The Christmas Truce

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Last Sunday I shared a true story with my congregation. I have shared the same story the last four years with the congregations I have served on an interim basis. I'd like to not have to keep telling it, but until we stop the warring madness, I must.

Three summers ago my husband Ralph and I spent two weeks traveling through Paris and parts of France. Our last stop was Amiens, the home of one of the most glorious high gothic cathedrals ever built. Behind the altar of the cathedral facing the small chapels in the apse is the tomb of a bishop long dead. Above the tomb is the sculpture of the “Weeping Angel” done by Nicolas Blasset in 1628. The weeping angel became a potent symbol in the “war of wars” that began at the end of June in 1914. Driving through the countryside of the Somme valley feels like driving through the countryside of Gettysburg, PA, rolling hills, fertile farmland and dotting the hillsides almost anywhere we drove were cemeteries with soldier-like monuments. There were cemeteries for the British, the Scots, the Australians, the New Zealanders, all with identical grave markings and all with a visible plaque honoring the dead who fought on French soil and remained there forever, six feet below. And then there were the poppies, the red poppies that appeared along the sides of the road and on the hills.

The words which I have to share with you today are not my own. They are words chosen from a storybook, but no ordinary storybook because this was no ordinary story. It is the true story of the
Christmas Truce as is the title of the book. It is history not fantasy. A little background, since none of us was alive at the time to grasp the context. The time is 1914, the battleground is the “Western Front” which stretched from the Belgian coast of the English Channel through the Somme valley in western France and down to Verdun and into Germany. It began even as a battle of hatred was stirred up on each home front.

All passages are taken from Brown, Malcolm, & Seaton, Shirley, Christmas Truce, (New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc. 1984) )

“Armageddon, the war of wars, the ultimate conflict, came at last, and there began a campaign of hatred and vilification by both sides which made the propagandist tirades of the days of peace seem almost mild. . . .The Prime Minister Asquith, in a speech in October, accused Germany of ‘devastation and destruction worthy of the blackest annals of the history of barbarism. . .the French cartoonist, Jean Véber, portrayed the German soldier as an unleashed monster striding out to slaughter and destroy. . . .

If the British acquired a talent for hating the Germans, the Germans excelled themselves in hating the British—or more specifically England. . .

. . .strong fuel was added to the fire by the angry debate, the claims and counter-claims, relating to the treatment of the occupied territories of Belgium and France. Allied newspapers at the time were full of the appalling, inhuman atrocities allegedly committed by the invading Germans. Babies spiked on bayonets, hands or breasts cut off, priests hung as living clappers from bells—the worst examples from this gruesome catalogue have been convincingly discredited. . .The Germans for their part claimed that many of the civilians executed were guerillas (or, to use the more precise terms,
francs-tireurs [french terrorists]) and that others were legitimately shot either to punish or deter resistance.”

The British had the attitude that Germany was the school bully that needed punishing and needed to be taught how to behave. “Few anticipated the long ordeal to come. Shared between soldiers and civilians alike was the assumption that the war would be short, successful and glorious. ‘The general view,’ wrote Harold Macmilllan, ‘was that it would be over by Christmas.’”

From a letter from Hugo Klumm, German soldier in 1914:

"Several of my chums had been able to get hold of two small Christmas trees complete with candles, to be mounted on the parapet of the trenches, while others dragged planks, fascines etc. with them, to be used in the battle against water and mud. As was usual at that time, having settled in the trenches, we fired the occasional shot from our outposts to let the enemy know we would not let ourselves be surprised."

These formalities over, they put their trees on the parapet and lit the candles. As they did so hundreds of their comrades were doing exactly the same; Klemm noted that as far as the eye could see lighted Christmas trees were appearing to right and left along the whole sector.

Johannes Niemann was a young lieutenant in the same Saxon Regiment.

"On Christmas Eve we got the order to go into the trenches, The day before we had celebrated Christmas in our rest quarters with the civilian people and children who were presented with chocolate, bonbons and cake. It was all in good humour. Then at darkness we marched forward to the trenches like Father Christmas with parcels hanging from us. All was quiet. No shooting. Little snow. We posted a tiny Christmas tree in our dugout -the company commander, myself the lieutenant, and the two orderlies. We placed a second lighted tree on the breastwork.

Then we began to sing our old Christmas songs: 'Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht' and '0 du Frohliche'..."

Klemm and his friends were also singing, and both he and Niemann remembered how from the other side of No Man's Land came the sound of applause and cheering. In fact, on perhaps as much as two-thirds of the British-held sector, Tommies were watching in fascinated amazement as the lighted Christmas trees, or in some cases lanterns or torches, appeared on the German parapets. In what was essentially a zone of ugliness and desolation they made a beautiful and incongruous sight. 'Like the footlights of a theatre', was how one soldier put it in a letter home; and indeed there was something dramatic about the whole scene -the suddenness of it, the extent of it -though here and there were areas of normal darkness where no Christmas celebrations were taking place and where the only illuminations were the occasional spit of a sniper's rifle or the firework-like glow of a starshell. As striking as the sight presented by the German trenches was the sound coming from them, the distant, haunting sound of men singing, harmoniously and with deep emotion, the Christmas hymns which they had known since childhood. 'Stille Nacht' - 'Silent Night', in its English form -stands out as being the carol most particularly and affectionately remembered by the listening Tommies, so much so that many of them could never hear that hymn in later life without being instantly transported back to the Western Front, Christmas Eve 1914. One such was Albert Moren, then in the front-line trenches held by 2 /Queen's near the village of La Chapelle d'Armentieres.

