As the first Christmas of World War I approached, Pope Benedict XV on Dec. 7, 1914, asked the leaders of all warring governments to agree to an official cease-fire. He begged "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." Sadly, his plea was ignored by government leaders. But many of the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce.
In 1914, the earthly powers of Europe were engaged in a suicide pact that came to be known then as the Great War. By December of that year, the promise that many envisaged that the carnage would surely end by Christmas had long been cast aside as battles raged along the front that formed between the Allies of the Triple Entente on one side and the Central Powers on the other. Trench warfare unfolded as Germans faced British and French troops as they haggled over the soil of Belgium and France, while Italy and Russia contended with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, too. Ottoman Turkey, long an ally of the German Reich, fell into the fray and controlled the essential approaches to the Black Sea through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. A bloody stalemate ensued as the contending parties now bore upon each other with the most deadly weapons and tactics then known to humanity.
(French soldiers in World War I)
Muddy trenches filled with men faced each other over what the troops called no-man’s land, where interlacing machine-gun fire, artillery barrages, aircraft and barbed wire literally tore men to pieces. The rains of the autumn and winter turned the rich farmland of Belgium and France into a morass of mud and gore as each side advanced over the real estate in contention and were cut down as by a demonic reaper wielding a merciless scythe. By the end of the war in 1918, more than 16 million people died as a result of war. Of these, 9.7 million were military deaths: bombed, drowned, shot, blasted, bayoneted, gassed, or sickened. More than 948,000 civilians died as a result of direct military action, while there were another 5.8 million excess civilian deaths due to accidents, disease and famine.
The interlocking monarchical family ties of Europe, defense treaties and secret agreements, as well as economic interests such as the oil fields in Iraq and Persia, all played into the deadlock that pitted Europeans against each other. America was still weighing its options as to committing troops, even while there were individuals who joined in the fight as combatants or in ambulance corps. By December 1914, the weight of the war was heavy on Europe and little did the world know that the events of the next few years would change history. As the celebration of the Nativity approached, Pope Benedict XV begged the leaders of all warring governments to agree to an official cease-fire. He pleaded "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang."
While the Allies and the Central Powers ignored the plea of the man in white of Rome, soldiers in the trenches decided to honor the promise of Christmas by declaring their own unofficial truce. On Christmas Eve, German troops in Ypres, the site in Belgium of one of the worst battles of all, put candles around their trenches and sang Christmas carols such as ‘Stille Nacht’. When the Tommies on the British side heard the tune they knew as ‘Silent Night’, they responded with hymns of their own. And when the artillery and machine gun fire in the area fell silent, a Christmas miracle occurred that remains a stirring tribute to the possibilities of peace and reconciliation. German and British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and ventured unarmed into no-man's land to exchange gifts of food and drink, as well as souvenir hats and buttons. The unofficial truce also allowed them to bury their dead and even participate in joint worship services.
According to an eyewitness, exchanges came between the erstwhile enemies just as their families back home were exchanging Christmas gifts. Bruce Bairnsfather, a British machine-gunner wrote in a journal, "I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange."
Soldiers were seen engaged in friendly football matches, chatting in English or merely sharing a smoke and their presence. Some even cut the hair of opposing soldiers, perhaps reminiscing of peaceful days as civilians. In some cases, the truces last until Boxing Day – which is celebrated by the British on December 26 – over even until New Years Day. As many as 100,000 British and German troops along the Western Front, which stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France, stopped killing for a short while and instead offered simple acts of compassion.
But commanding officers operate with a different logic than common soldiers and thus put an end to truces and camaraderie between them. For example, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, who commanded the British II Corps, issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Similarly a young Austrian corporal, who served as a messenger with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, also opposed the truce. A recipient of the Iron Cross for bravery, he later became known as Adolf Hitler. And hardened by war, the soldiers of all sides did not celebrate similar truces for the rest of the war. Deadly resignation had set in just like the barbed wire barriers between the warring nations.
Then as now, our culture praises warriors rightfully for their courage and sacrifice. But we still do not heed the message of the Prince of Peace as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to sputter, and a new world war emerges that pits militant Islam against everybody else. The effects on our lives are manifest in a stuttering economy and the rise of a state security ostensibly intended to protect us from terrorism but which also fetters freedoms we have long held dear but taken for granted. Where will these wars lead us? Certainly, the Tommies, Johnny Turks, Heinies, and poilus, could not have imagined that among the survivors of their Great War that there would be those who would die in another World War just a generation later that ushered in IBM-administered death camps and extermination, a nuclear holocaust, and a world divided between communist and democratic-capitalist realms. Do we not take a sick delight in carnage, as evidenced in movies such as ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Act of Valor’ where torture of our enemies is trotted out as necessary to our war aims? Are these not portents of the coming of a dark world led by a dark lord?
We would do well to heed the words of Pope Benedict XVI, almost one hundred years since the plea for peace transmitted by his predecessor and namesake, who called this year for an end to the “dictatorship of relativism” that has led to conflict and injustice. Said Pope Benedict XVI in his annual message for the coming World Day of Peace, “Peace is an order enlivened and integrated by love, in such a way that we feel the needs of others as our own, share our goods with others and work throughout the world for greater communion in spiritual values. It is an order achieved in freedom, that is, in a way consistent with the dignity of persons who, by their very nature as rational beings, take responsibility for their own actions.”