December 24, 1914. British and German troops are dug in to the frosted dirt in opposing trenches in the Ypres region of Belgium. Cold, muddy, frozen, the soldiers were separated by a small strip of barren earth wryly dubbed No Man’s Land: “Strewn with shattered trees, the ground plowed-up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms.” World War I was a messy war, the first “modern” war, a war of bolt-action rifles and bayonets and mustard gas, a war where medical technology had not kept in step with the iron and brass inventions of killing. A war fought by foot soldiers—yard by yard, field by field, inch by bloody inch. But today, the artillery was silent.
In the midst of this muted devastation, small acts of humanity. Tired and worn, German troops decorated their foxholes, and placed candles on trees. Pockets of soldiers began singing Christmas carols first to one another, then to the opposing side. British troops responded from their own enforced trenches, singing carols in English. Soon, they were shouting Christmas greetings to one another. English-speaking Germans would inquire of the latest sports scores from London. The more brave among them would poke their heads up, and eventually small groups ventured into No Man’s Land, offering gifts of wine, cognac, food, cigarettes, even buttons from their uniforms.
These small acts were followed later by more official letters calling for a truce. Now more formalized, the two sides could retrieve their dead and offer memorial services. In some areas, the truce carried into Christmas and even into New Year’s day. Generally, the truce was punctuated with gift exchanges, the sharing of food, attempts at playing football, and singing. Lots of singing.
Silent Night. We Three Kings. Auld Lang Syne. Sung in German and English and French, but all sharing the same sentiments, the same yearnings, the same hope.
It is estimated that almost a hundred thousand German and British troops were involved in this informal cease fire, with many eye witness accounts recorded. And while other truces were attempted at other times during the war, this Christmas Truce was the most widespread and most famous.
There’s a lot of strife and injustice and uncertainty in the world today. So I think it’s important to remember not only this Christmas Truce—which happened a hundred years ago today—but the motives and yearnings behind it. Because when we strive to be the best of who we are, we all share a common humanity, strive toward a common decency, and—whether we believe it or not—were created by the same loving God.
May you have a holy and peace-filled Christmas.