It was exactly 100 years ago this month when the Christmas Truce of 1914 occurred, when Christian soldiers on both sides of the infamous No Man’s Land of the Western Front, recognized their common humanity, dropped their guns and fraternized with the so-called enemies that they had been ordered to kill without mercy the day before. As mentioned in last week’s column, the truth of that remarkable event has since been effectively covered up by state and military authorities (and the embedded journalists at the time) because they were angered (and embarrassed) by the breakdown of military discipline.
In the annals of war, such “mutinies” are now unheard of. The generals and (as well as the saber-rattling, chest-thumping politicians and war profiteers back home) rapidly developed strategies to prevent such behavior from happening again.
Christmas Eve of 1914 was only 5 months into World War I, and the cold, weary, homesick soldiers found themselves not heroes, as expected, but rather miserable, frightened and disillusioned wretches living in rat- and louse-infested trenches. Most of them had dreamed heroic dreams when they had signed up to kill and die for King and Country a few months earlier, and hey had been fully expecting to be home for the holidays.
Lower echelon officers on both sides of No Man’s Land, who were suffering right along with the troops, allowed a lull in the war — just for Christmas Eve. Then they allowed the troops to sing Christmas hymns, and many of the not-yet hardened soldiers started to recognize the humanity of the demonized “other” that had been fingered as sub-humans deserving of death.
And so the merciful spirit of the season came upon them; and they disobeyed orders that forbade fraternizing with the enemy by laying down their weapons and mingling with them in the area between the trenches.
Unknown to the higher echelon commanding officers — who were enjoying good food and drink in their warm bunkers out of the range of the artillery barrages and machine gun bursts — the grunts on either side of the battle line suddenly sensed the stupidity of killing someone that was just like them and who had never done them any harm.
Many of the men that experienced the moment knew that something deeply profound had happened: a spiritual experience of mutual respect and love that epitomized their mutual Christian upbringing — and they refused to fight and kill when the war was ordered to re-start.
Some soldiers were punished for their disobedience and many of them had to be replaced with fresh troops that had been in the reserve trenches the day before (corporal Adolf Hitler was among the ones who did not experience the front line fraternization.)