THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914
REV. DAVID ROBINS
(This sermon draws from the book, “Silent Night” by Stanley Weintraub.)
World War I, or the Great War, or the war to end all wars began on July 28, 1914, alittle over 100 years ago. 65 million soldiers were mobilized, and 9 million were killed. The United States did not enter the war until 1918. My grandfather served in the engineer corps in the Army. I have his Army compass.
But, from 1914 to 1917, the war was fought from trenches stretching over three hundred miles across Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Germany. If the soldiers on both sides had their way, they would have stopped fighting and gone home, but as always, governments used them as proxies for their imperial aims. Soldiers from Europe, the U.S., Russia,Turkey, Africa, and India took up arms.
The soldiers on both sides of the trenches did stop the war on Christmas Day, 1914. Unbeknownst to their generals, they stopped fighting.
“It started when German soldiers lit candles on small evergreen trees in their trenches, and British, French, Belgian and German Troops serenaded each other with Christmas carols.” (Silent Night, Stanley Weintraub ) Low ranking officers met on the battlefield under white flags to negotiate the truce. They agreed to not shoot at each other, and to allow each side to come into the fields to bury their dead. “As the power of Christmas grew among them, they broke bread, exchanged addresses and letters, expressed deep admiration for one another, shared cigarettes and cigars and gifts from home. When angry superiors ordered them to resume fighting, lower ranking officers agreed across the trenches to aim their rifles harmlessly overhead.” (Silent Night) In effect, the soldiers ended the war in that area, and came to a peace agreement.
“Sometimes the greatest beauty emerges from deep tragedy. Surely the forgotten Christmas truce was one of history’s most beautiful moments, made all the more beautiful in light of the carnage that followed it.” (Silent Night)
Perhaps the truce is most remembered for the soccer or European football game that was arranged between the Brits and the Germans. This truce has long been treated as a myth, but there are photos of men from the armies together, and eyewitness accounts later written up.
John McCutcheon wrote a song about the Christmas truce, titled Christmas in the Trenches. When he toured Belgium, early in his career, a small group of surviving German soldiers from World War I went to hear him play this song. The soldiers told him that all their lives, they could not get their families and neighbors to believe them that they had stopped fighting for several days to eat and drink with soldiers on the other side of the trenches. They began to think to themselves that perhaps they had dreamed it, and the truce had not happened at all. But McCutcheon’s song verified for them what they knew to be true and factual. Soldiers stopped fighting one another, against the orders of generals and politicians.
Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon
My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung,
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
I was lying with my messmates on the cold and rocky ground
When across the line of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, “Now listen up me boys!” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice rang out so clear.
“He’s singing bloody well you know!” my partner says to me
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was “Stille Nacht, “ “Tis Silent Night,” says I
And in two tongues one song filled up the sky.
“There’s someone coming toward us!” the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare lit soccer game we gave ‘em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
‘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 the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas comes since World War One, I’ve learned its lesson well
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each side of the rifle we’re the same.
His words are not true of every soldier in every war on every side, but the events that led to this war are called a horrible mistake and preventable.
Perhaps you know of other times in history when soldiers lay down their arms and joined their enemies in universal brotherhood. I have not read of any other time. The word, “miracle” comes close to springing from my lips. As a non-believer in supernatural miracles, this event of peace breaking out in the middle of war is as close as I can imagine coming to accepting a supernatural miracle. As close as I can come to believing that a God of love broke through fear and distrust for 24 hours to bring men to lay down their guns, and to trust the men who generals and politicians called “the enemy.”
From the historical account, peace began with a few soldiers requesting a day of peace from their enemies, and the request was granted. It was a day when the need for peace in those men, became stronger than the need to obey orders. When the need for understanding was stronger than the need to demonize others.
It is difficult to imagine the soldiers of the United States government, and the Taliban of Afghanistan ever being able to cross lines of language and culture and religion to have an outbreak of peace. Did those soldiers in all the years ever say to the other, “On the last day of Ramadan and on Christmas day, we will stand down. Not fire. Not attack. Not bomb. Let us honor the day of peace in our religions.” The soldiers would probably be shot on the spot for insubordination.
