This story is familiar to many but bears repeating each Christmas, more so than ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Five months into WWI, on Christmas Eve 1914, the soldiers in the trenches of France declared an unofficial and spontaneous ceasefire after the German soldiers shared chocolate cake from home with the British soldiers, who responded in kind with tobacco and beer. According to eye witness accounts, they joined together in singing Christmas carols, exchanging gifts, and playing a game of impromptu soccer between the trenches in “no man’s land”. The high command was upset and tried to prevent this social exchange but to no avail. The truce lasted for at least one day along parts of the front, and longer in others.
What strikes me about this story and how it resonates with us is how similar the beliefs and upbringing were for those European soldiers in WWI and how easily they could find common ground. Would the soldiers on either side of gun sights find this commonality in the now-ended Iraq war or in Afghanistan? Given the cultural and religious gulf that divides us, this is unlikely.
Still, there is inspiration in the sweet thought of “Stille Nacht” and “Silent Night” being sung by sons of different mothers, all children of the same Father in heaven, only hours before and after trying to kill each other. What sadness to think it took so many lost lives to resolve this war years later despite their similarities.
The song below written and sung by John McCutcheon, an American folksinger, was my first introduction to this bit of history and is just as touching today. It can be found in various versions on YouTube but this is one I particularly like:
Christmas in the Trenches
My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here,
I fought for King and country I love dear.
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still
No Christmas song was sung,
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound,
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys!” each soldier strained to hear,
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
“He’s singing bloody well, you know!” my partner says to me,
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony,
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more,
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent,
The next they sang was “Stille Nacht.” “Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
“There’s someone coming toward us!” the front line sentry cried,
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side,
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright,
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land,
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand,
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well,
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ‘em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home,
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own,
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more,
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart
That lived that wondrous night,
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were warmed
As songs of peace were sung,
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war,
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell,
Each Christmas come since World War I,
I’ve learned its lessons well,
That the ones who call the shots
Won’t be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.