Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Day, 1914

I had heard of this story previously but this is the first time that I've seen it in print. Brought tears to my eyes this morning.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah,and Happy Kwanzaa everybody. We are all God's children.

May we continue to fight for peace, justice, and transformation in our troubled world and may we cultivate in our families and communities an earth consciousness so that we may reshape our economic system into one that is sustainable and provides equitably for all.

-Angela Valenzuela

Christmas Day, 1914

My dear sister Janet,

It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their
dugouts -- yet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the
wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems
almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn't been through it myself, I
would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang
carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy
soldiers here on the battlefields of France!

As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The
first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held
back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed
in our trenches and waited.

But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an
artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench,
killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our
heads above ground, for fear of a sniper's bullet.

And the rain -- it has fallen almost daily. Of course, it collects
right in our trenches, where we must bail it out with pots and pans.
And with the rain has come mud -- a good foot or more deep. It
splatters and cakes everything, and constantly sucks at our boots. One
new recruit got his feet stuck in it, and then his hands too when he
tried to get out -- just like in that American story of the tar baby!

Through all this, we couldn't help feeling curious about the German
soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we
did, and slogged about in the same muck. What's more, their first
trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Man's Land,
bordered on both sides by barbed wire -- yet they were close enough we
sometimes heard their voices.

Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other
times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common.
And now it seems they felt the same.

Just yesterday morning -- Christmas Eve Day -- we had our first good
freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud
froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright
sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather.

During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either
side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped
entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might
promise a peaceful holiday, but we didn't count on it. We'd been told
the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard.

I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted
asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, "Come
and see! See what the Germans are doing!" I grabbed my rifle, stumbled
out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.

I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny
lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far
as the eye could see.

"What is it?" I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, "Christmas

And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of
their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will.

And then we heard their voices raised in song.

"Stille nacht, heilige nacht...."

This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it
and translated: "Silent night, holy night." I've never heard one
lovelier -- or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark
softened by a first-quarter moon.

When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes,
British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started
singing, and we all joined in.

"The first Nowell, the angel did say...."

In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their
fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their
own and then began another.

"O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum...."

Then we replied.

"O come all ye faithful...."

But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin.

"Adeste fideles...."

British and German harmonizing across No Man's Land! I would have
thought nothing could be more amazing -- but what came next was more

"English, come over!" we heard one of them shout. "You no shoot, we no

There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then
one of us shouted jokingly, "You come over here."

To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb
over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Man's Land.
One of them called, "Send officer to talk."

I saw one of our men lift his rifle to the ready, and no doubt others
did the same -- but our captain called out, "Hold your fire." Then he
climbed out and went to meet the Germans halfway. We heard them
talking, and a few minutes later, the captain came back with a German
cigar in his mouth!

"We've agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow," he
announced. "But sentries are to remain on duty, and the rest of you,
stay alert."

Across the way, we could make out groups of two or three men starting
out of trenches and coming toward us. Then some of us were climbing
out too, and in minutes more, there we were in No Man's Land, over a
hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men
we'd been trying to kill just hours earlier!

Before long a bonfire was built, and around it we mingled -- British
khaki and German grey. I must say, the Germans were the better
dressed, with fresh uniforms for the holiday.

Only a couple of our men knew German, but more of the Germans knew
English. I asked one of them why that was.

"Because many have worked in England!" he said. "Before all this, I
was a waiter at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps I waited on your table!"

"Perhaps you did!" I said, laughing.

He told me he had a girlfriend in London and that the war had
interrupted their plans for marriage. I told him, "Don't worry. We'll
have you beat by Easter, then you can come back and marry the girl."

He laughed at that. Then he asked if I'd send her a postcard he'd give
me later, and I promised I would.

Another German had been a porter at Victoria Station. He showed me a
picture of his family back in Munich. His eldest sister was so lovely,
I said I should like to meet her someday. He beamed and said he would
like that very much and gave me his family's address.

Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts -- our
cigarettes for their cigars, our tea for their coffee, our corned beef
for their sausage. Badges and buttons from uniforms changed owners,
and one of our lads walked off with the infamous spiked helmet! I
myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt -- a fine
souvenir to show when I get home.

Newspapers too changed hands, and the Germans howled with laughter at
ours. They assured us that France was finished and Russia nearly
beaten too. We told them that was nonsense, and one of them said,
"Well, you believe your newspapers and we'll believe ours."

Clearly they are lied to -- yet after meeting these men, I wonder how
truthful our own newspapers have been. These are not the "savage
barbarians" we've read so much about. They are men with homes and
families, hopes and fears, principles and, yes, love of country. In
other words, men like ourselves. Why are we led to believe otherwise?

As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and
then all joined in for -- I am not lying to you -- "Auld Lang Syne."
Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some
talk of a football match.

I was just starting back to the trenches when an older German clutched
my arm. "My God," he said, "why cannot we have peace and all go home?"

I told him gently, "That you must ask your emperor."

He looked at me then, searchingly. "Perhaps, my friend. But also we
must ask our hearts."

And so, dear sister, tell me, has there ever been such a Christmas Eve
in all history? And what does it all mean, this impossible befriending
of enemies?

For the fighting here, of course, it means regrettably little. Decent
fellows those soldiers may be, but they follow orders and we do the
same. Besides, we are here to stop their army and send it home, and
never could we shirk that duty.

Still, one cannot help imagine what would happen if the spirit shown
here were caught by the nations of the world. Of course, disputes must
always arise. But what if our leaders were to offer well wishes in
place of warnings? Songs in place of slurs? Presents in place of
reprisals? Would not all war end at once?

All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I
wonder if we want it quite enough.

Your loving brother,

The two songs below are about what is described above. The
first song is written by Joe Henry and Garth Brooks, the second by John


Oh, the snowflakes fell in silence
Over Belleau Wood that night
For a Christmas truce had been declared
By both sides of the fight
As we lay there in our trenches
The silence broke in two
By a German soldier singing
A song that we all knew.

Though I did not know the language
The song was "Silent Night"
Then I heard by buddy whisper,
"All is calm and all is bright"
Then the fear and doubt surrounded me
'Cause I'd die if I was wrong
But I stood up in my trench
And I began to sing along

Then across the frozen battlefield
Another's voice joined in
Until one by one each man became
A singer of the hymn

Then I thought that I was dreaming
For right there in my sight
Stood the German soldier
'Neath the falling flakes of white
And he raised his hand and smiled at me
As if he hoped to say
Here's hoping we both live
To see us find a better way

Then the devil's clock struck midnight
And the skies lit up again
And the battlefield where heaven stood
Was blown to hell again

But for just one fleeting moment
The answer seemed so clear
Heaven's not beyond the clouds
It's just beyond the fear
No, heaven's not beyond the clouds
It's for us to find it here.


My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, ``Now listen up, me boys!'' each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
``He's singing bloody well, you know!'' my partner says to me
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
``God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen'' struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was ``Stille Nacht.'' ``Tis `Silent Night','' says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky
``There's someone coming toward us!'' the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night
``Whose family have I fixed within my sights?''
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

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