This is a true story about the spirit of Christmas.
When the Great War broke out all over Europe in August 1914, each side expected to quickly defeat the enemy. Brutal fighting between German, French, Belgian and British soldiers on the western front soon devolved into something the world had never seen before: massive armies stuck in muddy trenches, facing each other with barbed wire, grenades, bayonets and machine guns, for four hundred miles.
The soldiers began to freeze as the weather got cold, since the military experts on both sides had been sure the war would be over before winter. These miserable trenches would remain active for the next four years.
On the first Christmas Eve of the First World War, soldiers on both sides of the trenches began calling out to their enemies, and soon began tentatively approaching across their no-man's zones, hands held up in gestures of friendship. All along the western front, Christmas 1914 brought an unofficial and undeclared 24-hour truce. German, French, Belgian and British soldiers exchanged food items and cigarettes, talked, played football.
Officers and leaders on the fronts watched with varying reactions as this spontaneous uprising took place. But news of the Christmas Truce was greeted with severe disapproval when it reached headquarters on both sides. A year later, the trenches were locked down before a similar event could occur. It was observed by some that the fighting had become so bitter and hateful by the second Christmas of World War One that it would not have happened anyway.
Or maybe, because the fighting had become so bitter and hateful, it would have been needed even more in 1915?
Twenty-five years after the 1914 Christmas truce, World War One's horrific sequel had begun with the invasion of Poland, and soldiers were back in trenches all along the western front. But a hard lesson had been learned by military leaders by 1939, and new rules were in play. Based on orders from the top, the new war would be total war from day one, brutal, murderous and merciless by design, as if to preclude any possible chance of empathy with the unknown enemy. How can you play football or share a cigarette with a soldier whose family you are slaughtering? Total war defines a different set of rules, and there would be no Christmas truces on either the eastern or western fronts during the six miserable years of World War One's sequel. Here's how December 1939 is described by William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:
According to my diary, Christmas, the high point of the year for Germans, was a bleak one in Berlin that winter, with few presents exchanged, spartan food, the menfolk away, the streets blacked out, the shutters and curtains drawn tight, and everyone grumbling about the war, the food and the cold.
But let's not forget what the Christmas truce of 1914 taught us about what's inside the hearts of the soldiers who fight these wars: empathy and trust and the courage to see enemies as human beings. This humane instinct was never ordered from above, but always originated from within. The Christmas Truce on the western front took place exactly 101 years ago today.
Here are some more links about this inspiring event, including commemorative events from Belgium to Afghanistan: