On December 24, 1914 a group of German soldiers near the western front along the border between France and Belgium set down their guns and began scavenging in the space behind their trench in search of trees. Due to what was by now four months of non-stop shelling the region looked more like the moon than anything on the earth. Most every living thing in the area, human beings very much included, had been devastated by the guns of August–which had become the guns of September, October, and November and would carry on for four more years, though no one at the time knew that.
But after a bit of searching these soldiers succeeded in finding a few pine trees. Fir would have been better but pine was all they could find and so that would have to do. They then snuck the trees down into the trench to their fellow soldiers.
We should be clear on what you would expect to find in the trenches–dead bodies, dismembered limbs, and four months worth of human waste from hundreds or thousands of soldiers, many of whom were no longer living. Crawling out of the trench at all was a dangerous business due to the non-stop shelling and machine gun fire and so soldiers lived and died in those trenches. In one grisly report–and this one is by no means unique or exceptional–a soldier reported seeing another man with his back pressed against the wall of the trench and his hands cupped in front of his stomach, holding his own entrails after they had been blasted out of him by shrapnel.
And now a pine tree was lowered into the trench. Soldiers hung candles on it and cookies too, what few they had. They used wadding to substitute for snow and then slowly lifted the trees up out of the trench to stand on the ground just behind them. Then they began to sing.
The French and English soldiers opposite them didn’t know what was happening. They only knew that the guns had stopped and that strange colored lights were emanating from the German trench on the far side of no man’s land. One German soldier wrote about what happened next:
Along the whole line Germans began to sing Christmas songs in chorus–“oh thou blissful, oh thou joyous mercy bringing Christmas time.”… The French had ceased firing along that whole line. That night I was with a company that was only five paces away from the enemy. The Christmas candles were burning brightly and were renewed again and again. For the first time, we heard no shots. From everywhere throughout the forest, one could hear powerful carols come floating over–peace on earth and such. The French left their trenches and stood on the parapet without any fear, there they stood quite overpowered by emotion, cap in hand. We too had issued from our trenches. We exchanged gifts with the French, chocolate, cigarettes, etc. They were all laughing and so were we. Why we did not know and then everybody went back to his trench and then incessantly the carols resounded, ever more solemnly, ever more longingly, “oh thou blissful…”
Ever since I heard this story told on Dan Carlin’s excellent Hardcore History I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it. World War I exists on the fault line between old Christian Europe and the modern world and you can see evidence of both in this event.
The first question I have about it is how something like this happens at all. What kind of culture forms men capable of doing something like this? Of setting down their weapons after four months of such horrific fighting so that they can sing Christmas hymns and play soccer with men who were shooting at them only days before on moon-scaped land pockmarked by constant shelling? Is this just the humanity of these soldiers coming out? Or is there something distinctly Christian operating here? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.
At this time the modern nation-state is not as entrenched in a person’s identity as it is today–the German state is less than 50 years old when World War I begins and England is fading but is still closer to the agrarian world of Tolkien’s childhood than the modern statist society it would become. So if that national identity isn’t functioning in quite the same way that it does today, does the religious identity bubble to the surface? I suspect William Cavanaugh would say yes.
But I also want to know why this only happened once. There is never another Christmas Truce after this one. In one sense, this is easy enough to answer: Upon hearing the news of the first truce, the leaders of both sides were so enraged that they made sure that something similar never happened again. You can’t have your soldiers fraternizing with the enemy they’re supposed to be killing.
I wonder, though, if that isn’t as good a synopsis as any of the problem: The will clearly existed in these men to stop fighting. That’s why the Christmas Truce happened. And the will to fight wasn’t very strong in any of the major European nations after a year or two of this awful conflict. Even England was forced to begin conscripting troops in 1916–and they had a long-standing history of a volunteer army plus colonies they could pull troops from. And the fighting will actually get far worse in 1915 and 1916. We begin to see poison gas used in 1915. 1916 brings the battles of Verdun and the Somme, the latter of which Tolkien was at and inspired the Dead Marshes of The Lord of the Rings.
These battles were as bad as can be imagined–craters as deep as 30 feet covered the battlefield but soon filled with rain water that was rapidly contaminated by the gas on the battlefield as well as the other thing you could find in most of the craters–dead bodies. There are reports of men going mad after only a couple of days at Verdun. Even something as simple as using the bathroom was a risk because it required leaving the safety of the trench. So many men chose instead to relieve themselves directly in the trench or into whatever containers they could find, anything from a sardine can to a cast iron bowl.
So why didn’t whatever it was that got the men out of the trenches singing Christmas carols on December 24, 1914 not show up again later in the war? Why did the war go on for four more awful years when there was clearly at least a cultural Christianity sufficiently strong to stop the guns if only for one day?
My intuition is that the answer is that the first Christmas Truce was the dying gasp of Christian Europe, the last breath of a shared cultural understanding that went back centuries. It would then be replaced by what Lewis would later call “That Hideous Strength,” the iron-like logic of modernity that disregards the traditional bonds of faith and place and replaces them with the cruel but unassailable logic of modern institutions.
The men in power in these wars did not care about Christmas hymns, at least not in any meaningful way. They cared about national greatness and wealth and power–and they were willing to inflict horrible things on their fellow human beings to insure that greatness. And these men who sang hymns on Christmas day 1914, though they shared a cultural faith that stood against that strength, lacked the power to resist it for more than a day. Their failure, if we can use such a harsh term for it, meant that the bloodletting would last four more years and only end after 16 million had died and 20 million more were wounded.
So then the question isn’t just what kind of culture actually produced men capable of a one-day Christmas Truce, but what kind of culture would theoretically produce men capable of a sustained Christmas Truce? For one day the symbols of Christian faith stepped between these warring cousins and stopped their fighting. But why only one day? What kind of culture produces men that can continually resist That Hideous Strength with the weapons of singing, football, Christmas trees, and sharing a smoke with your fellow man?