It was Christmas in the trenches where the frosts so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
had been crumbled and were gone forever more.
My name is Francis Tolliver. In Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War One I’ve learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame,
and on each end of the rifle we’re the same.
-John McCutcheon in “Christmas In The Trenches.”
On a frozen Christmas Day in 1914, after nearly five months of devastating fighting, soldiers on opposite sides of the “no-man’s land” that separated the Allies from the German forces came together to celebrate the holiday. They did so in a spontaneous, collective desire to find some form of humanity, something not easy to do in the trenches of World War I. Soldiers who had been told that they were enemies came together to help each other bury the dead who had been left to lie in the bomb craters where they fell, sometimes for days and weeks. They exchanged tobacco, souvenirs, treats, alcohol, and more importantly, the gift of peace for a brief moment.
It’s not really known how it started, or how many soldiers partook in the unplanned Christmas truce of 1914. Some stories suggest these gatherings between the trenches resulted from the soldiers taking turns singing carols to each other, some simply from soldiers calling out that they wouldn’t shoot if the opposing forces wouldn’t. However it began, there are a variety of accounts, from several different areas along the front lines, of soldiers taking a break from war for the day. Against the wishes of those in charge, those directing the killing and dying from afar, who saw such behavior as treasonous fraternizing with the enemy.
Reports of the Christmas truce had a brief appearance in newspapers in America and England, and a few scattered pieces in other newspapers around the world. But right from the start, France wouldn’t allow the story in their papers. Germany kept reports under wraps as well. Soon, the reports faded from the media throughout the world, and the story of the 1914 truce became a topic that was avoided for decades. It was a dangerous story, one that war-mongering politicians and big military industrial corporations who rely on the willingness of the common man to fight their wars have a powerful interest in suppressing. Naina Bajekal wrote in her essay titled Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914:
…for many at the time, the story of the Christmas truce was not an example of chivalry in the depths of war, but rather a tale of subversion: when men on the ground decided they were not fighting the same war as their superiors.
The commander of the British Second Corps, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien believed this proximity posed the greatest danger to the morale of soldiers and told Divisional Commanders to explicitly prohibit any ‘friendly intercourse with the enemy.’ In a memo issued on Dec. 5, he warned that: ‘troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a live and let live theory of life.’
Of course. Because it isn’t so easy to attack those you get to know. If your enemy becomes a fellow human, with families and goals of their own, they are much harder to turn into a target. And creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality is critical to maintaining a successful military, as well as keeping the rest of us at home supportive of the wars. And so, the tales of the Christmas truce were tucked safely away from public view. According to David Brown in a Washington Post article, Remembering a Victory For Human Kindness, Maurice Floquet, a WWI veteran who was 111 at the time of the interview, said:
Such a thing could not be told to the soldiers, for how would they pursue the war if they knew?
And Murdoch M. Wood, a British WWI soldier, is quoted as saying,
I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves, there would never have been another shot fired.
In other words, he believed that after the Christmas truce, the soldiers would have packed up and gone home, if their leaders had not required them to return to battle. Imagine if the soldiers had. Imagine if the common man, the citizens of this world, like the soldiers in 1914, laid down arms and emerged from trenches, crossing that no-man’s land of our leaders’ divisive intentions to shake hands. To help each other bury our dead, to exchange tokens of compassion and peace. Imagine if we simply turned our back on ‘their’ wars, returned to our homes, and worked towards our own prosperity.
That is my Christmas wish. That we all accept, and admit to ourselves, that everyone in the world is a human being with families and goals of our own, beliefs of our own, lifestyles of our own. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t, but that is what makes humanity. I wish we would stop letting corrupt politicians and greedy military industrial corporations convince us that other humans are targets, that they are our enemies because of our differences. I wish we would adopt that ‘live and let live theory of life.’
Peace, and happy Holidays