into no man’s land – at first to retrieve some bodies, but then to actually meet with soldiers from the other side, to shake hands and talk. Small gifts like tobacco, food and booze were traded, as well as souvenirs like buttons and hats. One of the only Christmas carols that all sides knew was “Silent Night”, and in a few places the soldiers sang it together, albeit in different languages.

This was an era when conflict was political, not religious, and wars were fought by two sides facing each other one on one, not through car-bombs and guerilla tactics. Christmas was a shared day of solemn importance, and its power effectively smacked a giant pause button on the war. British humorist Bruce Bairnsfather, who was a part of the truce, remembers seeing his machine gunner, a hairdresser in his civilian life, clipping the locks of a shaggy German soldier. This was happening all along the front lines – soccer games were even breaking out.

Not everyone was in favor of this bizarre break in the violence. The higher-ups in particular were opposed to such blatant fraternization with the enemy, believing that once the other side became humanized it would be harder for their troops to blast holes in them. Notable 20th century buzz-kill Adolph Hitler, who was at the time a corporal in the Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also disgusted by the truce.

Once Christmas had passed, the fighting began again. There were a few attempts in the ensuing months to repeat the temporary peace, but the orders from above were swift and indisputable. A German unit left their trench on Easter Sunday in 1915, waving the flag of temporary truce, but British troops waved them off.

On the war’s eastern front, Austrian commanders initiated a similar truce on Christmas of 1914, eventually wandering into no man’s land and engaging in a peaceful break in the bloodshed with their Russian foes. This was happening all over the war – not universally, as some units continued fighting right through the holiday, but enough that it left an unforgettable thumbprint of sanity upon an otherwise insane situation.

Of course, the high command on both sides took steps to ensure that such ludicrous peace would not happen again. A few soldiers tried defying orders on Christmas 1915, but officers ordered them back. One British commander was court-martialled for encouraging a truce that day, and that was only to allow both sides to retrieve their fallen comrades. In 1916 there are reports of at least one Canadian-German truce experience, but for the most part the time for stepping out of the moment had passed. The vicious battles of the Somme and Verdun had ramped up the mutual bitterness, and the excessive use of poison gas as a war tactic had made tolerance of the enemy virtually impossible.

Word of the 1914 truce was profoundly muted, with minimal German coverage (and then it was mostly criticism) and a total embargo on the story in French papers. The New York Times broke the story on December 31, by which time the fighting had started again at full volume. But for those who lived through it, Christmas 1914 was no doubt a life-changing affair. Humanity conquered rhetoric and “the enemy” became people.

Now that’s a Christmas miracle even a hard-hearted cynical atheist Jew like me can believe in.

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