It was a foggy morning in “No Man’s Land,” as the sun began to creep in on Christmas Day, December 25, 1914. The night had been very cold and decent fires flickered from both sides of the line. It was a job just to sleep between look-out duties which lasted two of every six hours. Yet eerily, the constant barrage of artillery had grown silent during the night in this, the Ypres region of Belgium.
The British’s 10th Brigade consisting of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Seaforth Highlanders and the Royal Irish Fusiliers were dug in on one side of the Ploegsteert Wood and the German’s 88th Brigade including the 104th Infantry Regiment and the 6th Jaeger Battalion were crouching in trenches on the other side. The ever vigilant “watch” permeated the distance between forces as a “surprise attack” was something that should be expected at a time like Christmas. Even Pope Benedict XV had failed in his efforts to establish an official truce between warring governments, “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” Surprisingly, it was considered by the Germans but stoically denounced by the British. All of Pope Benedict’s future peace overtures fell on the deaf ears of Parliament, although his ten conditions for a lasting peace became the backbone of President Wilson’s “14 Points.”
At dusk the previous evening German soldiers had begun placing candles on evergreen trees forming a glowing line along the edges of their trench. This modest celebration continued with the singing of carols, most notably Stille Nacht or Silent Night as the English, Irish and Scots recognized it. Not to be outdone, the boys from the British Isles returned the compliment with O Come All Ye Faithful and While Shepherds Watched Their Flock. In the midst of shell craters, blood-stained mud pits and dead bodies; an unofficial truce broke out.
It started with Christmas greetings being shouted across the line. A number of the Germans spoke English, having lived and worked in places like London, Glasgow and Dublin before the war. It wasn’t long before calls for visits were exchanged and the parties met in “No Man’s Land.” Eventually small gifts were swapped as the combatants shook hands and drank together. In addition to whisky and beer; jams, cigars and other smokes, chocolates and souvenir uniform items were exchanged. Many of the boys kicked around a football (soccer) and in some of the areas along the Western Front, actual games were played.
The meaning of Christmas was not lost on the battle hardened troops as an early Holy Communion was celebrated at a ruined farm about 500 yards behind the lines and a short church parade was held in the trench. The truce also allowed a quiet time where recently-fallen comrades could be brought back behind their lines where proper burials took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects.
The smell of fried bacon and dip-bread brought the Brits back to their line where they enjoyed, hot Xmas pudding, muscatels and almonds, oranges, bananas, chocolates and cocoa. This Christmas dinner fashioned in the trench brought back thoughts of home and family. The lads opened parcels from places like B. G’s Lace Department and each had received a card from the Queen. In the darkest hours of the war, it was the thought of Mum and Pop or the girl back in Yorkshire that calmed the nerves and steadied the aim. For one brief moment, peace reigned, as the memories of death and carnage took a back seat.
Could such a display of peace and forgiveness break out in our nation’s capitol this season? Imagine one Senator on the right throwing a chorus of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen across the aisle. This refrain followed by a white-haired Senator on the left leading his caucus in Here We Come a Wassailing. Then the Senior Senator from Nevada breaks out with Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer! It may be Christmas . . . but there is no miracle this year.