To steal part of a line from Jan Egeland, the Special Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, war “is the story of men with guns, and men with power.” It’s the men in their comfortable offices in towers of political power who make the decision to go to war, and it’s the ordinary men who are sent out into the battlefields to shoot and kill for them. World War I started in August 1914. Both sides declared that it would be over by Christmas. As we know, it wasn’t. Not even close.
Silent Night, Holy Night
By Christmas, soldiers were exhausted. Pope Benedict XV had suggested that hostilities should cease over Christmas. He called it a “Truce of God.” But it was rejected by those in power. Still, there were outbreaks of peace, here and there, along the Western Front, on Christmas Eve, mainly between Germans and British soldiers. No guns. A real silent night.
In 1988 a friend and I visited Vimy Ridge, a battlefield in Pas-de-Calais, France that is sacred to Canadians. It is now a starkly beautiful memorial to our soldiers who fought there so valiently for four days in April 1917, and won the ground for the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia). As we walked beside the trenches, we were struck at how close they were to the enemy line. I, a lousy pitcher, could have thrown a ball into the opposite trench. Suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of German voices. We were startled, and then laughed nervously when we realized it came from a group of German tourists. They had come to honour their fallen soldiers, too.
I remember that experience each time I hear about the trenches of WWI. How it was possible to hear the voices of the enemy in the still night. And how it was possible to hear them sing, “Silent Night, Holy Night,” no matter what the language. That’s what happened on Christmas Eve in 1914. German soldiers, British soldiers, here and there along the front, sporadically sang, got out of the trenches, exchanged greetings, shook hands, shared cigarettes and chocolate, and stopped fighting for a short time.
This story always renews my faith in the goodness of humanity.
Peace on Earth
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem in 1863 during the American Civil War. It was set to music a few years later, and over the years the words changed slightly. If you’d like to hear the modern version sung (by Burl Ives) as you read the lyrics, click on the YouTube video (far below).
- I heard the bells on Christmas day
- Their old familiar carols play
- And wild and sweet the words repeat
- Of peace on earth good will to men.
- I thought as now this day had come,
- The belfries of all Christendom
- Had rung so long, the unbroken song
- Of peace on earth, good will to men.
- And in despair I bowed my head;
- “There is no peace on earth,” I said.
- “For hate is strong, and mocks the song
- Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
- Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
- “God is not dead, nor does He sleep!
- The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
- With peace on earth, good will to men.”
May the true spirit of Christmas be with you:
Peace on earth, good will to all.
I superimposed a 1915 Christmas card over a photo of German and British soldiers taken during the Christmas Truce of 1914 and published in The Daily Mirror (UK), January 8, 1915. Photo of Vimy Ridge courtesy of Labattblueboy/Wikipedia; of Vimy Ridge statue courtesy of Richard Lautens/Toronto Star.