World War I (1914-1918) was the first war to see the full fury of industrialism unleashed on a large scale. Over eight and a half million combatants died and twenty-one million were wounded. By Christmas 1914 hope for a speedy resolution to hostilities had faded and the grim reality of trench warfare had set in. Bogged down in ankle-deep mud, troops on both sides were cold, war weary, and shell shocked. Despite the dehumanizing conditions of combat, a miracle took place on the Western Front during that first Christmas of that Great War. Stanley Weintraub describes what happened in his book Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce:
The Germans set trees on trench parapets and lit the candles. Then, they began singing carols, and though their language was unfamiliar to their enemies, the tunes were not. After a few trees were shot at, the British became more curious than belligerent and crawled forward to watch and listen. After a while, they began to sing.
By Christmas morning, the “no man’s land” between the trenches was filled with fraternizing soldiers, sharing rations and gifts, singing and (more solemnly) burying their dead between the lines. Soon they were even playing soccer, mostly with improvised balls.
Although the truce lasted only a few days (commanders on both sides threatened courts-martial for those who refused to resume fighting), it remains a powerful testimony to the potential for peace, inspired by the Prince of Peace. Near the end of his book, Weintraub reflects on the meaning of those strange and wonderful events nearly a century ago:
A celebration of the human spirit, the Christmas Truce remains a moving manifestation of the absurdities of war. A very minor Scottish poet of Great War vintage, Frederick Niven, may have got it right in his “A Carol from Flanders,” which closed,
O ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.