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Our world can seem far removed from the dark, damp days of fighting that engulfed the First World War. We can look back over time and see our lives as very different, only connected to the past by the stories left by our grandfathers and the great writings of such iconic literary symbols as Ernest Hemingway, whose genius and visionary style brought the war to vivid life in his classic “A Farewell to Arms,” not only a favorite novel of mine, but by – Hemingway – a personal literary hero. The devastation brought by the war left a generation disenfranchised and abandoning traditional thought and culture. This group was called the “Lost Generation.” The cultural disposal of tradition seems to be a phenomenon repeating itself, but all should not be deemed lost. There is hope in the darkness of despair, as demonstrated by this very generation on Christmas Eve 1914.
As the winter dusk sank to darkness beneath a Belgian moon, two armies, locked in bitter conflict, sat in clay trenches, cold, wet, and covered in mud. That morning, the weather had dipped below freezing and snow had begun to gently fall. It was Christmas Eve and they were far from their homes and loved ones. Fearful, Allied soldiers, predominantly British and French troops, lay looking up at a diamond sky.
“Do you hear the Germans kicking up over there?” asked British machine gunner, Bruce Bairnsfather, who would later write his account. “Yes,” came the reply. “They’ve been at it for some time.”
Just as the Allies, the Central Powers were far from home and loved ones. As night began to fall, they had illuminated their trenches by candlelight and makeshift Christmas trees, and as it was Christmas Eve, they had begun to sing. Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schlaft, einsam wacht. Though they may not have known the language, it was a song that both armies knew: Silent Night, and it poured across an rancorous battlefield, delivered in its native tongue, as if caught in a breeze. In the still of the darkness, not knowing the German, British voices began to respond with a chorus of “The First Noel.”
Suddenly, there were cries of “Fröhliche Weihnachten” – Merry Christmas – and in the spirit of hopefulness, a member of the 18th Infantry Brigade raised his head out of the parapet, sure death is the miracle of Christmas would not prevail.
“Come over here!” came the reply, spoken in English, bearing a strong German accent. “You come half way, I come half way” said a British sergeant.
Though Pope Benedict XV had requested a Christmas truce, asking “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang,” both sides had declined. Though conscious of the risk, not knowing what to expect from the other, soldiers from both sides began climbing out of their trenches and trodding toward one another on a battlefield, littered with the remnants of war, barbed wire and the lifeless relics of friend and foe.
Just moments before, both armies sat fearful in the dark, locked in a battle that was still to rage for years to come, communicating across the field, letting artillery rather than friendship be the greeting, but now, trusting in both one another and the spirit of Christmas, they stood face to face.
“Here they were, “ Bairnsfather wrote, “the actual soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side.”
The barrier of language disappeared as the men began to shake hands and greet one another, exchange trinkets and gifts, and to wish one another well.
“What appears from the winter fog and misery,” wrote the Wall Street Journal, “is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”
Alfred Anderson, who died in 2005, was the last survivor of the Christmas truce, but that his long life stretched into our consciousness should stand as hope that in our day, peace can be found among the most bitter of enemies, and that sometimes, it is more important to look for commonality and compromise, for if, in the midst of a great conflict, guns can fall silent, so, then, can our own divisions. Joyeux Noel.