Miracles do happen every so often – even in battle. For those soldiers locked in fierce combat near Ypres in the Ypres salient region of Belgium, that miracle was the Christmas Truce of December 24, 1914. The United States had not yet entered World War I and would not do so until 1917.
The British and German troops were mired in heavy mud, biting cold, barbed-wire boundaries, and water-logged trenches. And despair. The war was supposed to be short, but already predictions were being made that it would drag on for months, if not years. Casualties had been heavy – hundreds of thousands had already died since the beginning of the fighting in August. Soldiers on both sides of the battle field – some not more than 60 yards from each other – were weary and dispirited. And, it was Christmas Eve, the night before the birth of the Saviour who would be known as the “Prince of Peace.”
The soldiers had received bits and pieces from their homelands for their muddy Christmas celebration. Soldiers on both sides received boxes of tobacco and food prepared by their governments, but logistics gave the Germans an edge on gifts from home. The British were separated from their homeland by the English Channel and 60 miles of battlefield. The Germans were close to their homeland borders with no intervening natural obstacles. With a direct line to their homeland, the Germans were able to receive small Christmas trees and candles – items which brought the smell of pine and the soft glow of light to their battle-trench celebration.
Perhaps weary of the fighting and longing to go home, perhaps disillusioned by the commands that had brought them to this front, but for whatever reasons given, the Germans began setting the small trees and lighted candles on their parapets – the low earth and stone ridges erected to protect them from the British. Christmas carols were not far behind, and, although the words were of a foreign tongue, the tunes were familiar to British ears.
They watched, and they listened. And, after a while, they began singing too. Amid continuing shouts back and forth of Christmas tidings, the troops became emboldened. By Christmas morning, the “no man’s land” between the trenches was filled with British and German soldiers, sharing gifts and rations and singing. They kicked around a football, which developed into a real match. The unsanctioned but heart-felt truce lasted until around New Year’s Day when, under the threat of court marital, commanders ordered their troops back to combat.
Shaking hands and parting, the Germans and British trudged back to their sodden trenches to begin the killing of those who, only hours earlier had shared in a celebration common to them as Christians. The Great War would stretch on through another three Christmases and beyond, until the Armistice signed on November 11, 1918. In all, 8 1/2 million would die and 21 million more would be wounded.
But, for a short period of time, political philosophies and divisive nationalities were put aside to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas – the birth of the Prince of Peace.
A minor Scottish poet of the Great War vintage, Frederick Niven, closed his “A Carol from Flanders” with the following lines:
O ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.
My wish – although many see it as naive – is contained in the following version of “Someday at Christmas” by Mary J. Blige. The song says it all, and as silly as it may seem to many, I will never give up on this wish.