Within the bombed-out shell of Saint Luke’s church in Liverpool, a sculpture commemorating the centenary of the Christmas Truce of 1914 was unveiled last week. It shows two soldiers – one British, one German –wearing winter coats and standing a considerable distance apart. They bend hesitantly forward to shake each other’s hand. A soccer ball lies on the ground between them.
By the time Christmas 1914 arrived, Britain and France had been fighting Germany since August. Both sides had failed to outmaneuver each other and in an unwitting race to the sea had settled into trench warfare. Hundreds of thousands had perished on both sides. Unable to advance, exhaustion was setting in. Along different sectors of the trenches, spontaneous truces broke out. In one instance, both sides posted boards with the words “Merry Christmas;” in another, British troops heard the Germans singing Silent Night across no-man’s land. Simple gestures like these were enough to send a few brave souls over the top, with their hands in the air. Others followed, and before long German and British and French soldiers were sharing a few drinks, cigars and other gifts.
The Illustrated London News provided one of the iconic images: soldiers from both sides gathered for a photo around a minute Christmas tree. Interestingly, the caption below reads “Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternizing on the field of battle at the season of peace and goodwill.” For a day, in certain parts of the front, the guns were silent, and “every acre of meadow under any sort of cover in the rear of the lines was taken possession of for football” as one report suggested. Such games, sometimes with more than a hundred men in the field, provided a much needed break at a time when both sides still believed the war could be won.
It was to be the first and only Christmas truce of the four-year war. Upon hearing about it, British generals were appalled. The notion of soldiers fraternizing with the enemy, even on Christmas, was unacceptable – the risk of mutiny too high. An order recorded in a British war diary read: “Informal truces with the enemy were to cease and any officer or [enlisted man] found to having initiated one would be tried by Court Martial.”
In the annals of World War histories, 2014 has been a year of round-number anniversaries. Last week I wrote about the the forty-one day Battle of the Bulge, which was raging over Christmas seventy years ago in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest. This is the same forest where, in the opening days of World War I, the French army had fought its bloodiest battle and lost over 27,000 men in less than 24 hours. The memory of such a horrible battle and others must have been fresh in the minds of the men of all sides who walked across the lines seeking some semblance of peace on December 24 and 25, 1914. The people of Europe had marched to war in August convinced that the war would be over by Christmas.
The Christmas Truce statue is now in Belgium. Its initial placement within the walls of a church that is itself a memorial to another World War is a powerful reminder that history repeats itself. As 2014 draws to a close, it has left us with new and searing images of the horrors of armed conflict. The story of fighting men who met in no-man’s land for Christmas day is particularly poignant in times like ours. It reminds us that we can still find humanity in the midst of war.