To a God of peace, they are the heroes, too, as were those soldiers awarded for acts of bravery.
The Christmas truce of 1914 haunted the men who experienced it, and it haunts me now. Haunts in a good way. It is possible to say no to war. It is possible to honor the need for peace as stronger than orders to destroy.
Lieutenant Cyril Drummond of the English Royal Field Artillery said in surprise of the German soldiers, “They were nice fellows to look at.” One German soldier explained to Drummond, “We don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to kill us. So, why shoot?”
Christmas 1914, and Christmas today, evokes the same desire for peace and understanding, and a ceasing of incivility and violence. The humanity within us yearns for a compassionate connection with others. Our better nature invites us to turn aside from propaganda and lies, and instead meet one another person to person, heart to heart. Christmas 1914 opened the imaginations to the unsettling truth that at each end of the rifle, people are indeed the same.
Our country has been engaged in warring in over 25 countries for 50% of the last 100 years. Historians looking back 100 years from now may describe this period and America’s 100 years wars.
I think that nationalism is one of the routes by which wars are started and the current pandering to nationalism is the same route. Nationalism is not patriotism. I think that war holds ideology, property, greed oppression and power to be more important than children, and thus is to be avoided at all costs.
I think that making peace, advancing peace, studying peace, keeping the peace is a 24 hour a day pursuit for each person and for our government.
I close with a Jewish prayer from our hymnal:
“Grant us the ability to find joy and strength,
Not in the strident call to arms
But in stretching out our arms
To grasp our fellow creatures
In the striving for justice and truth.”
Reflection……Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
Written by Rev. W. Edward Harris
“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose,
And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows….”
What can we say about Rudolph?
He was excluded by other reindeer. They did not let him play with them. We may feel confident that they made fun of him and his red nose.
It is possible that they hurt poor Rudolph’s feelings. He was on the outside. The other reindeer had a special relationship with Santa Claus. They were the elite: Dancer, Dasher, Prancer, Comet, Blitzen, fine names, sturdy names, bespeaking solidity, stability, education, training, access to the very best, privilege.
Rudolph was smaller and his only distinctive feature was a shiny red nose. It seemed to have a glow about it. it made the young Rudolph a figure of fun. Still, he may have been content to be red-nosed all by himself. He probably muttered more than once, “I don’t care. Let them say what they want. I can have fun by myself.”
Did Rudolph wish to be included? Probably he did, for it is the deepest wish of al creatures to belong and be accepted.
So what happened?
On a foggy Christmas Eve, Santa realized that that Rudolph could make the difference in guiding the sleigh. Rudolph had a special trait, a special skill that could help.
So Santa goes to little Rudolph and asks him to guide the sleigh. Actually, to lead it. he would be in front of the other reindeer. Because their mission of getting Christmas to boys and girls was so important, it became necessary to rethink past practices.
When Rudolph was asked, what did he say? We don’t know. It’s not recorded. We know he did not say: “I can’t. I’m too little.” He didn’t say, “Me? The others always make fun of me.” He didn’t say, “Now you ask me. I’ve got something else to do that night.”
He didn’t say, spitefully, “Get somebody else. Let Dance do it.” He didn’t say, “What will you pay me?” He didn’t say, “I don’t have the training.” He didn’t say it was transactional, so give me a contract.
So we have the classic story of the insiders excluding the newcomer and making fun of his special traits. It happens all the time.
We say, “They just don’t have it. And if they do, well we got here first and don’t have to let them in our group.”
Rudolph just did it. He led the sleigh through. He did the job. It was a hard job, but he did it. Then all the reindeer loved him.
What does the little story mean? What is its moral?
Some possible meanings: Anybody can serve; we need everyone to be part of the team; even the smallest have a special contribution to make; the mission is more important than the personalities.
There are perhaps others. Remember them when you hear the song.