I am writing this in Christmas week, three days out from the big day on the 25th, and sadly we are in the midst of new restrictions and facing the possibility of more. The dreaded word ‘Lockdown’ is even being mentioned across the water in the UK.
This time last year we probably believed, and certainly, we hoped, that Christmas 2021 would be more like the ones we were used to pre-Covid. Alas, it would seem this will not be happening, and many people have mentioned that there is a distinct lack of atmosphere about the place. It would appear that we are jaded with the Pandemic and the seemingly endless negative news reports may have, to some extent, drained away our good spirits.
But even during the worst of times, it is important never to lose hope. I am reminded of the remarkable and uplifting incident which came to be called the 1915 Christmas Truce, when in a symbolic moment of peace and humanity, many soldiers serving in the trenches on both sides of the Western Front laid down their arms.
The War to End all Wars
The First World War, which had been entered into so casually, even light-heartedly by some but with dreadful fears and premonitions by others, became a long-drawn-out agony. Many had said in 1914 that it would ‘all be over by Christmas’. Four Christmases were to pass before the guns ceased firing on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918.
Yet length was not the most remarkable feature of The Great War; there had been longer struggles before. But there had been none so total as this. The war was fought in four continents, though Europe bore all the major battles. Civilians, as well as soldiers, sailors, and airmen, lost their lives in this holocaust. Powerful long-range artillery killed them and destroyed their homes and their farms, their schools and their churches, and the factories in which they worked in vast numbers.
Never before had soldiers or civilians been struck down from the air or subjected to submarine attack; nor had poisonous gases been formerly used as a weapon before or propaganda been carried to such extremes.
Millions of people died before the Armistice came. Thousands lived on, blind or paralysed or mad or hungry.
In the Trenches
The Western Front, in Belgium and France, was the site of long lines of parallel trenches which had been dug up and fortified and stretched from the Alps at the Swiss Frontier to the sea at Ostend. From these trenches, men went out to attack – to be killed in artillery barrages or by machine gun or rifle fire or to be caught on the barbed wire that protected the enemies’ dug-outs.
The trenches were the proof that ‘War is Hell’. Constant exposure to wetness caused trench foot, a painful condition which over time spread across one or both feet and could eventually necessitate amputation.
With soldiers fighting in such close proximity, infectious diseases like dysentery, cholera, and typhoid were common and spread rapidly. Rats and lice were numerous, and men suffered from exposure and frostbite. They experienced an endless cycle of sleeplessness and fear of death.
By the time winter approached in 1915, and the chill set in, the Western Front stretched hundreds of miles. Countless soldiers were living in misery in the trenches on the fronts, while tens of thousands had already died.
Then Christmas Came
On the 24th December, in a trench in the British soldiers heard the sound of singing. The Germans were singing carols on this Christmas Eve. Then out of the dark was heard the voice of an enemy soldier, speaking in English with a strong English accent. He was saying aloud, “Come over here”. One of the British sergeants answered, “You come halfway. I will come halfway”.
What happened next would, in the years to come, resonate around the world as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the bloodiest events of human history.
Enemy soldiers began to climb nervously out of their trenches and meet in the barbed wire-filled “No Man’s Land” that separated the armies. Usually, their only communication across this sad and sorry space was in bullets, with the exception of occasional gentlemanly allowance to collect the dead unmolested. But now there were handshakes and words of kindness. The soldiers sang songs, exchanged tobacco and wine, and even played football.
This spontaneous truce was not confined to that one battlefield. Beginning on Christmas Eve, small pockets of French, Belgian, German, and British troops held impromptu cease-fires across the Western Front.
Living in Hope
Sadly, these soldiers would resume the fighting and begin to kill each other again in the morning. But their coming together in such a unique fashion showed not only the futility of War, but also the common humanity they shared and the universality of Hope which lies at the heart of Christmas.
God broke into human history when his son Jesus walked among us on earth. He is the King who brings peace. Whatever situation we find ourselves in this Christmas, may we never forget the message of Bethlehem, a message which reminds us of our intrinsic desire to reunite with God and to be at peace with one another.
Silent night no cannons roar
A King is born of peace forevermore
All’s calm, all’s bright
All brothers hand in hand
(verse from ‘A Silent Night Christmas, 1915’ by Cormac MacConnell)
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan