The Christmas Truce of 1914

On Christmas Day 2019 the next epic “war” movie titled 1917 is scheduled for release. If the film proves to be half as good as the trailer, it might prove difficult to think of adequate superlatives to describe it. The plot (allegedly inspired by a true story) seems to have a little bit of everything -- against incredible odds, two friends embark on an extremely dangerous mission to save one’s brother and sixteen hundred other soldiers from being slaughtered in an ambush. The clock is ticking, and they must cross enemy lines in order to hand deliver the urgent message in time to stop the attack. 

In my experience, it’s impossible to watch a movie about war without feeling some measure of sadness to see such barbaric cruelty portrayed so accurately on the screen. Yes, they are only actors pretending to be people and animals maimed or killed by the routine horrors of war, yet Bonaventure cemetery in Savannah is one of many scattered around the U.S. where we can find the graves of men killed in that “great” war that was supposed to end all wars.

World War I began on July 28, 1914 shortly after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the fighting ended November 11, 1918 when Germany finally signed an armistice to bring an end the conflict. The treaty of Versailles that brought an official end to the war wasn’t signed until June 28, 1919. According to military records and statistical estimates, approximately 20 million were killed and another 21 million wounded during World War I, with the numbers divided almost equally between civilians and military personnel.

The irony of the timing with the 1917 movie release date wasn’t lost on me, either. Director Sam Mendes explained that the plot originated in a “war story” his grandfather told him when he was a child, so we have no idea how much of the story is true.  And sadly, the most remarkable true story of World War I probably will never be made into a Hollywood movie.

By all rights, the war should have been over by January 1915, because most of the fighting on the front lines had already stopped due to the Christmas Truce of 1914. Most of those killed or wounded came in the last few years of the war, as tanks replaced horses on the battlefield and chemical weapons such as mustard gas were invented.

What was the Christmas Truce of 1914?

For a period that began on Christmas Eve and extended for several days beyond Christmas, British and German troops on the front lines lay down their guns by mutual agreement and celebrated the Christmas holiday together. How could this happen during a war?  Only five months after World War I had begun, British and German soldiers were dug into trenches formed along the Western front, watching each other from a relatively safe distance. Bodies littered the barren turf of no-man’s land separating the two armies. An unofficial ceasefire began when soldiers on both sides realized two things -- they didn’t really hate each other, and they were Christians engaged in mortal combat with fellow Christians.

Initially, British troops were surprised when they heard the Germans singing strange words to a familiar tune in the quiet night on Christmas Eve.

Private Frank Sumter was one of the first to recognize the Christmas carol. Years later, he recalled the occasion, saying, “…and then we heard the Germans singing Silent Night, Holy Night. I said, “C’mon, boys. Let’s join in with the song.”

Soon soldiers on both sides were singing the hymn together, in German and English. On Christmas morning, a German soldier bravely emerged from the trenches and held up a small Christmas tree adorned with lit candles. He tentatively crossed the open field in front of British guns aimed and ready to extend a gesture of goodwill toward the same men who might kill him.

But nobody fired their weapons.

Statue in the garden of St Lukes church, Berry Street Liverpool, depicting the tentative moment in World War I when the English and German soldiers declared an unofficial truce Via Wikimedia Commons

Before long troops from both sides cautiously emerged from their trenches to exchange food and small gifts in the spirit of Christmas. British and German troops worked together on burial details to dig graves and bury their dead. Joint funeral services were held. The two armies even played soccer together. Men who had been desperately trying to kill “the enemy” only days earlier were cooperating with each other instead of kill-or-be-killed. Their willingness to shed the blood of their fellow man had been practically destroyed by the spirit of Christmas. The war had practically ended before it started.

Those men in the trenches on the front lines had lost their lust for blood. They realized they didn’t really hate their alleged enemy. They were being forced to fight by the powers-that-be. When the men in the trenches remained reluctant to kill each other after the Christmas truce began, officers and generals not at risk of dying in the trenches were forced take strong action and intervene before the truce would finally end. An artillery bombardment was ordered that shattered the peace. Hostilities on the front lines finally resumed after a British officer visiting the trenches during the unofficial ceasefire grabbed a rifle and cold-bloodedly murdered an unarmed German soldier standing in no-man’s land to rekindle the conflict, and the war resumed.

By the following Christmas, millions more brave young men and innocent civilians were dead.

Unfortunately, generals on each side had also learned from the Christmas truce of 1914 and took steps to ensure it would never be repeated. Orders were passed down the following December declaring any informal armistices at Christmas would be considered treasonous for “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” The fraternizing of Christmas 1914 must never be allowed during wartime again. Forgive the silly question, but isn’t that something Jesus would do? Wouldn’t Jesus give aid and comfort to his enemies?

If the men fighting on the front lines had been left in charge of the decision to fight, the war would have been over in 1915. Tens of millions of people would not have been killed, and 1917 would have been a very boring movie. God, the Creator of our universe, has given us two precious gifts:  our very existence, and free will, the ability to choose between good and evil, is the second most precious gift we’ve received from our Creator, after the gift of life itself. We can choose to pick up a weapon and kill a stranger just as Cain murdered his brother Abel, but for what reason?

The message we can learn from the Christmas truce of 1914 seems very clear: we don’t have to hate each other. We shouldn’t be trying to kill each other. And we certainly shouldn’t let our political differences ruin the holiday season. Most people would prefer love and kindness to bullets and bombs. And those who take the sword will perish with the sword.

Christians and Jews will recognize the text of Numbers 6:24-26. Even Muslims will appreciate the sentiment expressed in these verses, if accepted as sincere: May the LORD bless you and keep you. May the LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the LORD lift His countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.

John Leonard writes novels, books, and the occasional article for American Thinker. John also blogs at his website, where he may be contacted.

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