Silent night, peaceful night…even in wartime
By Stephan Drew
It was Christmas Eve near the Yser River in Belgium, and the ground was covered in ice and snow. The year was 1914 and World War I had been going on for almost five months. The British had lost nearly 100,000 men by this time and conditions on the Western Front were horrendous. Both sides had dug long trenches, about 8 feet deep and 6 feet wide to provide cover from the hail of gunfire. There was a somewhat complicated zigzag network of these carved pits where British, French and Allied units had their own separate areas on one side. The same was true for the other side where the Germans were encamped, seeking protection. Between these two fronts was the deadly place (from 30 yards wide to 100 yards in some places) called “No Man’s Land.” If you went there, chances were you wouldn’t survive more than a few minutes, if at all. As light faded and darkness began to cover them, both sides were thinking of Christmas and their families back home. The warmth and laughter they should be sharing and, all the food they were missing was on their minds. The Germans had clipped small trees from the woods and used string, foil and any other trinkets they could find to decorate them. Some even lit small candles and attached them to the trees. Others put candles in jelly jars. They reread letters from home that they had already seen a hundred times and nostalgia crept into their hearts. It would be nice to have some type of Christmas here, even though conditions were the worst you could imagine. Until this morning’s snow began to freeze everything, there had been at least 18 inches of muddy water in the bottom of the trenches. It was impossible to keep your feet or clothes dry and mud stuck to everything, even the bullets in their pockets. They had to clean their weapons four or five times a day and God help you if you put a muddy bullet into your gun. They learned to deal with the cold, the mud and frostbite as best they could. Every limb of their body was either numb or ached with pain. But now it was Christmas Eve and they were thinking of home. The air was getting colder and a light snow was falling when members of the British Expeditionary Force suddenly heard something. A single voice rang out in the darkness, soft but clear. Someone on the enemy side was singing “Silent Night”… in German. They could hear it growing stronger.
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht
Alles schläft, einsam wacht,
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!”
He sang two more verses, each getting louder and finished with a booming note. A few seconds of dead silence followed and, as if on cue, the British began whistling, shouting and clapping in approval. When the applause died down, the British commenced with “Noel” while the Germans listened and then cheered them. The Germans retaliated with “O Tannenbaum.” When the British started “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the Germans immediately recognized the song and began singing, in Latin, “Adeste Fideles, laeti triumphantes, venite, venite in Bethlehem.” By this time, some of the German soldiers had raised their Christmas trees and jar lights above the trench. The British saw this and wondered how far this would go. Then, a head appeared over the height of the trench on the German side. A soldier was holding a light and climbing over the top. He cleared the trench and raised himself up to his full height. Then, he began singing, taking a few careful steps toward the British lines. His shaky hands holding the candle, he looked back and motioned for his comrades to join him. He was totally unarmed, walking through No Man’s Land toward enemy lines, with just a candle in his hands … singing! A British soldier crawled up and out of his trench and, very slowly, started walking towards the German. He was also singing. When they met, they looked at each other cautiously and exchanged greetings. The English soldier offered the German a cigarette. The German offered the Brit a chocolate bar. They stood there talking a few moments before they were joined by others. Scared but excited, some German, British, French and Scottish soldiers slowly began to creep towards the two in the midst of the battlefield. The French had some champagne, which they shared. The talking, laughter and singing grew louder and more soldiers came from the trenches until there were hundreds standing there in No Man’s Land, exchanging food and trading stories. The sun soon came up and a thick mist hung over the area. Someone rushed back to the British trenches and came back with a football (soccer ball). Within minutes, there were English, German, French and Scottish soldiers kicking this football around. There were no teams, everyone simply played around and got a few kicks in. They shared bread, cheese, potted turkey, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne and something the British called “Bully Beef” (known as SPAM today). Some of them had little cameras in their pockets and, taking them out, they began snapping pictures. Germans and British standing side by side, trading clothing and smiling for photographs. It was an amazing event! The festivities went on all day and, by sunset on Christmas evening, they had been eating, laughing and celebrating for nearly 18 hours. Some estimates say that there were only a few hundred soldiers involved. Others claimed that there were several thousand enjoying the celebration. But, whether it was one hundred or thousands, it was a holiday miracle and it really did happen. As they parted company and slowly made their way back to their own respective trenches, some of the Germans asked if they could have another “truce” for New Year’s? They wanted to get together again and see how the pictures turned out! Sadly, all things must come to an end and this second truce never occurred. High command decided it would be bad for morale if the two sides started “getting along.” But the generals hadn’t expected this Christmas Truce to occur, either. No commander had given an official ceasefire order, it simply happened. The love, humanity and nostalgia in those men’s hearts outweighed their desire to kill each other. They learned something priceless at that moment … love really IS stronger than hate. The Christmas Truce of 1914 happened in spots all along the Western Front. It wasn’t organized, scheduled or planned for. It simply happened because of man’s humanity to man. Different versions of that night’s events have been shared over the past 100 years and, it is a miracle that still brings tears to the eyes even today. We have that same capacity for peace in our time. We have a better understanding of empathy and, we certainly have more resources to create unity than ever before. These men were frozen, covered in mud and enduring extremely horrible conditions, with an enemy ready to kill them if they dared to raise their head. If they, under those circumstances, could call upon their “better angels,” why can’t we, with all our comfort and advantages, do the same? Why can’t we put down our hatred and mistrust of each other and try to get along? We have every advantage that they didn’t. Yet they created a miracle still discussed today. If we can’t do this at Christmastime, when will we ever be able to? When will we realize that our petty differences mean nothing at all in the grand scheme of things? These men faced their bitter enemies with love and hope. We can do the same.