Lecture No. 6: December 2013



Jim Russell, Lecturer
Jim Russell, Lecturer

[dropcaps] A [/dropcaps] s a species, we humans seem to have an inordinate propensity for violence. It began when Cain slew Able and has escalated from there. Yes, we are a violent species. But every once in a while, amid the death and destruction, there is a tiny spark; something happens to give us a small ray of hope for a better world.

I grew up on World War II. I was born about the middle of it. My initial exposure was the TV program “Victory at Sea.” I then progressed to read “Guadacanal Diary.” That was followed by “Hiroshima,” “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and the movies like “The Guns of Navarone,” “Sink the Bismarck,” “The Longest Day.” I could go on.

I watch the evening news and the daily litany of murder and mayhem. The video games my grandchildren play make the comic books that I read at their age seem dull and boring. Many of the movies they can go see are so violent they cannot be shown on TV without drastic editing. And, thanks to The History Channel, I have been witness to the Battle for Stalingrad at least four times in the last two years; daytime TV is still “a vast wasteland.”

After a steady diet of World War II, somewhere about my senior year in high school, I discovered World War I. I picked up the book “The Guns of August” and learned a few things about my grandfather’s generation.

Christmas-Truce-of-1914-04World War I was a transition from the “gentleman’s wars” of the last half of the 19th century to the style of warfare of World War II and Korea. World War I had some specific rules that both sides recognized and honored. Officers rode on horses so mounted men were not targets. Cavalry units were the exception, but they soon disappeared from the field of battle with the introduction of the machine gun. Prisoners were treated humanely for the most part. Officers were respected by both sides and, in many instances, treated more like guests than POWs.

While both sides struggled in the mud and mire, there was on unique event that bears noting. Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of this conflict, and you will probably have an opportunity to hear of this event several times. Just remember you heard it here first.

On June 28, 1914 in the city of Sarajevo, a Serbian nationalist murdered the crown prince of Austria, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife the Duchess, Sophia. That single act of terrorism resulted in the deaths of millions of men, women and children on six continents over the next 30 years, until the start of the Second World War. We are still dealing with the aftermath today in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Korea and the western Pacific.

The preceding decades had seen the European nations form various alliances to protect their own, and in some cases, their mutual interests. The month of July 1914 saw the European nations organized into two opposing groups: the British, French and Russians known as the Allies against Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire known as the Central Powers. As the war progressed, other countries joined both sides until the war became the largest war ever. That is, until it was surpassed by the next World War beginning in 1939.

Christmas-Truce-of-1914-05On Aug. 1, 1914, the Germans put the Schlieffen Plan into operation. We are familiar with the operation of this strategy. General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. used a modified version against Iraq in the Gulf War. The German general staff developed the plan shortly after the French-Prussian War in the 1870s just in case Germany would be faced with a two-front war in the future. The plan was to take out the French in the west before the Russians could get organized in the east. It almost worked but stalled just short of its objective, Paris, when the Germans ran out of supplies and the French were able to regroup. The Germans were pushed back, and the Western Front, as it became known, bogged down into a form of trench warfare with each side dug in for the duration.

As winter approached, the weather turned cold and wet. The mud became as much of an enemy as the men on the other side of what became known as “No man’s land.”

It was a war such as we will never see again. In many ways, it was a gentleman’s war. For instance, soon after the war bogged down, it became customary for a daily cease fire to occur just after sunrise. One side would erect a wooden board atop its trench. While it displayed, no shots were fired. The men could eat their breakfast and even exercise in full view of the enemy without fear of being shot. Both sides observed the truce, which lasted about an hour. When the board was lowered, the fighting resumed.

Christmas-Truce-of-1914-02On Dec. 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV asked that the belligerents observe a Christmas truce. The Germans agreed; the Allies did not. Then, on Dec. 24, the bells of the cathedral in Liege, Belgium began to ring, and the guns fell silent. Soon, the German troops began to decorate their trench with small Christmas trees that many had received from their families. At first, the British were apprehensive about what the Germans were doing. They feared these lights that suddenly appeared all along the German front could have been some new kind of weapon the Huns had developed. They were ordered to hold fire until they could figure out what was happening.

As more and more of these small displays appeared, the British troops were able to see the familiar shape. Someone began to play a guitar, and the sounds of carols wafted across the barren land between the lines; the sound of familiar melodies sealed the seal. The Germans sang “Silent Night.” And though the Brits didn’t understand the words, they recognized the melody and answered in English. One good song deserved another, and soon the two sides were serenading each other.

The guns fell silent on that Christmas Eve from the Belgian coast all along the Western Front to the Swiss border. About daybreak, opposing soldiers began to venture where only hours before would have meant certain death. They exchanged small gifts of chocolate, tobacco and souvenirs. In many cases, one soldier would have to act as an interpreter for several others. The time was also devoted to recovery of the wounded and the dead. Joint services were held for the dead of both sides. It was reported that someone produced a soccer ball and a friendly match ensued until the ball was deflated when it became entangled in some barbed wire.


Most of the evidence of this Christmas truce only exists in the letters the soldiers wrote to their families and friends back home. There are even reports that a few French units engaged in this unauthorized fraternization. French forces did observe the cease fire. The actual cease fire lasted all through the 25th and in some areas as long as New Year’s Day.

The high commands on both sides were perplexed with the situation. The German high command ignored the truce and never issued an official report. The French denied participation, placing the “blame” squarely on the British. The British field command reported it to London, and London select to “no comment.”

At the end of January 1915, New York newspapers reported on the Christmas cease fire. A few days later, stories appearing in British newspapers reported the event. The war office in London finally admitted the cease fire had occurred but denied any official sanction. Both sides issued orders that future fraternization would be considered as a traitorous act and dealt with accordingly.

The “War to End All Wars” lasted until Nov. 11, 1918. Never in the ensuing years did the guns fall silent, though a truce was observed at various places along the front in the ensuing years.

Jesus-statue-arms-openThe story of the Christmas truce of 1914 became buried in the memories of those who survived the war until the 1970s. Since then, at least seven songs have been based on the event; the French movie Joyeux Noel was based on the event. An international soccer match involving English, Belgian, French and German youths was initiated and will be played at least until 2014. Silent Night, an opera based on the French film, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012. The event has been reported in at least eight books.

Though we seem to dwell on violence, some things cannot and will not be overshadowed by this fascination. The Christmas truce of 1914 is one of those rare rays of hope. It was and still is a sign that shows us that, even in the midst of our darkest times, in ways we might never expect, the Prince of Peace will somehow prevail.