THE NIGHT THE FIGHTING STOPPED
World War I (1914 – 1918) was one of the deadliest conflicts in modern history and claimed more than 16 million lives. Worst of all was the trench warfare, where troops shot at each other from hundreds of miles of deep trenches dug into the ground. Life in the trenches was miserable. To leave one’s trench was to risk being shot and killed. The distance between the opposing trenches was known as ‘No Man’s Land’.
But on Christmas eve, 1914, along the war’s Western Front in Flanders, Belgium, something strange and wonderful happened. On one side were the English and the French, hunkered down in their trenches. On the other side, doing the same, were the Germans. The war had been raging for five months. It was a bitterly cold and still night.
Suddenly, from across the frozen ground of No Man’s Land drifted the sound of voice of German soldiers singing, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht…“ softly at first, and then louder with each verse. Although the words were foreign, the carol’s tune—and its message—was unmistakable.
The English and French troops responded, raising their voices and singing, “Silent Night, Holy Night…”
Back and forth, the men exchanged verses in English and German. This went on for several minutes. Then, from the depths of a German trench, a soldier raised a handwritten sign: “YOU NO SHOOT, WE NO SHOOT.” In response, the English and French soldiers waved a banner that read: “MERRY CHRISTMAS.”
Cautiously, the unarmed men began to emerge from their trenches. Slowly, they crossed the dreaded No Man’s Land, where they stood face-to-face. For a moment, the highly trained soldiers didn’t quite know what to do. Awkwardly, they extended and shook each others‘ hands. They even embraced. Some turned their heads to hide their tears. They gave each other permission to collect and properly bury their dead. They exchanged prisoners. And then, for the remainder of that miraculous night and throughout Christmas Day, they sang carols exchanged gifts of cake, chocolates, biscuits and jam. Some even played a game of soccer.
By mid-morning Christmas day, horrified officers on both sides summoned their men back to the trenches. Within hours the Fifth Scottish Rifles issued an order saying: “We are here to fight, not to fraternize.”
The soldiers obeyed and the firing recommenced. The war, as history tragically records, destroyed almost that entire generation of young men on both sides. But those who lived to tell the tale, never forgot the Christmas of 1914. (Incidentally, the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City has even published an online gallery of hundreds of accounts of the Christmas truce — letters home from soldiers that were published in British papers.)
The story is a beautiful reminder that as human beings, we have much more in common with each other than we realize. If we just take the time to look for it, we will discover what we already have what we need to live in peace and harmony.
‘Midweek Musings’ will be back with you again on January 5, 2022.
We wish you the very best of the season and a happy new year!