“We kill each other like this, coldly, because whatever does not touch the sphere of our own life does not exist…If I knew anything about that poor lad, if I could once hear him speak, if I could read the letters he carries in his breast, only then would killing him like this seem to be a crime.” Carlo Salsa (1893-1962) Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal. John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)
Peace on earth, goodwill towards men. That is supposed to be what Christmas is all about. Yet, since these words were proclaimed – some 2,000 years ago – this planet we call home has rarely experienced such tranquility. One brief exception occurred in the mired battle trenches of Belgium and northern France on Christmas 1914, extending for several more days on various fronts. My stories of the famous Christmas truce come to me from a young Canadian soldier named Howard Francis Sherwood, who arrived at the front lines of Flanders on January 6th, 1915, a mere three days after the latest truce occurred. That private was my great grandfather, who, with others of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry heard many first-hand accounts of this spontaneous peace from his fellow British and Scottish soldiers. It began on Christmas eve with a tiny Christmas tree, or perhaps several of them, lit with candles and perched on the parapets of the nearby German trenches – where they shone for for all to see in the cold, clear night. Then the melody of Silent Night sung in German (Stille Nacht) carried over the barbed wire through no-man’s land to the allied positions, inspiring some of the British to reply by singing along in English. On one occasion, both sides harmonized on a version of O Come All Ye Faithful with the Germans using the Latin words (Adestes Fideles) to the carol. By all accounts, it was the Germans who made the first overtures for a Christmas Day truce, often risking their lives (by exposing themselves to open fire) to make this personal gesture. It appears that the Bavarians, Saxons, Hessians, Prussians and Wesphalians were weary of war, and their direct appeal to their French, Belgian, English and Scottish counterparts was cautiously welcomed. The Christmas truce took on many forms: in some places they met in no-man’s land, buried their dead, afterwards greeting each other as fellow human beings instead of soldiers; in others, carols were sung, food shared (beer, chocolate, sausage, bread with jam, cheese), and even a few gifts exchanged. These were simple tokens of goodwill – cigars, tobacco, newspapers, brass buttons and belt buckles – with many of the Allied troops sharing bits from their Princess Mary Tins, a Christmas gift to every soldier from the royal family. FIFA fans would appreciate the impromptu soccer match played between British and German soldiers on the frozen mud of no-man’s land on Christmas Day, just outside of Armentieres in northern France. A Scottish soldier produced a leather ball and with soldier’s caps serving as goal markers, the Germans would rally, winning the game 3-2. Just imagine, a handful of tiny Christmas trees were the catalyst for a spontaneous peace accord that probably saved hundreds of lives. Some might say that it could never happen today, given all the religious and racial discord that causes so much of the world’s problems. But what is not commonly known is that many races and religions respected the Christmas truce of 1914, from Hindus and Sikhs serving with the British Indian Army, to Muslim French colonial troops from Algeria and even Jews serving with various German units. On the eastern front,another spontaneous truce between Protestant and Catholic Germans and Orthodox Russian soldiers occurred – so it truly was an event bearing goodwill to all. More than anything else, the Christmas truce of 1914 was an opportunity for soldiers to become men again – not murderous Huns or treacherous Brits – just ordinary people with wives, children and families, caught up in the deadly politics of a world war.