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Peace on Earth ... for a little while
Two days before Christmas of 1914, some unusual sentries sprang up on the battlefield of the Western front: Christmas trees.
Thousands of the trees had been delivered to the Germans on that first Christmas of World War I. Soldiers set them up on the parapets in full view of the opposing army, making themselves easy targets as they lit the candles clamped to the branches.
It was one of the first maneuvers in what historian Stanley Weintraub called “an outbreak of peace” in his book, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.”
The cease-fire of 1914 was an anomaly, and it’s a bittersweet story for that very reason. In the middle of war, for a few days, enemies decided to trust each other — with joyful results.
When British soldiers saw the trees, they took the next risk by crossing the battlefield to talk to their opponents. The regiments agreed to an informal cease-fire in honor of Christmas.
By Dec. 24, the truce spread to other troops up and down the Western front. Improvised signs appeared on either side of the battlefield with messages from “Merry Christmas” to the crudely translated, “You no fight, we no fight.” By that night, Christmas songs were being sung across the fifty paces that separated the two sides. The opposing sides might not speak the same language, but they could tell that “Stille Nacht” and “Silent Night” were the same song.
Soon, soldiers ventured across the battlefield to exchange presents from home — plum puddings for sausages, rum for schnapps, and other items such as bread, postcards, newspapers and cigarettes.
On Christmas Day and for a few days afterward, there were reports of the two sides joining up for games of soccer. A few units had regulation soccer balls; others improvised by kicking food tins or tied-up sandbags. Troops allowed each other to safely enter No Man’s Land to gather their dead. In some cases, they helped each other bury their fallen comrades.
Viewing the enemy as a friend is, of course, a dangerous thing in wartime, but on that Christmas nearly 100 years ago, many took the risk. Few shots were fired — and many of those were deliberately directed over the enemies’ heads.
As the Christmas season faded, commanders were faced with the unpleasant chore of getting their men to fire at each other again, and pains were taken to avoid similar truces in the future.
Almost a century later, we’re still a long way from peace on earth. But the cease-fire of 1914 gives us a glimmer of hope. It shows a glimpse of what might happen if the human race could focus on the good things we have in common rather than the differences that separate us. It shows us a glimpse of what did happen between two sides united by a shared holiday — and, perhaps, by some shared beliefs.
As a German private, Carl Muhlegg, recalled about delivering a Christmas tree to his captain: “He lit the candles and wished his soldiers, the German nation and the whole world ‘Peace according to the message from the angel.’”
“How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was,” Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons wrote in his diary. “The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”