The strangest, most wonderful thing happened a century ago on a European battlefield – the shooting stopped and the troops from opposing sides emerged from their fortifications and joined together to celebrate Christmas. The location was near Ypres, Belgium. Here is how it happened.
The war, that one day would be named World War I, was not even a year old in late 1914. Mobilization began in the first days of August; so by late December, the fighting was in its fifth month. After climactic battles in the first month, the sides settled into stalemate and began to entrench. The trenches that would mark the western front would eventually stretch more than four hundred miles from the English Channel to Switzerland.
Ypres was in the northern sector of the front where British soldiers faced off against their German enemies. Already, the site had been the location of one horrendous battle in October which witnessed more than a hundred thousand casualties. Two more costly battles would follow at the same location in 1915 and 1917, the last destroying a quarter of a million lives.
But this was Christmas and the belligerents agreed to a temporary truce. The military leaders of both Christian nations agreed that it would be an affront to celebrate the birth of Christ with more bombing, so the guns fell silent. As the saying goes, “all was quiet on the western front.”
How did the celebration begin? Probably it began with caroling. When the “Jerries” began to sing their favorite hymn Stille Nacht on Christmas Eve, the British “Tommies” immediately recognized this familiar carol as Silent Night and joined in. The trench fortifications were close enough (less than a hundred yards) so the troops on each side could hear the other through the eerie silence. Soon, the Germans began to decorate their humble surroundings by placing lighted candles atop their trenches, signifying that Jesus as “the light of the world” had pierced the darkness of war (and sin).
You see, most of our Christmas traditions are a mixture of German and English influence which occurred thanks to the marriage of a young British queen (Victoria) to a German prince (Albert of Saxe-Coburg) in early 1840. The young royals were the height of fashion and Christmas traditions between the two cultures melded. Eight decades later, the soldiers on both sides recognized they had something in common.
Soon, nervous heads popped above the trenches to see what was going on. The truce held -- no one fired a shot. Then wet, cold and grimy soldiers emerged from the earth and began to walk toward each other. Most could not speak the language of the other so hand gestures had to suffice for communication. A German soldier would extend a hand and offer his British counterpart of piece of Bavarian chocolate. In turn, the British soldier would offer tobacco. They began to exchange the humble gifts a common soldier might possess, just as the Magi had at the first Christmas. Not even an ugly war could dampen the Christmas spirit. The spirit of the season overcame the dark shadow of war, if just for a moment.
The truce held for about 36 hours during which gifts were exchanged and backs were slapped. There is even evidence that a football (soccer) game or two sprang up between the two sides – friendly competition. A popular activity during the truce was a haircut – each side contributing barbers in civilian life to ply their trade.
We know all of this because of the letters that the soldiers sent home to England and Germany describing the Christmas miracle. A few enterprising men took photographs showing groups of belligerents smiling and sharing peace and goodwill.
The generals, ensconced in their warm and dry villas miles far from the front, were highly critical of the men when word finally reached them about what was happening at the front. They soon put a stop to all of this “tom-foolery.” Four more years of bloodshed would follow, and no repeat of this simple act of humanity would recur. But for one brief moment, sanity reigned, and it was Christmas that sparked this simple expression of humanity.
What was it that brought enemies together? “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)