Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Truce of 1914 Offers Lessons Today

Roger Barr, a St. Paul writer, came to our performance of "All is Calm" last night and this morning sent us this essay he wrote several years ago. He has given us permission to post it for you to enjoy. Cantus finishes its run of "All is Calm" at the Pantages in Minneapolis today.

Christmas Truce of 1914 offers Lessons Today

This Christmas marks the 95th anniversary of the Christmas truce of 1914. This remarkable event in the opening months of the “war to end all wars” offers a valuable lesson to us today.

War between the Great Powers broke out in August of 1914. By Christmas the two sides were already at stalemate, squared off in opposing trenches that comprised the Western Front. The trench network consisted of a main trench from which soldiers waged war. Behind the main trench were rows of parallel trenches where soldiers slept, stored supplies and cared for their wounded. Between the opposing trenches lay a small strip of unclaimed land called “No Man’s Land.” No Man’s Land ranged in width from as little as a hundred yards to a half mile.

Life in the trenches was cold, muddy and miserable. As Christmas approached in the Ypres region of Belgium, British and German soldiers began to think of home and to recognize the grim fact that what was originally thought to be a short war was about to stretch into a new year.

There are scores of accounts about that remarkable Christmas on the Western Front written or retold by soldiers on both sides. Many of these accounts were collected in Stanley Weintraub’s eloquent book “Silent Night, The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.”

As Christmas Eve dawned, on the German side small Christmas trees appeared on the edge of the trenches, their glowing candles visible from the British side. The truce began informally with soldiers making catcalls and jeers across No Man’s Land. Soldiers began singing Christmas carols, which were answered with songs from the other side. In some places, enemy soldiers sang carols in unison. To the dismay of officers on both sides, soldiers ventured from their trenches into No Man’s Land where they exchanged cigarettes, liquor and other gifts. There was even a soccer game. The informal truce continued as burial contingents worked side by side to identify and bury fallen comrades. The truce lasted through Christmas Day in some places, longer in others. Then by mutual agreement it ended and the fighting and killing resumed.

The Christmas Truce is all the more remarkable when one understands that on both sides, soldiers (as well as their fellow citizens back home) had been subjected to intense propaganda from their own governments, designed to demonize and dehumanize the enemy. That soldiers were able for even a few hours or days to look past the propaganda and see the enemy as human beings is a rare and exquisite moment in history.

The real lesson of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is for ourselves as citizens. The truce showed us all a place to go, a place unclaimed by politics or ideology, a place where humanity shines in simple acts of kindness. In this holiday season and beyond, we citizens of all cultures have the opportunity—dare I say—the responsibility, to look beyond the propaganda disseminated by our respective leaders, beyond the breastworks and concertina wire of our own prejudices at the humanity of our opponents. As the soldiers did in 1914, we can venture into No Man’s Land and claim it as our own. We can make No Man’s Land “Everyman’s Land” and push its boundaries in both directions, filling in the trenches of ideology, hatred and bigotry.

No Man’s Land is a beautiful place, but it can be a dangerous place for those who venture there. To understand just how dangerous this narrow strip of humanity can be, we need only to look forward from the Christmas Truce of 1914 to the holiday season of 1915. Both the British and German war machines took no chances that another informal truce would break out along the Western Front and foster a premature peace before political goals were achieved. As Christmas approached, both sides pounded No Man’s Land with artillery fire to keep soldiers in their trenches. The war dragged on until 1918.

Writer Roger Barr lives in St. Paul. His short story "Looking Forward to Christmas" appeared in the December 2 Villager, a newspaper serving communities in St. Paul, South Minneapolis and Mendota Heights. It is his 12th annual Christmas story for that publication.

1 comment:

SuziSez said...

Thank You Roger ! I have always enjoyed your locally inspired written work. With all the politics, and distractions, PEACE ON EARTH gets lost .. The real meaning of Christmas. Still have the book about finding the St Paul Medallion.