A Treasonous Christmas Eve Truce
Editor’s Note: In today’s warfare, religion has come to substitute for ideology and even nationalism as the prime justification for killing other human beings -- as in the much-touted "clash of civilizations" between the Judeo-Christian world and Islam.
However, misuse of religion, especially the peaceful tenets of Christianity, has been a troubling element in warfare for centuries. Yet, on one Christmas Eve during World War I, soldiers recalled those suppressed Christian messages of peace on earth and defied their superiors, as Gary G. Kohls notes in this guest essay:
In World War I, as happens to be true in most wars, the Christian church leadership joined in the patriotic fervor with very un-Christ-like, nationalistic and racial/religious superiority stances.
Astonishingly, religious leaders on every side of the conflict asserted that God was on their particular side.
And so the pulpits all over Europe, including British, Scottish, French, Belgian, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Russian, Italian, etc, reverberated with flag-waving fervor, with clear messages to their doomed warrior-sons that it was their God-given Christian duty in this time of national crisis to march off to kill the equally brain-washed young enemy soldiers, who were also certain that God was on their side.
Five months into the miserable death and destruction of the perpetually dead-locked war (featuring the now-infamous mass slaughter via artillery, machine gun and poison gas weaponry), the first Christmas of the war came around.
Christmas was the holiest of Christian holidays, but in this time of homesickness, the first one had special meaning. Dec. 24, 1914 on the Western Front reminded the homesick soldiers of the safe and warm homes and families that they had left behind and which they now started to fear that they would never see again.
The physically exhausted, spiritually deadened, combat-traumatized soldiers on both sides of No Man’s Land desperately sought some respite from the misery of the war and the water-logged, putrid, rat-infested and increasingly frozen trenches.
The frontline soldiers were at the end of their emotional ropes because of the unrelenting artillery barrages against which they were defenseless.
If they weren’t killed or maimed by the bombings, what would eventually destroy them was the “shell-shock” (now known as “posttraumatic stress disorder - PTSD”), with the horrifying nightmares, sleep deprivation, suicidality, depression, hyper-alertness and other mental distresses. Other common “killers” were the bad food, lice, trench foot, frostbite and gangrenous toes and fingers.
Poison gas attacks were demoralizing on both sides, as were the suicidal “over the top” assaults against machine gun nests stupidly and repeatedly ordered by senior officers like Sir Douglas Haig, who didn’t have to participate in the assaults themselves.
Winston Churchill, in his British naval command role at the time, had obviously learned nothing from Haig’s disastrous tactic when, a year later, he likewise ordered repeated suicidal charges against machine gun fire at the infamous massacre of Australian troops at Gallipoli. Churchill subsequently resigned his commission in disgrace.
The day-to-day horrors of trench warfare were punctuated by the screams of pain coming from the wounded soldiers who were helplessly hanging on the barbed wire or lying in the bomb craters – their deaths often lingering on for days. The effect on the troops in the trenches who had to listen to the pleas for help was psychologically devastating.
The morale of the troops on both sides of No Man’s Land had hit rock bottom.
Christmas in the Trenches
So on Dec. 24, 1914, the exhausted troops settled down to Christmas gifts from home, special food, special liquor and special rest. A magnanimous Kaiser Wilhelm had even ordered 100,000 Christmas trees with millions of candles to be sent up to the front, expecting that such an act would boost troop morale.
Using the supply lines for such militarily unnecessary items seemed to be an acceptable investment for the over-confidant emperor. Nobody suspected that the Christmas tree idea would backfire and instead be a catalyst for a famous event in the history of peace-making that was almost censored out from recorded history.
That spontaneous event, the Christmas Truce of 1914, was expressed in a variety of ways at a multitude of locations all along the 600 miles of trenches that stretched across France, but it was an event that would never again be duplicated in the history of warfare.
The tradition that has emerged from this true story was that, in the silence of Christmas Eve night, the Germans started singing “Stille Nacht.”
Soon the British, French, Scots and Canadians joined in and all sides sang together in their own tongues and, before long, the godly spirit of peace and “goodwill towards men” prevailed over the demonic spirit of war.
