“These fellows in grey were good fellows, they were— strangely—just men like ourselves.”
It was a scene from a Christmas card. A full moon hung over a forested landscape wrapped in a luminous frost. For the first time that anyone could remember it was quiet. Around midnight the stillness was broken by a choir of men softly singing, “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” The men of the London Rifle Brigade didn’t recognize the words, but they all knew “Silent Night.” When the hymn ended, the soldiers applauded and responded in kind. And so it went, back and forth, until the Germans began to sing “Adeste Fideles.” Then, the Tommies joined in singing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and when it was finished, both sides left the their trenches and greeted one another as brothers. It was Christmas 1914.
Throughout the day, no man’s land was alive with laughter and a confusion of tongues. The Germans brought cognac, the Tommies provided rum. Christmas parcels were opened and home-baked treats generously shared. Some of the soldiers played friendly games of soccer. Each side winning and losing in equal proportion. There was music. Addresses were exchanged with promises of writing after the war was over. Others sat in companionable silence, pulling on a pipe and thinking of home.
The Germans—who had launched the last assault—took time to bury their dead. Each shallow grave was marked with a wooden cross fashioned from empty ration boxes. On every cross they wrote, “For the Fatherland and Freedom.” It seemed awfully similar to the, “For King and Country,” inscription the British wrote on the crosses of their dead. Looking on, Henry Williamson had, “A most shaking, staggering thought: that both sides thought they were fighting for the same cause!” It was the same feeling he’d had the previous night when the Germans placed a candlelit Christmas tree on top of their parapet. Looking across no man’s land Williamson had puzzled over the bright white light atop the tree. After a few moments he realized he was seeing the morning star. It was Christmas and, “They saw the same star rising….” It was the star of hope, the star the magi followed.
The idyll lasted a few days longer. While writing home to his mother Williamson laughed at the irony of smoking his Princess Mary pipe filled with Kronprinz Wilhelm tobacco. Then, on the last day of the year, “a very polite Saxon corporal,” came to him and said, “staff officers were going round their line at midnight; and they would have to fire their automatische pistolen, but would aim high, well above our heads. Would we, even so, please keep under cover, ‘lest regrettable accidents occur.’” At 11PM—midnight Berlin time—the shelling resumed. The Christmas Truce was over.
At this time of year, many of us puzzle over the true meaning of Christmas. In the midst of the festivities, fantasy and pure fun, we plumb for something more. But are we searching for the obvious? Could it be as simple as the words spoken on the first Christmas when the angelic host proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Yes, it’s that simple. It’s what the soldiers learned one hundred years ago when they climbed out of their trenches and greeted one another with outstretched hands. Let’s apply the lesson. In the year ahead may we all pray for peace and live lives of good will. Merry Christmas! —Ebert