Friday, December 19, 2014

Stopping a War for Christmas

My older brother is very interested in World War II, as am I to a point, but over the past few years I've started to get really interested in the stories surrounding World War I instead. In my opinion, WWI is the war where the "old world" was exterminated. Kings fell, empires broke apart, and new nations were born. Nationalism, compounded by a family spat (the royalty of England, Germany, and Russia were all related) became one of the most devastating wars in modern history: 52% of the Allied Forces were killed or injured, as was 67% of the military of the Central Powers; and let's not forget the damage done to the countryside, the historic towns and cities of Western Europe, and the poor citizens that quite often have to bear most of the burden of these conflicts. In all, it is estimated that more than 35 million people, military and civilian, were killed or wounded in World War 1.

So, in the wreck of this carnage we have the story of Christmas 1914. Trenches were dug throughout great areas of Western Europe; there are patches of forest that are still off limits due to the amount of unexploded mines and bombs that still exist, and there are many areas in France, Belgium, and Germany that still bear the great craters and trenches of this war. The area in between the trenches was known as "No Man's Land". This is where death could be found. Trees, if left in the ground at all, were devoid of their branches, having them ripped off from the machine gun fire and bombs between enemy combatants.

At the time of this conflict, many Western Europeans were very religious - Protestant or Catholic, the Christian faith was still alive at this time. Pope St. Pius X and Pope Benedict XV both worked hard at promoting peace and begging Europe for dialog instead of warfare. The common story is that St. Pius, who died at the onset of World War I and already weakened from advanced age, died from the heartache over seeing Europe plunged into war. In 1914, his successor (Benedict XV) tried desperately to convince the European powers to broker a peace deal. Not finding anyone interested in peace, on December 7 he asked the European powers to consider at least a ceasefire for Christmas. Russia rejected the plan, so everyone rejected the plan.

As is often the case, the people don't want war as much as the various idiots in power do. Acting on God's grace, the soldiers themselves decided to engage upon a temporary truce for Christmas. An English soldier writing of the incident said that it was unauthorized, but most welcome; "the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable!" He said it all began just after midnight, Christmas, when the German soldiers started shouting across No Man's Land, "Merry Christmas, Englishmen!" The English shouted Christmas wishes back to them and then a miracle occurred - soldiers from both sides, unarmed, left their trenches and met together in No Man's Land, swapping cigarettes and stories in the light of a half moon. They all agreed that not a shot would be fired until midnight that night. A member of the Foreign Legion said, "Men laughed and cheered. There was Christmas light in our eyes and I know there were Christmas tears in mine. There were smiles, smiles, smiles, where in days before there had been only rifle barrels."

A Christian work of mercy is the burying of the dead; men from both sides knew it was the right thing to do. Germans and Legionaries met to bury the dead and breathe a sigh of relief. Handshakes, laughter, and brotherhood abounded. Allies posed for pictures taken by Germans, who promised to send them copies after the war. After the dead were buried, the men lingered in No Man's Land, talking and playing cards. The men of both sides agreed that war was foolish, and that everyone had wives and children at home that they missed terribly and wished to see again. For the rest of the day, they spent the time reminiscing about home, sharing stories, and enjoying the peace and quiet of the day.

As the sun went down, soldiers returned to their trenches, but a band had been invited to the German trench, where they started playing French music, sending the French soldiers into wild cheers. Then the band started playing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Afterwards, one of the cooks with the Legion took out his harmonica and played a popular German song for the Germans to enjoy. Peace and joy remained with all the soldiers for the rest of the night and even until sunrise the next day.

The day in which we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace ushered in a day of peace that has been unparalleled in modern war. Especially in today's secular and pluralistic world, where less and less people know the Man who is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life", I cannot imagine a similar truce occurring. Would we really stop killing each other and embrace in friendship and brotherhood for a secular version of the holiday that celebrates presents, winter, and ugly sweaters? But, when the Western world knew that the only way to God was through Jesus Christ and that Christmas was the day to praise God for his Incarnation...that is worth dropping your weapon and embracing your enemy. After all, Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of the Saviour who told us that we are to love our enemies and pray for them. For one brief Christmas Day in 1914, Christians from all walks of life and various faith traditions were able to follow that commandment to a 'T'.