Lessons and Carols: A Short Peace in a Terrible War
A Strange Peace
On Christmas Eve 1914, near the Belgian town of Ypres, the guns of war became strangely silent. In their absence, uncanny sights and sounds rose from unexpected places. Onlooking British soldiers curiously noted Germans lighting candles and setting them in trees near the trenches. Soon, a hushed choir of voices from the Kaiser’s army raised a peculiar melody. Where just hours earlier bullets had pierced the air, now only the soothing sounds of altos, tenors, and baritones filled the night. “Stille nacht,” these German voices serenely sang, “heilige nacht.”
No Man’s Land
Earlier that day, countless bullets had whooshed by as men bitterly fought to conquer a forsaken spit of land. Known as “No Man’s Land,” the ground between opposing trenches was a hostile strip promising painful death to any who dared cross. To achieve victory, however, this area had to be claimed.
Recruited by patriotism, fielded by honor, and fueled by strife, the combatants of World War 1 fought fiercely to capture the desolate stretch of “No Man’s Land”. However, both sides, neither German-led Central Powers nor Anglo-French-helmed Allies, were unwilling to concede the barest inch.
“The horror of the world”
In hopes of breaking the stalemate, the militaries of the Great War called upon groundbreaking resources. After decades of innovation, European science had devised clever ways for men to maim and murder each other. From mustard gas to aerial bombs, the combating armies possessed a terrifying array of weapons. “Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades - words, words, but they hold the horror of the world,” writes author Erich Maria Remarque. In the race to achieve national victory, European science had rapidly outpaced human morality.
As both sides strived vainly to capture “No Man’s Land”, casualties mounted higher and higher. While new weapons claimed a sizable number of casualties, disease and deplorable conditions in the trenches stocked up their own pile of bodies.
“The trench was a horrible sight,” recounts a British captain of his experience during the war. “The dead were stretched out on one side, one on top of each other six feet high. I thought at the time I should never get the peculiar disgusting smell…out of my nostrils. I would rather have smelt gas a hundred times. I can never describe that faint sickening, horrible smell which several times nearly knocked me up altogether.” In the futile clamor for space between combatting lines, the first World War raged on.
Lasting from 1914 to 1918, the Great War claimed the lives of nearly 37 million soldiers and civilians. Sparked by the ill-timed fortune of a Serbian assassin, this global conflagration gathered belligerents from every corner of the globe. As they fought valiantly for their causes, the reality of stalemate quickly set in.
The Night the Angels Sang
After months of gridlocked combat, some began to clamor for peace. A group of British suffragists penned an open letter calling for an end to hostilities. Though their message was widely ignored, Christmas 1914 ushered in an event of miraculous proportions. With prescient candor, Pope Benedict XV asked that “the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”
The Silent Night
In the midst of the Great War’s chaos, the Pope’s plea seemed to be answered. On the eve of Christmas, when Germans traded bullets for carols, the Kaiser’s army reverently sang, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.” Recognizing this as their own beloved hymn “Silent Night”, homesick British soldiers soon joined the Teutonic choir.
Recounting the surprise of the event, Scottish war veteran Alfred Anderson wrote, “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machine gun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merry.”
As Christmas carols and season’s greetings echoed down the lines, soldiers began to emerge from the trenches. Gingerly the co-singers approached each other. With hesitation melting away in yuletide warmth, enemies exchanged newspapers, swapped tobacco, and traded stories. Conversations were struck and spirited football matches ensued.
Dubbed “The Christmas Truce”, this makeshift armistice crafted a brief island of peace amidst a sea of death and violence. Unfortunately, it was not to last. Continuing his reminiscence of the day, Anderson states, “The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
The Short Peace Eternal
Though the Christmas Truce lasted but a day, it offers a glimpse into a better world: a place where hatred is discarded like an empty pistol, where trenches are abandoned, and where no man’s land becomes a banquet hall. The joy of this moment greets us afresh each Christmas. On this day when God came to live among us, we see a preview of a coming promise. “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will live with them,” writes John in the Bible’s closing chapters. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). One day our terrible war will end and the short peace will reign eternal.