Because of the passage of as many as four generations of time, and since we live within the shadow of more recent world-changing events, that “quotation mark” of history known as World War One – and to earlier generations as The Great War – receives little modern-day attention. Because I grew up in the home of a wounded veteran of that war, it still looms large in my view of much of the unintended consequences which are still with us today. In setting a background for today’s story which took place exactly 100 years ago, allow me a paragraph or two of history.
The German High Command began its invasion of France in August, 1914 with a wily attack through the Belgian-French border with two Armies, following the Schlieffen Plan, with the objective of driving rapidly south to a largely-undefended Paris, thinking to win and end the war in 41 days, with 1st Army on the west and 2nd Army the east of the two-pronged assault. As it turned out, von Kluck’s 1st Army allowed a 30-mile gap to open giving the Allies an opportunity to attack his right flank. On Sept. 6th, 1914 – 37 days into the invasion – the exhausting 1st Battle of the Marne was underway. By its end, the Germans had been stopped, but each side had lost 250,000 killed and wounded in a month-long campaign which had seen more killed per-day than any battle of that immensely costly war.
WWI would cost Germany 2,800,000 dead (4% of population,) France 1,700,000 (4.4%,) U.K. Commonwealth 1,200,000 (2+%) and the U.S. joining the Allies in 1917, 117,000. All together, the war would leave 16 million dead and more than 20 million wounded. With 1 million widows and 3 million orphans, Europe would lose much of a generation, with years of depression and economic suffering to follow.
After the 1st Marne, the Germans would entrench along the Aisne River with orders to hold at all costs, thus instituting the trench warfare which would dominate the rest of the war.
Christmas Day 1914 dawned with a cold damp fog and ground frost covering much of the “No-Man’s Land” between the parallel trenches of the two sides. The English were first to hear the singing: Oh Little Town of Bethlehem in German rising from enemy trenches a hundred yards away. One daring patrol crawled out of the Allied trenches to find a wooden sign: WE LEAVE OUR WEAPONS – YOU LEAVE YOUR WEAPONS! “It must be a trick” most Tommies thought. “Those people hate us.” But songs and hails of “Merry Christmas” in German, French and English persisted. First one daring soldier, then another ventured forward from each side, followed by many more. Those watching warily soon joined their comrades, shaking hands, exchanging greetings and even slapping backs – like old friends meeting after a long absence. Chocolate bars were traded for chewing gum, cigarettes for English beer, and odds and ends of value exchanged merely as gifts of good will and the spirit of Christmas.
One of the most repeated stories is that of the football (soccer) games which apparently broke out at a number of locations where anything that could be filled with straw or rags and kicked around served as the object of friendly competition. All of this Christmas activity didn’t just happen at one location, but played out along more than 100 miles of opposing trench lines as enemies celebrated together.
Enemy soldiers share a smoke during the spontaneous Christmas Truce of 1914.
The story of the Christmas Truce to the British, and the Weihnachtsfrieden to the Germans has been recognized over the years as a moment of “humanity” in the midst of bitter struggle; an enigma; even perhaps a miracle. My own view is somewhat simpler: Wars are given birth by politicians, planned by Admirals and Generals and self-perpetuating staff members, and fought by common soldiers, sailors and airmen whose ties to home, faith, families and the values which shaped them are never completely extinguished - even in the harsh realities of a battleground. I continue to believe that the best which lies within us as members of the human race has the power to overcome the very worst against which we might come to face.
This year – 2014 – will see the story of the Christmas Truce played out on stage, on the screen, in churches and schools and in the home living rooms of remembering people across Europe on the 100th anniversary of what took place in “No Man’s Land” that long ago Christmas night.