I just watched the movie Wonder Woman a few weeks ago. It’s wonderful. I really didn’t know much about it except the hype that it was great, apparently much better than every other DC Extended Universe movie. I didn’t know that it took place at the end of World War I. I hope I’m not spoiling anything for anybody by saying that. I won’t talk about Wonder Woman anymore in this post. It was just a way of segueing into talk about World War I.
The end of World War I was all about elevens. The Armistice that ended the fighting was signed on November 11, 1918, to take effect at 11:00 am that day: “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” Finally, the fighting that destroyed Europe as it was, and tore apart many other countries in the world, was over. I’m no expert on history, but it has always seemed to me that World War I was one of the stupidest, most tragic, and useless wars ever. It started as a fight between two Balkan states over an assassination, and thanks to treaties and agreements and “honor”, the whole of Europe turned into a series of dominoes that fell into trenches. Who were fighting for what? I don’t know. Like I said, I’m no expert. It just seems so tragic and ridiculous to me. And even more tragic, the aftermath led rather directly to Germany looking for a savior to bring them out of the austerity they suffered after the war. Which led to…
Okay. I won’t talk about the War itself anymore in this post. It’s just a way of segueing into one day in history that has always fascinated me — a day near the beginning of the war. December 25, 1914, the first Christmas of the Great War. A day sometimes called the last real Christmas. This was the day that the British and German soldiers, facing one another across no man’s land in Belgium, laid down their weapons and celebrated Christmas together.
I first heard of the Christmas Truce through “All Together Now,” a song by the early 90’s alternative group The Farm. The song included lyrics like this:
A spirit stronger than war was at work that night
December 1914 cold, clear and bright
Countries’ borders were right out of sight
When they joined together and decided not to fight
I was haunted by the words, and I had to discover just what they were talking about. But this was pre-internet, so I just had to pick up info where I could. Years later, I found a book called Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub. Turns out that on that first Christmas Eve, just months after the fighting began, German soldiers in Ypres, Belgium decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees. They started singing Christmas carols (perhaps “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht”). Before long, the British forces across no man’s land heard them, and sang their own carols back (perhaps “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Silent Night”). This led to shouts of “Happy Christmas” and “Frohe Weinachten.” The singing and shouting were all that was heard — no artillery, no screams, no aircraft. After a while, men on both sides climbed out of the trenches and met together. They exchanged cigarettes and alcohol and postcards. They gave each other room to bury the dead. Someone had a soccer ball, and they played a few games.
This scene played out in multiple places along the Western Front that night. No generals ordered or approved it. The soldiers themselves decided that the Spirit of Christmas was more important than the war that night. This did not, of course, put an end to the war. The Truce lasted only a night in some places, about a week in others. It’s said that some of those involved simply refused to fight after this, firing their artillery into the air instead of at the enemy. But they were replaced by others who would. Three more Christmases occurred during the Great War, and on none of them was a truce called. The War didn’t end for almost four more years, on that date with all the elevens. But something magical, something holy happened that night in 1914. There was hope, hope that even in the midst of something terrible and tragic, love might just be there.
If you’d like to read a poem I once wrote that references the Christmas Truce, it’s here.
P.S. Thanks to all who have taken my survey. The results are quite intriguing. It will close soon, so if you haven’t taken it yet, feel free to click here.