One hundred years ago yesterday, December 25, 1914, in the heart of what would become the most brutal war the world had ever seen, two enemies called a spontaneous truce.
Right: From The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches.”
The now almost legendary Christmas truce took place among German and British soldiers all along the Western Front. It began, reportedly, with British troops hearing Germans counterparts sing a classic carol, Stille Nacht (Silent Night) on Christmas Eve, December 24, and continued with an exchange of sundries, handshaking and even soccer matches. In some areas the unofficial, unsanctioned truce continued until New Years. And then the bloodshed began once again.
So what made them temporarily stop?
One theory is that the Christmas truce represented the last moment before the industrialized warfare that came to define the 20th century took hold. There were still ideals of soldiering, of brotherhood, of the kind of chivalry we associate in America with a Gone With the Wind romanticized view of the South; warfare hadn’t yet become anonymous. The numbers of dead hadn’t yet grown so high as to become impersonal.
Another aspect could be that when war first broke out, a common refrain heard was that “it would be over by Christmas.” Perhaps that had been the soldiers’ beacon of hope, or light at the end of the tunnel, and when that didn’t come to pass, they chose to create that ceasefire for themselves.
Whatever the exact reasons may be — and there be none, it may have been one of those inexplicable spontaneous ripple effects — there’s a lasting lesson in that truce: that among enemies, there’s always the potential of finding common ground.
More about the Christmas Truce: The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce (Saturday Essay, Wall Street Journal)