The Christmas Truce of 1914

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A century ago,
before the start of World War I (referred to in the history books
as "The Great War" or, navely, "The War to End all
Wars"), warfare as a means of settling disputes between nations
was often regarded as an honorable undertaking. Military officers,
which came from the aristocracy, were respected and honored because
of their impressive uniforms and the medals and ribbons on their
chests. Military veterans, dead or alive, were regarded as heroes
and the acts of war they participated in were considered to be glorious.
Many of the males on the planet seemed to look forward to the exciting
act of going off to war.

A century ago,
little French and British schoolchildren, not yet the age of military
conscription, were indoctrinated in the belief that Germany was
evil incarnate and deserving of death, and German schoolchildren
were taught to believe the same things about the French and the
English.

The peace that
had existed for decades in Europe since the Franco-Prussian War
had resulted in tremendous progress in culture, commerce and international
relations. Europeans of all stripes crossed borders freely, despite
the significant class and wealth disparity. There was very little
homelessness or chronic hunger.

Jews and Christians
intermingled and intermarried with few eyes being raised. The majority
of people were basically content, despite the knowledge of the excess
luxury wealth of the ruling classes. Non-democratic empires ruled
by kings, emperors, capitalists, generals and the bureaucratic hangers-on
of the ruling elite seemed to have everything going for them in
order to stay in power.

Despite their
wealth and power, many of the ruling classes were still looking
for ways to enrich themselves or further secure the ill-gotten gains
that they had already accrued. Some of these elite were also hoping
to expand their colonial empires by the use of military force directed
against innocent peoples who were weaker or otherwise less able
to defend themselves.

Some of those
in power desired to recapture or maintain control of disputed territories
(ex. Alsace-Lorraine), but they all bound themselves by a complex
web of treaties that promised nations to come to the military aid
of another if one of them was attacked.

When Archduke
Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the peace rapidly unraveled
and, by a series of errors of judgment, bureaucratic inefficiencies,
ineptitude, and a lack of communication skills and a refusal to
risk the dishonor of "turning the other cheek" all the
treaty nations declared war on each other in a domino effect and
the first world war was on.

The momentum
that had built up over the decades by the propaganda in the schools
turned out to be unstoppable and the indoctrinated boys, ignorant
of the tragedy of past wars and looking for glory and a way out
of their boredom, rushed to the recruiting offices to sign up for
war. And the war was on.

The war ultimately
destroyed four empires, chemically poisoned the earth and water
supplies with the massive application of military toxins and killed
off 14,000,000 people, 90% of whom were young naïve combatants.

An entire generation
of young French, British and German men was wasted, either killed,
wounded or rendered insane or criminal. Virtually all of the casualties
had been brain-washed to believe that war was glorious rather than
satanic.

Predictably,
the Christian churches chimed in with their nationalistic blindness
and refused to teach what Jesus had taught his followers about violence.
The pulpits on all sides, British, Scottish, French, German, Austrian,
Hungarian, Russian, Italian, etc, all rang with patriotic fervor
and flags waving, telling their doomed sons that it was their Christian
duty to obey their secular leaders and to go off to war to kill
the fingered enemy on the other side.

Five months
into the mass slaughter of trench warfare, the Christmas holiday
came, holidays that reminded them of the safe home they had foolishly
left behind. The physically exhausted, spiritually deadened and
combat-traumatized soldiers on each side of No Man's Land sought
some respite from the cruelty of the frozen trenches.

The frontline
soldiers were at the end of their rope because of the unrelenting
sleep deprivation, hyperalertness, bad food, rats, lice, frostbitten
toes and fingers, deadly artillery bombardments, machine gun massacres
and suicidal assaults that were stupidly ordered by the commanding
officers in the rear. The horrors of No Man's Land were punctuated
by the screams and pleas for help of the wounded soldiers who were
helplessly hanging on the barbed wire or lying in the bomb craters,
each one dying an agonizing death that often lingered for days.

So, on Christmas
eve, December 24, 1914, the troops on either side of the front line,
settled down to special food, special liquor, special rest — and
the singing of Christmas carols. Kaiser Wilhelm had ordered that
100,000 Christmas trees be delivered to the German trenches for
Christmas eve, thinking that the expense of such an irrational act
was justified because, after all, the war was soon to be won by
the superior German army and so using the supply lines for such
unnecessary items seemed to be an acceptable expense.

