On August 5, 1914, The Great War broke out with a vengeance in Belgium with the invasion of the German army. Thirty seven million eventually died in what was then the deadliest conflict in human history.
In the first four months of the War, heavy fighting left a staggering one million seven hundred thousand soldiers dead.
In the third month of the War, on 20 October 1914, the Germans attacked near Ypres, Belgium which caught the allies flatfooted. However, the French, English, and Belgians dug in and halted the German effort to gain a foothold from which to invade France.
The first battle of Ypres ended 22 November and lasted over a month. 240,000 soldiers died. A stalemate occurred with the armies staring each other down from their trenches. Between the lines was a narrow strip of battered earth called "no mans land."
The artillery from each mighty army fired shell after shell into each other's trenches. Snipers picked off those who dared raise their heads above the protection of the trench. Occasionally, a suicidal-like charge by one side or the other would be ordered only to be repulsed with the survivors scrambling back to the safety of their trench. Horror is not even close to what these men experienced. There are no words to describe it.
A little over a month after the Battle of Ypres with the two powerful armies in a standoff, something strange happened. Something real strange.
|Christmas Day, 1914. British and German |
Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Items
On Christmas Eve, the English and French hunkered down in their ditch waiting for the next artillary shell to explode upon them. Instead of bombs bursting in air, they heard the Germans singing, "Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht! Alles schläft; einsam wacht..." (Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright). The allies answered not with guns but by responding to the German Christmas Hymn with "Silent Night!"
At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, another astonishing thing happened. Defying their commanders orders to never fraternize with the enemy, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across "no man's land" calling out “Merry Christmas!” in English. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick. But seeing the Germans unarmed, they climbed out of their soggy, cold trenches and exchanged the Christmas blessing. Soldiers who had been shooting each other a short time ago now shook hands with one another. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes, plum puddings, and German beer. They sang carols and songs together. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.
Here are excerpts from a letter from an English soldier describing this phenomenal day.
"This will be the most memorable Christmas I've ever spent or likely to spend. Since about tea time yesterday I don't think there's been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned into a very clear frosty moonlight night. Soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs.
"The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us - wishing us a Merry Christmas. They also sang us a few songs. We had quite a social party. Several of them can speak English very well so we had a few conversations.
"There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as today we are all on top of our trenches running about. Whereas other days we have to keep our heads well down. About 10.30, we had a short church parade and the morning Christmas service was held in our trench with the Germans joining us. How we did sing! O Come All Ye Faithful and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.
"At present we are cooking our Christmas Dinner! You can guess we thought of the dinners at home. Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans. A party of them came half way over to us. So, several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I've also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes, other items, and had a decent chat. They say they won't fire tomorrow if we don't. So, I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday - perhaps. We can hardly believe that we've been firing at them for the last week or two. It all seems so strange. At present its freezing hard and everything is covered with ice...
"As I can't explain to everyone how I spent my 25th - you might hand this round please"
"There are plenty of huge shell holes in front of our trenches, also pieces of shrapnel to be found. I never expected to shake hands with Germans between the firing lines on Christmas Day, and I don't suppose you thought of us doing so. So, after a fashion we've enjoyed our Christmas."
Peace in the midst of war. Handshakes given in friendship instead of bullets of death. Celebrations of joy united opposing armies.
The birth of our Savior brought a day of peace. Instead of the violence of battle, there was the sweet calm of peace. The killing fields were transformed by the birth of the Prince of Peace. Guns fell silent and voices united in singing "Silent Night" like an international choir Enemies wished each other happiness with "Merry Christmas!" Amazing! Truly amazing! Not even a World War could destroy the Christmas spirit on that Christmas day.
The fighting soldiers wanted peace, family, and the warmth of home instead of the shivering fear gripping them in the trenches.
That Christmas peace represents what is the hearts desire of every soldier on the front lines. Peace. And, there is only One who can bring peace on earth. That One is Jesus whose birth was announced in the heavens by the angels to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:14).
|The Christmas Truce Cross|
Jesus' birth heralded the desire and plan of God to bring reconciliation between enemies. "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19). In Christ, we are forgiven and reconciled. We enter a love relationship of peace with Him which enables us to forgive others who have wronged or hurt us. Divine forgiveness fosters human forgiveness and peace between two hostile people. Or as in the Christmas peace of 1914, it is peace between hostile combatants. Granted, that peace was but for a day, but it represents the longing of lasting peace in every person.
It is the hope for peace every child has in a home marked by conflict between mom and dad. It is the hope for peace that every husband and wife has in their marriage. It is the hope for peace in every relationship, every group, every church, and every peace-loving nation to fill the night with strains of "Silent night; holy night, all is calm; all is bright."
Only in Christ can the barriers that divide us be destroyed. Only in Christ can we crawl out of our trenches and shake hands with our opponents with a blessing for them on our lips. That is the power and the hope of the unfailing peace of Christmas.
May you and I stop this Christmas and remember the power of Christ to bring a day of peace 100 years ago in the Great War. Let us too lay down our hostilities, shake hands with one another, and forgive even as Christ has forgiven us. And may the peace of Christmas be with you - not for a day but every day. "For Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility" (Ephesians 2:14).
Hear and see the first hand account of the 1914 Christmas Truce through this very moving letter from an English soldier as read by a narrator. Click this link or the arrow on the embedded YouTube video.
Finish this devotion of God's Unfailing Peace at Christmas by listening to Hark the Herald Angels Sing performed by the Celtic Women. Click this link or the arrow on the embedded YouTube video.