The infamous Christmas truce of 1914 was the first thing I ever knew about World War I. I don’t know if I learned of it in school or merely conversation; but I was six or seven years old and even at that age the story deeply moved me. I remember my mother told me how on one cold Christmas Day, the trenches went quiet and the sweet sound of carols replaced the cracks of gunfire. Hundreds of men from both sides left their positions to meet in No Man’s Land, and as they exchanged gifts and talked to one another, they spent Christmas in peace and brotherhood; as humans are meant to do.
I always thought it was strange that, in the middle of a war, they would stop fighting and talk to each other. But as I grew older and thought about it more, I realized that it did make sense. This Christmas truce, although short-lived, was earnest and beautiful and not a fluke. Yes, these men were enemies, or at least their respective states were. But, whether because of a recognition of brotherhood, discontentment at their lot, or a yearning for peace, Englishmen, Germans, Austrians, Frenchmen, and Russians laid down their guns and took up gifts and footballs instead.
German and British troops mingle in No Man’s Land in December 1914. Image from Imperial War Museum, #HU35801. Attributed to Drummond
Now, at 20 years old and having learned much more about the world and this subject in particular, I believe that the Christmas truce of WWI demonstrates something intrinsic to the human soul. Although the truce was only a spark- extinguished after a few days by a blanket of artillery shells and mustard gas- that spark came from the compassion and unity that humans can feel and propagate. I don’t believe that the truce was entirely spontaneous or irrational. The soldiers involved had been in those hellish trenches for awhile by December, and had seen and dealt much killing. They must have been getting weary, and perhaps some wondered why they were really there in the first place. So when the sacred day of Christmas came along, with all its symbols of love, harmony, and peace, they were ready to be done with war- even for only a few hours.
1914 has now been gone for a century, and the Christmas truce could easily be viewed as a quaint, chivalrous ritual from an era long since dead. But human nature doesn’t change, and since the truce stemmed from its participants’ compassion and humanity, I believe the spirit of December 25, 1914 can still live today. One facet of human nature, unfortunately, is war. We have waged war on each other for thousands of years, and we aren’t slowing down. But equally, we humans possess understanding and goodwill. We also possess the responsibility to choose which part of our nature we will live by.
Today in 2014, there are countless conflicts and disagreements in every corner of the globe. There are the obvious ones, such as the conflict between Hamas and Israel and the trouble between Russia and the West. There are also smaller ones, like border disputes which sometimes come to blows between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Argentina’s ire at Britain regarding the Falkland Islands. Sometimes countries just don’t like one another, and sometimes that’s for good reason. But every single human lives in the world, not just a country, and we’re all more similar than it might be convenient to admit.
I do believe that some wars are both just and necessary- but only when one or both sides are unwilling to concede anything and is bent on causing destruction and injustice on the other. World War II would be a good example; after all, Hitler was never going to give up his conquest for an Aryan empire until it was realized, and he was unwilling to negotiate in any way. Had the Allies not taken up arms, then Europe and perhaps more of the world would have been completely devoid of not only certain races, but of freedom itself. That said, I’m not sure all of today’s conflicts meet these criteria. Maybe, if we could remember the spirit of the Christmas truce one hundred years ago, some disagreements and even deaths could be averted.
Even in a world that grows increasingly complex and cynical every day, I don’t think I’m naive; only hopeful. The human race has proved many times throughout history what it is capable of, both good and bad. Someday I hope for a world where peace and unity prevail, rather than the animosity and suspicion which we currently cling to all too often. And I do believe we can realize that world, even if it may seem as distant as the Christmas truce of 1914. We, as citizens of the world and members of one human race, need to decide what we really want to pursue. We can either continue punishing one another and growing farther and farther apart, or try to realize that we are all human and we all make mistakes. A discussion of human nature might seem simplistic when related to international affairs, but remember that a mere human runs every country, corporation, and organization in the world.
Descendants of Great War soldiers reenact the momentous Christmas truce in the 21st century. Image from flickr via Wikimedia Commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/sets/72157607059019882/detail/. Attributed to Alan Cleaver
Sometimes there is no bargaining with a person or a state. There comes a time when it is too late to avert war. And all parties involved need to make a commitment in order to create any kind of harmony, lasting or otherwise. It would have been a very different story from the fields of Belgium if one side had taken the other’s laxness as an opportunity to gain some ground. But in 1914, both sides acknowledged their similarities and stepped out to celebrate them. Why don’t we do the same today?
Of course, Christmas is the optimal time to share this story. But kindness, compassion, and harmony can and should be spread any day of the year! Perhaps something like Christmas is necessary to remind us that we don’t have to remain shackled to the detrimental suspicions and attitudes of previous generations. 1914’s Christmas truce was a long time ago, but we can use it even today to influence our outlook and actions. The world is changing, so let’s make it a change for the best.
A memorial to the Christmas truce. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Redvers