And then a
spontaneous event happened at various spots on the 700-mile-long
trench line that stretched between Belgium and France. The singing
of Christmas carols started a chain of events that resulted in an
event that was never to be repeated in the history of warfare after
that night.

The tradition
that has emerged from this famous and true story was that the Germans
started singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night) and the British responded
with another carol. And the French and Scots joined in and all sides
sang together in their own tongues, the Scots with their bagpipes,
accompanying the German singing.

And the sense
of their common humanity, which had been driven out of them in the
schools and in basic training, broke through to consciousness. Homesickness
may have set in or perhaps the futility of the slaughter became
clear or perhaps the realization that they would have had things
if they had met in different circumstances. Or perhaps their sheer
exhaustion took the fight out of them.

However it
started, the soldiers disobeyed the orders to kill (their commanding
officers were, after all, celebrating Christmas eve back where it
was safe from the killing), dropped their guns and came out of their
trenches to meet one another. The former enemies shared pictures
from home, chocolate candy, wine – and soccer games were played.
Friendships were made and every soldier who experienced the events
was forever changed. The motivation to blindly kill a person who
had never done them wrong suddenly vanished, never to return.

So powerful
was the experience, that most of the affected men had to be withdrawn
from the front lines, replaced with fresh troops who had never had
the life-changing experience.

Fraternization
in time of war was an act of treason that was punishable by summary
execution. Unexpectedly, the commanding officers, not wanting to
draw public attention to this aberrant but potentially contagious
episode, and knowing that such actions would threaten the war effort
if it somehow became widely known, ordered no executions. There
were punishments, however, with many of the German soldiers who
refused to fight being transferred to the eastern front to kill
and die in the war with Russia.

The prize-winning
movie that beautifully characterizes the spirit of the Christmas
truce of 1914 is Joyeux
Noel
(French for Merry Christmas). It is a moving tale whose
basic story comes directly from surviving veterans who experienced
the event and from letters from soldiers who wrote home about it,
letters that somehow survived military censorship.

The story that
is so beautifully told in Joyeux Noel needs to be retold again and
again in this era of the cleverly orchestrated, bankrupting, perpetual
"US-led" wars of empire that are being fought by our indoctrinated,
soon to be exhausted young men and women, some of whom are doomed
to a life overwhelmed by the horrendous realities of posttraumatic
stress disorder, sociopathic personality disorder, suicidality,
homicidality, loss of religious faith, permanent and virtually untreatable
traumatic brain injury, and a host of other nearly impossible-to-treat
problems that are eminently preventable.

Militarists
remain fearful about allowing their combatants to experience the
humanity of their future targeted victims, whether they are average
civilians from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or North Korea. Military
chaplains, who are supposed to be nurturers of the souls of their
soldiers, are also forbidden by their superior officers to talk
about the Golden Rule or about love of enemies or about the ethics
of the Sermon on the Mount. They are a part of the apparatus that
rejects all of the Ten Commandments, especially the one that says
"thou shalt not kill." Military chaplains, in their defense,
may themselves have never heard about the nonviolence of the gospels
or the rejection of enmity because their home churches or their
seminaries never emphasized those realities

Near the end
of Joyeux Noel there is a powerful scene, a confrontation
between the Christ-like chaplain and his Scottish bishop just as
the chaplain was giving last rites to a dying Scottish soldier.
The bishop had come to relieve the chaplain of his duties and abusively
ordered him to return to his home parish because of his "treasonous
and shameful" behavior (being merciful to the enemy) in a war
zone.

The chaplain
tried to explain to the authoritarian, pro-war, German-hating bishop
that he had just performed "the most important mass of my life"
and wanted to stay with his troops who were losing their Christian
faith. On Christmas eve, German, Scottish and French Christian soldiers
(and one Jewish German officer) had all gathered for the mass on
Christmas eve, had prayed together and had listened to a powerful
rendition of Ave Maria. The bishop denied the request.

The bishop
then delivered a pro-war sermon (the exact words having been obtained
from a sermon that was delivered by an Anglican bishop in England
later in the war) to the troops who were being brought in to replace
the suddenly reluctant soldiers. The dramatic response of the chaplain
represents a serious warning to the Christian church in America
and also to its war-justifying citizens and their political leaders.

This is a profoundly
important and very moving film that deserves to be annual holiday
fare, alongside Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

December
9, 2009

Gary
Kohls, MD [send him mail],
an associate of Every Church a Peace
Church
, is a practicing physician in Duluth, MN.

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