Listening to the familiar sounds of home, the troops sensed their common humanity, and the natural human aversion to killing broke through to their consciousness. And for a precious day or two, these men rose to a higher level of humanity and could not be motivated to kill any more.
Once the spirit of peace was felt, weaponless soldiers on both sides came out of their trenches and met their former enemies. They had to step over frozen corpses, which were soon given respectful burials, former enemies helping one another with the gruesome job.
Then the celebration of peace began. New friends shared pictures from home, chocolate, cigarettes, beer, wine, schnapps and soccer games. Addresses were exchanged and every soldier who genuinely experienced the drama was forever changed.
Fraternization with the enemy (like refusing to obey orders in time of war) has historically been regarded by military commanders and politicians as an act of treason, severely punishable, even by summary execution.
In the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914, trying to not draw public attention to this widespread and potentially contagious incident, the various commanding officers ordered relatively few executions.
There were still severe punishments, however, including the fact that many of the German “traitors” were transferred to the Eastern Front to kill and die there in the equally suicidal battles against the Russians.
The prize-winning movie that beautifully characterizes the spirit of the Christmas Truce is “Joyeux Noel” (French for Merry Christmas). The movie tells a moving tale that has been adapted from the many surviving stories and letters home from soldiers that had been there.
This unique story of war resistance needs to be retold over and over again if our modern-era wars of empire are to be effectively stopped.
These poisonous, contagious and futile wars are being fought by thoroughly indoctrinated and macho adolescents.
Unbeknownst to them, they are destined to be physically, mentally and spiritually exhausted and most likely doomed to a life overwhelmed by the realities of PTSD or sociopathic personality disorder, with suicidality, homicidality, loss of religious faith, permanent and incurable traumatic brain injury, toxic drug use (and not just illegal drugs) and a host of other nearly impossible-to-cure problems.
The dangers include radiation poisoning from depleted uranium armor-piercing weaponry that continues to contaminate the desert sands of Kuwait and Iraq and the bodies of soldiers and innocent civilians who have inhaled the poison dust.
Militarists do whatever it takes to prevent soldiers from experiencing the humanity of their enemies, whether they are Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Chinese or North Koreans.
Military chaplains, who are supposed to be nurturers of the souls of those soldiers who are in their care, never talk about Jesus’s Golden Rule, his clear command to love their enemies or the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount.
Military chaplains are part of the apparatus of war that rejects most of the Ten Commandments, especially the one that says: “thou shalt not kill.”
In their defense, military chaplains, in their seminary training and, sadly, even in their Sunday School upbringing, may have never heard about profoundly important gospel truths such as non-domination, non-retaliation, unconditional love and the rejection of enmity.
Theological Blind Spot
This theological blind spot is well illustrated near the end of “Joyeux Noel” in a powerful scene depicting a confrontation between the Christ-like, and therefore antiwar Scottish chaplain and his pro-war bishop, occurring as the chaplain was administering the “last rites” to a dying soldier.
The bishop had come to chastise the chaplain and relieve him of his duties because of the chaplain’s “treasonous and shameful” behavior (i.e., being merciful to and fraternizing with the enemy) on the battlefield.
The authoritarian, German-hating bishop refused to listen to the fact that on Christmas Eve the chaplain had just performed “the most important mass of my life” and that he wished to stay with the troops that were losing their faith in God. The bishop angrily denied the chaplain’s request to remain with his men.
The bishop then delivered a rousing pro-war sermon, the exact words of which had been chosen by the film-writers from a homily that had been delivered by an Anglican bishop in England later in the war.
The sermon was addressed to the troops that had to be brought in to replace the suddenly pacifist combatants who had now refused the enmity offered to them by their superiors. The dramatic but subtle response of the chaplain to his sacking represents a serious warning to the Christian church leadership in America - both clergy and lay.
This is a profoundly important and very moving film that deserves to be annual holiday fare. It has ethical lessons far more powerful than “It’s A Wonderful Life” or Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”.
One of the lessons of the Christmas Truce story is summarized in the concluding verse of John McCutcheon’s famous song, “Christmas in the Trenches”:
“My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell; Each Christmas come since World War I - I've learned its lessons well:
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame;
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.”
Dr. Kohls is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church.
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