As has been noted from time to time this year, the Great War, later to be called World War I, began one hundred years ago this past summer. By August 1914, Britain and France were fully engaged in war against Germany.
In September trench warfare began as troops from both sides constructed opposing fortifications and dugouts protected by barbed wire, machine-gun nests, snipers, and mortars, with an in-between area called No Man’s Land. The 450-mile “Western front” stretched from the English Channel coast southward through Belgium and Eastern France to Switzerland.
Living in and fighting from the trenches was a terrible experience, one of considerable squalor with so many men living in a very constrained space. Here is how one website describes trench life:
Scraps of discarded food, empty tins and other waste, the nearby presence of the latrine, the general dirt of living half underground and being unable to wash or change for days or weeks at a time created conditions of severe health risk (and that is not counting the military risks). Vermin including rats and lice were very numerous; disease was spread both by them, and by the maggots and flies that thrived on the nearby remains of decomposing human and animal corpses.
But at Christmastime in many places along the Western front, there was an unofficial truce as some of the men on both sides decided to celebrate the joy of Christmas rather than fight.
The Wall Street Journal began its Dec. 19 article “The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce” with these words written by Frank Richards, a British soldier:
On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. . . . Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.
From The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915: "British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches"
The amazing story of the events of Dec. 25, 1914, is engagingly told by Stanley Weintraub in his 2001 book, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.” Weintraub ended his book with the closing words of “A Carol from Flanders” by Frederick Niven, whom Weintraub calls a “very minor Scottish poet of Great War vintage.”
Niven wrote, “O ye who read this truthful rime / From Flanders, kneel and say: / God speed the time when every day / Shall be as Christmas Day.”
Even if they were not as spectacular as sometimes dramatized, still those events 100 years ago are worth considering—and they are being widely remembered this week at various commemorative activities being held around the world. That amazing Christmas truce of 1914 was a ray of hope at a very dark time in the history of the world.
That ray of hope still shines, and is still much needed now, 100 years later. There is so much that is dark is the world today: racial tension across the U.S., fierce fighting in Iraq and across the Middle East, hunger and poverty stunting lives in city slums around the world, and so forth.
But Christmas is the time of the year for renewed hope for the future and renewed determination to work to make every day to be like Christmas Day. I pray that the good news of Christ, the Prince of Peace, will lodge in all our hearts.