"It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere,—and about seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights -I don't know what they were. And then they sang 'Silent Night' -'Stille Nacht'. I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune."

There were various reactions from the British side. One German soldier's letter records that during the singing of 'Stille Nacht' those on guard duty kept a keen lookout through their observation slits, 'with rifles at the ready, as the enemy was only 80 metres away'. But their vigilance was not necessary.

“Suddenly a man from my company reported: 'The English are letting off fireworks'. And sure enough across the way from us the enemy trenches were lit up with fires and rockets and so on. We then made up a few banners reading 'Happy Christmas!' with a couple of candles behind and a couple on top.”

In most cases, however, the British responded not with flares and fireworks, but with calls for more, and songs and carols of their own. According to Charles Brewer, a lieutenant in the 2 / Bedfordshires, when the Germans struck up the famous German carol '0 Tannenbaum', his men replied, 'less artistically but no less heartily', with 'We are Fred Karno's army'-sung to the tune of the well-known hymn 'The Church's One Foundation'. Joseph Niemann remembered the British on his front breaking into 'It's a long way to Tipperary' and 'Home Sweet Home'. The London Rifle Brigade on the other hand rose to the occasion with a performance of seasonal offerings as varied and vigorous as that of the German initiators.

"I was standing on the firestep, gazing towards the German lines and thinking what a very different sort of Christmas Eve this was from any I had experienced in the past. In the ordinary way of things, my father would be making Rum Punch from an old family recipe, which had been written out by his grandfather, and was kept, of all places, in the Family Bible! Earlier, after the evening meal, we would have decorated the living rooms and hall with the traditional greenery, and would now be looking forward to wishing one another a 'Happy Christmas', and toasting the occasion in the result of my father's labours. Instead of this, here was 1, standing in a waterlogged trench, in a muddy Flemish field, and staring out over the flat, empty and desolate countryside, with no signs of life. There had been no shooting by either side since the sniper's shot that morning, which had killed young Bassingham. But this was not at all unusual.

Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which -were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air! Other sentries had, of course seen the same thing, and quickly awoke those on duty, asleep in the shelters, to 'come and see this thing, which had come to pass'. Then our opponents began to sing 'Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. This was actually the first time I heard this carol, which was not then so popular in this country as it has since become. They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang 'The First Nowell', and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, '0 Tannenbaum'. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up '0 Come All Ye Faithful' the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words 'Adeste Fideles.' And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing -two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war."

From a letter published in the London Evening News in January:

"You will hardly credit what I am going to tell you: but thousands of our men will be writing home today telling the same strange and wonderful story. Listen.

Last night as I sat in my little dugout, writing, my chum came bursting in upon me with: 'Bob! Hark at'em!' And I listened. From the German trenches came the sound of music and singing. My chum continued: 'They've got Christmas trees all along the top of their trenches! Never saw such a sight.'

I got up to investigate. Climbing the parapet, I saw a sight which I shall remember to my dying day. Right along the whole of the line were hung paper lanterns and illuminations of every description, many of them in such positions as to suggest that they were hung upon Christmas trees. And as I stood in wonder a rousing song came over to us-, at first the words were indistinguishable, then, as the song was repeated again and again, we realized that we were listening to 'The Watch on the Rhine'. Our boys answered with a cheer, while a neighbouring regiment sang lustily the National Anthem. Some were for shooting the lights away, but almost at the first shot there came a shout in really good English, 'Stop shooting!' Then began a series of answering shouts from trench to trench. It was incredible. 'Hallo! Hallo! you English we wish to speak.' And everyone began to speak at once. Some were rational, others the reverse of complimentary. Eventually some sort of order obtained, and lo! a party of our men got out from the trenches and invited the Germans to meet them halfway and talk.

And there in the searchlight they stood, Englishman and German, chatting and smoking cigarettes together midway between the lines. A rousing cheer went up from friend and foe alike. The group was too far away from me to hear what was said, but presently we heard a cheery 'Good night. A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all,' . with which the parties returned to their respective trenches.

After this we remained the whole night through, singing with the enemy song for song."

". . .the night was filled with sights and sounds too remarkable to credit one's senses, and daylight came too soon. It took a suspension of disbelief to accept the reality that the hateful enemy hungered for Brüderschaft. For most British soldiers, the German insistence on celebrating Christmas was a shock after the propaganda about Teutonic bestiality, while the Germans had long dismissed the British as well as the French as soulless and materialistic and incapable of appreciating the festival in the proper spirit. Regarded by the French and British as paganseven savages-the pragmatic Germans were not expected to risk their lives on behalf of each beloved Tannenbaum. Yet when a few were felled by Scrooge-like gunfire, the Saxons opposite the Seaforths stubbornly climbed the parapets to set the endangered trees up once more. To those British troops whose concepts of Christmas had been molded by Charles Dickens, the custom had become their own. To Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, who after the wartime death of his son turned to mysticism and spiritualism, the British and Germans had found "a sudden and extraordinary link in that ancient tree worship, long anterior to Christianity, which Saxon tribes had practiced in the depths of Germanic forests and still commemorated by their candle-lit firs.... It was an amazing spectacle, and must arouse bitter thought concerning those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded such men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand."
(Weintraub, Stanley, Silent Night, ( New York: The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2001) pp. 24, 25)

The great lesson to be learned from men long since dead and gone, is that it is possible to take one another by the hand rather than by the throat. It is possible only if we are able to do this ourselves with one another, and pass that lesson along wherever we go to whomever we meet. It is not always easy to see the humanity in one another, yet it is what we are called to do as people of faith.