“Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born for us.”
Entrance Antiphon for Christmas, Mass at Dawn
By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
This year we remember the 100th anniversary of the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front during World War I. British, French and German soldiers, after six months of combat, unprecedented in both its violence and number of casualties, spontaneously observed a truce that began on Christmas Eve and continued all through Christmas Day.
In the months leading up to Christmas, Pope Benedict XV appealed to the warring nations to observe a truce on Christmas Day in the hope that this might lead to a ceasefire and a negotiated end of the war. Unfortunately, his call for a truce was officially rejected.
The rank and file however had other ideas. In some places along the line, the truce began when German troops set up Christmas trees along the parapets of their trenches and lit the candles attached to the tree branches. (The German army had provided the troops with thousands of small evergreen trees for Christmas.) German soldiers then began to sing the traditional German Christmas carols and the French and British soldiers opposing them began to sing their own carols.
Some of the Germans then lifted the brilliantly shining trees up above the parapet. Ordinarily, the soldiers in all of the opposing armies were under orders to fire on any light or movement in the enemy trenches. But the French and British troops held their fire and Germans holding the candle-lit Christmas trees cautiously emerged from the protection of their trenches and began to walk into no-man’s land.
In other sections of the front line that were close to villages, the truce was reported to have been prompted by the sounds of bells ringing for midnight Mass. All along the line, and completely contrary to strict orders against fraternization, French, British, German and Belgian soldiers met face-to-face: to sing Christmas carols, to exchange small gifts of tobacco, alcohol and chocolate and to enjoy each other’s company. That Christmas there was a similar Christmas truce between Austrian and Russian soldiers on the eastern front.
Scattered across the battlefield were the bodies of their dead comrades and in the daylight, the German, French and British soldiers worked together to gather up the dead and bury them.
Once the grim task of burying the dead was done, in some sectors of the front German and British soldiers played football between the lines. In others, the men gathered to talk, smoke and drink and to show each other photographs of their wives, sweethearts and children.
In some parts of the line the truce lasted until New Years Day, in others, only for Christmas Day. Unfortunately, the spontaneous Christmas truce did not lead to a ceasefire and a negotiated end to the conflict, as Pope Benedict had hoped. Instead the fighting resumed and continued for almost four more years causing hitherto unimaginable social, political, cultural and spiritual chaos and destruction and millions more killed and wounded on all sides.
As we find ourselves, one hundred years later, caught up in what seems to be a never-ending war, what lessons are there for us in the Christmas truce? First, for many of the soldiers, the truce put a human face on those opposite to them in the trenches. The outbreak of World War I was attended in all the belligerent countries by official propaganda that dehumanized and demonized the enemy. Each side accused the other of atrocities (some of which were true, such as the German execution of Belgian civilians in reprisal for alleged guerilla attacks on German soldiers during the first two months of the war.) In diaries and letters home, soldiers who participated in the truce wrote about their realization that their enemies were just young men such as themselves.
Secondly, the First World War was in almost every way a failure of the Christian moral order. With the exception of Ottoman Turkey, which was a multi-national Muslim state, all of the other European belligerents were Christian nations, all of whom went to war convinced that they were doing the will of God and they fought in the name of Christ. Although it took decades to become evident, enlisting Christ and the various national churches on behalf of the war effort discredited the gospel in the eyes of many Europeans and Americans.
The Christmas truce of 1914 provided and provides a contemporary alternative to the narrative of the war as a divinely sanctioned national crusade. Instead, the message of Christmas, of peace on earth and goodwill towards all was not lost on the combatants facing each other in the trenches. They realized, in an inchoate way that their flesh and blood opponents were not their real enemies. Rather the war itself and spirit of violence and hatred were the true enemies that confronted them.
On Christmas Eve, 1914, the light of the flickering candles on Christmas trees literally illuminated the darkness of the trenches. Just as importantly, the light of those candles dispelled the spiritual darkness that made enemies of men who were called to be brothers. That flickering light in the darkness of war enabled them to see each other, if only briefly, not as enemies but as ordinary persons like themselves and fellow sufferers equally oppressed by the harsh necessity, wrath and danger of war.
In our own day it is difficult to imagine a spontaneous truce, Christmas or otherwise, between the fighters of the Islamic State or the Taliban or Boko Haram or Al-Qaida and their opponents. While justified in resisting an unjust aggressor, the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who came not to condemn the world but to save it, requires us to search for, even in the enemy, the face of a brother.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23.