A Blip in the History of Hate? Christmas 1914

A Blip in the History of Hate? Christmas 1914

Glynn Cardy, Feast of St Stephen 2021

In the four years between 1914 and 1918, the First World War killed or wounded more than 25 million people – and (in popular opinion, at least) for less apparent purpose than did any other war before or since.   

By the end of 191, more than a million soldiers were dead.  The front line stretched some 500 miles from the Belgian coast to the Franco-Swiss border.  For four long years it barely moved.  Yet day in day out a generation of young men were decimated.

But even in those desperate years, there was one small but radiant ray of light.  Some call it a ‘blip’.  In December 1914, for a brief moment thousands of men had a glimpse that they were in all this together.  As brothers.  As humans.  Somehow the pause button was pushed on hatred and killing.

For a few brief hours, sometimes longer, in many places along the Western Front, men from both sides laid down their arms, emerged from their trenches, and shared food, carols, games, and comradeship.

This ‘Christmas Truce’ was unofficial and illicit.  Many officers disapproved, and headquarters on both sides took strong steps to ensure that it could never happen again.  While it lasted, though, the truce was magical, leading even the sober Wall Street Journal to observe: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”

The first signs that something strange was happening occurred on Christmas Eve.  At 8:30 pm an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Christmas.  Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.”  Further along the line, the two sides serenaded each other with carols – the German “Silent Night” being met with a British chorus of “The First Noel” – and scouts met, cautiously, in No Man’s Land, the shell-blasted waste between the trenches.  The war diary of the Scots Guards records that a certain Private Murker “met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.”

The same basic understanding seems to have sprung up spontaneously at other spots.  For another British soldier, Private Frederick Heath, the truce began late that same night when “all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’”  You’d have a hard time believing it had happened if it weren’t for the abundance of historical evidence.

Most British were stunned by how friendly the Germans were.  Back home, they’d been incited by propaganda and manipulated news in papers like the Daily Mail.  More than 40% of newspaper circulation in Britain was controlled by one man: Lord Northcliffe, the Rupert Murdoch of his day.  His papers, and other papers, portrayed Germans as ferocious Huns killing infants.

On the other side, millions of German children learnt by heart a hymn called ‘Hate against England’.  German newspapers claimed that the French and English were so godless they didn’t even celebrate Christmas.

Rutger Bregman, in his book Humankind, notes a pattern that the greater the distance from the front lines, the greater the hate.  When we are up close to each other, when we see the other as a dim mirror of ourselves, hate becomes harder to sustain.

For a long time, the 1914 Christmas Truce was treated as a fictitious tale.  Or worse a lie told by traitors.  After that Christmas ‘blip’ the war resumed, and millions more men were killed.

It wasn’t until the 1981 BBC documentary Peace in No Man’s Land did it become apparent that this tale was more than rumour.  Fully two-thirds of the British front line ceased fighting.  Most instances concerned Germans and British, though it happened also along Belgian and French lines.  All told more than a hundred thousand laid down their arms.

In fact, says Bergman, the peace of Christmas was not an isolated case.  The same thing happened during the Spanish Civil War and the Boer Wars.  It happened in the American Civil War, and in the Crimean War and in the Napoleonic Wars.  But nowhere was it as widespread as that Christmas in Flanders fields.

It was in the British sector that troops noticed at dawn the Germans had placed small Christmas trees along parapets of their trenches.  Slowly, parties of men from both sides began to venture toward the barbed wire that separated them, until – Rifleman Oswald Tilley told his parents in a letter home – “literally hundreds of each side were out in No Man’s Land shaking hands.”

A common interest was “football” – soccer – which by then had been played professionally in Britain for a quarter-century and in Germany since the 1890s.  Perhaps it was inevitable that some men on both sides would produce a ball and – freed briefly from the confines of the trenches – take pleasure in kicking it about.  What followed, though, was something more than that, for if the story of the Christmas Truce has its jewel, it is the legend of the match played between the British and the Germans – which the Germans claimed to have won, 3-2.

The first reports of such a contest surfaced a few days afterward; on January 1, 1915, The Times published a letter written from a doctor attached to the Rifle Brigade, who reported “a football match… played between them and us in front of the trench.”  The brigade’s official history insisted that no match took place because “it would have been most unwise to allow the Germans to know how weakly the British trenches were held.”  But there is plenty of evidence that soccer was played that Christmas Day – mostly by men of the same nationality, but in at least three or four places between troops from the opposing armies.

This Christmas Truce begs important questions – like ‘how and why did it happen?’; and ‘how can such truce making be replicated?’  For we live in a world which feeds on binaries like good/bad, right/wrong, and ally/enemy.  The enemies, the bad guys, ‘them’, are in too many movies, too many media stories, and too many people’s minds, characterised as less than fully human, less than deserving of mercy, and less than ‘us’.

Several factors combined to produce the conditions for this Christmas Truce.  By December 1914, the men in the trenches were veterans, familiar enough with the realities of combat to have lost much of the idealism that they had carried into war in August, and most longed for an end to bloodshed.  The war, they had believed, would be over by Christmas, yet there they were in Christmas week still muddied, cold, and in battle. 

Those on the other side, the ‘enemy’, were literally 30 yards away across ‘No Man’s Land’.  Soldiers could yell out to each other.  Truces were held to collect bodies or repair trenches.  The weapons of war in 1914 had not yet degenerated to include heavy artillery, mortar, tanks, and gas, as became common in the years to come.  This weaponry, by its very nature, is fired from a much greater distance than 30 yards.  Maybe when you see the ‘whites of their eyes’ you might realise that your eyes have white around them too.

When peace spread across those trenches in 1914 few soldiers were immune.  Again and again, it was men closest to the fighting that reached out first.  Only leaders at the top proved resistant, as generals turned themselves inside out to halt the plague of peace and bolster patriotic aggression.  Which they did.

Thousands of soldiers though did their best to sustain the peace.  Letters were passed across the lines, in secret.  Soldiers at some points managed to extend the ceasefire for weeks.   And truces continued to break out, in spite of all the suppressive measures.

Military historian Tony Ashworth describes Christmas 1914 as the ‘sudden surfacing of the whole of an iceberg’.  Not a ‘blip’.  But something big repressed under the surface.  For even in wartime, says Bergman, there’s a mountain of peace ready to rise up at any moment.  To push that mountain back below the surface generals and politicians have to draw on every means at their disposal.  For humans are simply not wired for war.

This is an ancient truth that powerful people often wish to quash, lest it catches on: That generosity to others makes us stronger; not might and armaments.  That cooperation with others makes us powerful; not labelling others as ‘enemy’ and seeking to have power over them.  That friendship and love is what we most desire: and animosity and war do their best to kill friendship and love. 

Generosity, cooperation, friendship between all, even enemies, is very powerful stuff.  It is the stuff that members of the early Jesus movements found and replicated when together, then wove into stories, then wove into the myth of Jesus’ birth.  Generosity, cooperation, and friendship between common people, strangers, even animals is placed before us each Christmas, for us to replicate.

These truths were part of the ethos of the early Jesus movements that created stories about his birth.  Stories and truths that we celebrate every Christmas.