A feel-good Christmas story

In 1983, Paul McCartney released the LP "Pipes of Peace."  The title song was about a special moment on Christmas Day 1914 when German and U.K. troops shared some wine and even played a little soccer in the battlefield.

The Dallas Morning News' Christmas Day editorial recalled that moment from 100 years ago:

One hundred years ago today, something of a battlefield miracle occurred amid one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. Soldiers on both sides of the Great War’s front lines let down their guard and allowed faith in the goodness of their fellow man to prevail over hatred and distrust. Warring soldiers put down their weapons, emerged from their trenches and sang “Silent Night” together.

It began with a simple call by Pope Benedict XV on Dec. 7, 1914, “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”

The pope’s words were deemed by many to have resonated throughout the cold trenches of Flanders, where Germans and Britons were locked in mortal struggle.

It was as if both sides grasped the hypocrisy of Christians killing fellow Christians on a day devoted to the peaceful message of Christ’s birth. No account from the witnesses recalls anyone articulating such thoughts. Yet all seemed to grasp the opportunity presented by this special day. 

Those who were present in Flanders described an unusual silence that morning as the smoke cleared from incessant artillery and machine-gun fire. British troops heard the faint sound of a German band playing familiar Christmas tunes. One side broke out in a carol, answered by one from the other side. Back and forth, growing louder and more boisterous with each exchange.

Then came a German’s voice: “We good. We no shoot,” recounted British soldiers Frank and Maurice Wray, of the London Rifle Brigade. Soldiers from both sides cautiously approached one another across a no-man’s land, unsure whether this might be a setup for a surprise attack.  

What each encountered was nothing more than a few lonely soldiers, anxious to set aside the fighting and celebrate Christmas with their fellow man. Some chatted. Others exchanged small gifts of food, cigarettes, beer or mementos. They sang more songs. A few tried to improvise a soccer match.  

Up and down the front lines, word spread of the unofficial Christmas truce. An estimated 100,000 troops joined in.

Of course, the world knows about the awful fighting and millions of deaths that followed. But, for today at least, let’s focus on the message of hope that emerged from a battlefield far away and long ago.

“So Christmas, the celebration of love, made sure that the hated enemies turned into friends for a short time,” German Lt. Kurt Zehmisch wrote in his diary that day. “This Christmas will remain unforgettable.”

As any war veteran can tell, war is always hell.  However, World War I was especially hellish.  

First, most leaders thought that the war would be quick.  It's not the first time that we've seen that.  Everyone should check the books The Guns of August and All Quiet on the Western Front.   

Second, the machine gun and airplane brought unseen damage to the battlefield.  This was not your dad's war, if I can use that expression.  The old infantry rules did not apply.  (My friend Barry Jacobsen wrote a great post on World War I entitled "If World War I was a bar fight.")

Third, chemicals were used against troops.

The war eventually ended in 1918, but part II started twenty years later.  It was even more deadly the second time around.

Merry Christmas to all of the AT staff and readers.

P.S. You can hear CANTO TALK here & follow me on Twitter @ scantojr.

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