My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Check it out.
It had been raining off and on for days, soaking everything. As the sun fell, the temperatures had begun to sink with it causing the puddles to ice over and the mud to harden. The sloshing sound of movement was replaced by the sluggish crunching of weary men in heavy boots.
One hundred years ago on Christmas Eve, British and German soldiers warily watched each other across the corpse-ridden wasteland between the cuts in the earth that have become their homes and, for some, their graves. The war to end all wars was only in its fifth month.
The Germans had failed to break through the French and British lines during the first Battle of the Marne after French soldiers were rushed into the battle in the taxis of Paris. After the battling armies repeatedly tried to outflank each other in “the Race to the Sea,” the war had settled into the static warfare for which it would become known. The next four years would result in more than 37 million casualties, with more than 16 million deaths, while the lines of battle rarely had to be redrawn on the generals’ maps. After this war, a deadlier war, would see many of the same combatants send more than 60 million people to meet their maker.
But all of that is in the future for the men warming themselves in the trenches near Ypres with cigarettes and muffled conversations while craning their ears for the sounds of the enemy. For them, the century was still young and there was hope that they would be home by next Christmas.
Even though it is Christmas Eve, the war goes on. In the British lines alone, 98 men had been killed that day — mostly by snipers — despite no active actions. A German airplane crossed the English Channel to drop a bomb on Dover, marking the first aerial bombardment of England in history. The sentries occasionally slid the bolt on their rifles to make sure they were free of ice.
In the silence and darkness of the evening, the British saw strange movement. The Germans were placing small fir trees atop their parapets. The trees were decorated with paper lanterns and candles. Across the frozen silence of No Man’s Land, like whispers from their comrades gazing at the moon with lifeless eyes, came the sound of carols. “Stille Nacht… heilige Nacht … .”
Slowly, cautiously, men looked over the top of their trenches. They shouted “Merry Christmas” to each other in a mangled version of their opponents’ native tongue. Then they stood up. They left their rifles in their trenches and extended their hands in friendship to their fellow man who was suffering the same lot of being in the business of killing during Christmas.
For the next 36 hours or so, tens of thousands of men would greet each other, exchange gifts, sing songs, play games, bury their dead, and show kindness in a place and time that called for them to shed such talismans of humanity. As the ice hardened, so did the soldiers’ hearts and they returned to their deadly profession.
Nothing like the Christmas Truce of 1914 ever occurred again in modern warfare. It was a moment in time when thousands of men set aside nationality, language and war to share their humanity and celebrate the birth of Christ.
As we close 2014, there is conflict and strife throughout our world from New York to Syria to Ukraine. The Tommies and Jerries of 1914 speak to us from history to remind us that even in the most heated of conflicts — even during the fire of war — we do not have to abandon our love for one another. Indeed, it is during those times of conflict that we must not.
(Owen Robinson’s column runs Tuesdays in the Daily News.)