Christmas truce illustrates humanity’s longing for peace

Categories: Around the Diocese

100 years ago, soldiers reached across lines to experience sacred gift of connection

By Nikki Rajala
The Visitor

On Christmas Eve 100 years ago, a miracle happened — the Christmas Truce of 1914, which spontaneously broke out during World War I in many places along miles of trench lines across France and Belgium.

Weary soldiers on both sides had hoped for an end to the bloodshed that began earlier that year.

On Dec. 7, in one of his first public statements, Pope Benedict XV requested “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” His plea for a ceasefire was ignored by the leaders of the warring governments.

Yet, up to 100,000 men declared their own unofficial truce. They recounted its impact in letters to their families, which are now collected in books and at museums and available on the Internet.

Although this moment during which brotherhood silenced the weapons of war occurred a century ago, it has sparked numerous films, songs, sculptures, books and even sports events as its legacy.

Letters from the front

Pvt. Frank Sumter of the London Rifle Brigade wrote about his experience of the informal truce: “After the 19th December attack, we were back in the same trenches when Christmas Day came along. … The devastated landscape looked terrible in its true colours — clay and mud and broken brick — but when it was covered in snow it was beautiful. Then we heard the Germans singing ‘Silent night, Holy night,’ and they put up a notice saying ‘Merry Christmas’ so we put up one too. …

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“And we all went forward to the barbed wire. … We never said a word about the war to the Germans. We spoke about our families, about how old we were, how long we thought it would last. … [M]ost of the boys stayed there the whole day and only came back in the evening.” — Pvt. Frank Sumter

Capt. Josef Sewald of Germany’s 17th Bavarian Regiment acted boldly. “I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we [would] make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted ‘No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands — a bit cautiously!”

German, British and French soldiers met halfway, crossing into No Man’s Land to shake hands, share photographs of family, pose for snapshots. When they shared no common language, men communicated through songs, laughter, exchanging small gifts of cigarettes, candy, tinned beef and informal football (soccer) games.

In his letter, 2nd Lt. Arthur Pelham-Burn of Britain’s Sixth Gordon Highlanders described a unique prayer service: “Chaplain Adams arranged the prayers and the twenty third psalm, etc., and an interpreter wrote them out in German. They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again.”

Officers opposed the truce in 1914, and soon the military on each side made it a crime to fraternize.

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British and German troops meet in “No Man’s Land” during the unofficial truce. Photo from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

In 1984, John McCutcheon, a songwriter, folk singer and graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville, learned about the peace that broke out in the middle of the war. It moved him to write “Christmas in the Trenches (2006),” a children’s book and song with the same title. His lyrics ask, “But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night, ‘Whose family have I fixed within my sights?’ ” McCutcheon’s song .

A shared humanity

Ken Jones, a professor of history at St. John’s University, said that by November 1914 both sides had finished digging parallel trench fortifications all the way to the North Sea in an attempt to outflank each other. They became locked into place, facing an enemy a few hundred yards away.

“At first, short breaks in the fighting were arranged to recover the dead and wounded,” Jones said. “As the same soldiers were in the same place for weeks, they came to recognize people on the other side and the rhythms of their lives. This evolved into a ‘live and let live’ approach; as soldiers saw, day after day, those on the other side eating or getting supplies, they recognized a shared humanity in a terrible situation and informally chose not to shoot at each other.”

Then, Jones said, they moved to a deeper recognition of the “enemy” as fellow humans. From there, with the joyous traditions of Christmas, it wasn’t a huge step to face-to-face conversations and the sharing of food and other items.
“[It] challenges the way war is typically shown,” Jones said. “It pushes us to imagine soldiers sharing Christmas treats with the ‘enemy’ rather than following the lead of most contemporary media which shows them as full of hate and determined to eliminate the other.”

The legacy

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This sculpture, which honors the special part played by soccer in the truce on Christmas Day in 1914, was commissioned by the Union of European Football Associations and unveiled at a commemoration Dec. 11 in Comines-Warneton, Belgium. Photo courtesy of Union of European Football Associations

Sadly, the informal truce didn’t last beyond Christmas. And, though such Christmas truces did not recur in the remaining years of the Great War, Pope Benedict continued to press for peace. The war didn’t end until 1918, but the truce had ripple effects that continue to this day.

For example, Richard Schirrmann, a German soldier in the mountains of Alsace, France, heard Christmas bells and made peace with French troops, exchanging holiday foods. Even after the Christmas truce was over, he wrote, the soldiers remained in contact.

Later, Schirrmann pondered whether “thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other.” In 1919 he founded the German Youth Hostel Association, which has grown to more than 500 youth hostels in Germany.

Using the universal language of sports, a sculpture was unveiled Dec. 11 in Comines-Warneton, Belgium, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the informal football (soccer) games played by many soldiers. The sculpture is of a ball with two black cracks running from the monument to each trench.

European soccer stars also were recently featured in a short film that paid tribute to the truce. And a variety of teams from Germany, Belgium, England and France play in annual international Christmas Truce tournaments.
For his “Christmas in the Trenches” book and song, McCutcheon created the character of a British solider who reached across the trench lines to share a miraculous evening.

In a previous interview with The Visitor, he said his hope was that, as 100 years ago soldiers had paid attention to lessons they had learned at school, at home, and in church, so people today would also be encouraged to take the next step toward peace.

The words that end his song give us thoughts to reflect on during this anniversary of the truce.

“’Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact that work of war
Had crumbled and were gone forever more.
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War I, I’ve learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”