A CHRISTMAS TO END WAR(S)?
The potential of the meaning behind the Christmas story to end war and conflict is extraordinary and other-worldly. The events on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the opening year of the ensuing bloodbath of World War 2 (“The Great War”) teach how the human carnage of the next four years, and the even greater devastation of World War 2 could have been prevented.
Diaries of soldiers on both sides of the conflict record how the guns fell silent on Christmas Eve as soldiers put down their guns and stepped out of the trenches to greet each other, exchange gifts, sing and play football. All this on a battlefield that later would claim millions of lives.
"On a crisp, clear morning [in 1914] thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches and spent Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western front. In the hundred years since, the event has been seen as a kind of miracle, a rare moment of peace just a few months into a war that would eventually claim over 15 million lives. But what actually happened on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1914 — and did they really play soccer on the battlefield?”
Yet, what unfolded that Christmas became history.
"To this day historians continue to disagree over the specifics: no one knows where it began or how it spread, or if, by some curious festive magic, it broke out simultaneously across the trenches. Nevertheless, some two-thirds of troops — about 100,000 people — are believed to have participated in the legendary truce.
Most accounts suggest the truce began with carol singing from the trenches on Christmas Eve, 'a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere', as Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment recalled, in a document later rounded up by the New York Times.
Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade described it in even greater detail: 'First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.'
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out 'Merry Christmas' in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them." The soldiers started to engage with each other, singing Christmas songs and playing football.
"The commander of the British Second Corps, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, believed this proximity posed 'the greatest danger' and told Divisional Commanders to explicitly prohibit any 'friendly intercourse with the enemy.' In a memo issued on Dec. 5, he warned that: 'troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a ‘live and let live’ theory of life.'
Indeed, one British soldier, Murdoch M. Wood, speaking in 1930, said: 'I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.'"
After the truce, some soldiers refused to continue fighting each other. However, from the political side the war was pursued mercilessly, eventually taking an estimated 15 million lives and preparing the ground for those forces that would start the next war in Europe: World War 2.
Our world today is much different from 1914 - except that we still need peace. The Christmas message is capable of helping us to challenge those who seek to dominate and drive us towards conflict with their "divide and conquer" approach.
The outcome of the Great War and events of the 20th century could have been so different if the Christmas had been allowed to permeate and influence beyond Christmas Day 2014.
Perhaps we can take action to continue what began that day?