Unlearned Lessons from World War I: the Christmas Truce of 1914

Gary G. Kohls, MD

In World War I, as happens to be true in most wars, the Christian church leadership joined in the patriotic fervor with very un-Christlike, nationalistic, and racial/religious superiority stances. Astonishingly, religious leaders on every side of the conflict truly believed that God was on their particular side. And so the pulpits all over Europe, including British, Scottish, French, Belgian, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Russian, and Italian ones, reverberated with flag-waving fervor, with clear messages to their doomed warrior-sons that it was their God-given Christian duty to march off to kill the equally brainwashed young Christian soldier enemies, who were also certain that God was on their side.

Five months into the miserable death and destruction of the perpetually dead-locked trench war (featuring the now-infamous mass slaughter via artillery, machine gun, and poison gas weaponry), the first Christmas of the war on the Western Front came around.

Christmas was the holiest of Christian holidays on all sides, but in this time of homesickness, the first one had special meaning. December 24, 1914, reminded the soldiers of the good food, safe and warm homes, and beloved families they had left behind and that they now suspected they would never see again. The physically exhausted, spiritually deadened, and combat-traumatized soldiers on both sides of No Man’s Land desperately sought some respite from the misery of the war and the water-logged, putrid, rat and corpse-infested, and increasingly frozen trenches.

The frontline soldiers on both sides were at the end of their emotional ropes because of the unrelenting artillery barrages against which they were defenseless. If they weren’t killed or maimed by the bombings, what would eventually destroy them was the “shell-shock” (now known as posttraumatic stress disorder), with the horrifying nightmares, sleep deprivation, suicidality, depression, hyper-alertness, and other mental and neurological distresses. Other common “killers” were the bad food, lice, trench foot, frostbite, and gangrenous toes and fingers.

Poison gas attacks were demoralizing on both sides, as were the suicidal “over the top” assaults against machine gun nests that were stupidly and repeatedly ordered by senior officers like Sir Douglas Haig, who didn’t have to participate in the assaults themselves. Winston Churchill, in his British naval command role at the time, had obviously learned nothing from Haig’s disastrous tactic when, a year later, he likewise ordered repeated suicidal charges against machine gun fire at the infamous massacre of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli, a blunder for which Churchill resigned his commission in the Admiralty in disgrace.

The day-to-day horrors of trench warfare were punctuated by the screams of pain coming from the wounded soldiers who were helplessly hanging on the barbed wire or lying in the bomb craters, their deaths often lingering on for days. The effect on the troops in the trenches who had to listen to the desperate pleas for help was psychologically devastating. The morale of the troops on both sides of No Man’s Land had hit rock bottom by Christmas.

Christmas in the Trenches

So on December 24, 1914, the exhausted troops settled down to Christmas gifts from home: special food, special liquor, and special rest. A magnanimous (and deluded) Kaiser Wilhelm had even ordered 100,000 Christmas trees with millions of ornamental candles to be sent up to the front, expecting that such an act would boost troop morale.  Using the supply lines for such militarily unnecessary items seemed to be an acceptable investment for the over-confidant emperor. Nobody suspected that the Christmas tree idea would backfire and instead be a catalyst for a famous event in the history of peace-making that was nearly censored out of recorded history.

That spontaneous event, the Christmas Truce of 1914, was expressed in a variety of ways at a multitude of locations all along the 600 miles of trenches that stretched across France, but it was an event that would never again be duplicated in the history of warfare.

The tradition that has emerged from this true story was that in the silence of Christmas Eve night, the Germans started singing “Stille Nacht.” Soon the British, French, Scots and Canadians on the other side of No Man’s Land joined in, and all sides sang together in their own tongues. Before long, the divine spirit of peace and “goodwill towards men” prevailed over the demonic spirit of war.

Listening to the familiar sounds of home, the troops sensed their common humanity, and the natural human aversion to killing broke through to their consciousness and overcame the brainwashing they had all been subjected to. And for a precious day or two, these men rose to a higher level of humanity and could not be motivated to kill any longer.

Once the spirit of peace was felt, soldiers on both sides dropped their weapons and came out of their trenches to meet their former enemies face to face. They had to step around shell holes and over frozen corpses, which were soon given respectful burials. Former enemies helped one another with the solemn but gruesome job.

Then the celebration of peace began. New friends shared pictures from home, chocolate, cigarettes, beer, wine, schnapps, and soccer games. Addresses were exchanged and every soldier who genuinely experienced the drama was forever changed.

Fostering Peace on Earth in times of war is treason

Fraternization with the enemy (like refusing to obey orders in time of war) has historically been regarded by military commanders and politicians as an act of treason, severely punishable, even by summary execution. In the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914, trying to not draw public attention to this widespread and potentially contagious incident, most commanding officers threatened summary executions and court martials, but relatively few executions took place. There were still severe punishments, however, including the fact that many of the German “traitors” were transferred to the Eastern Front to kill and die there in the equally suicidal battles against Orthodox Christian soldiers.

The prize-winning movie that beautifully characterizes the spirit of the Christmas Truce is “Joyeux Noel” (French for “Merry Christmas”). This film tells a moving tale that has been adapted from the many surviving stories and letters home from soldiers who had been there.

This unique story of war resistance needs to be retold over and over again if our modern-era false flag-generated wars of empire are to be effectively derailed. These poisonous, contagious, and futile wars are being fought by thoroughly indoctrinated, macho adolescents who, unbeknownst to them, are at high risk of becoming physically, mentally, and spiritually damaged and most likely doomed to a life overwhelmed by the realities of PTSD or sociopathic personality disorder, with suicidality, homicidality, loss of religious faith, permanent and incurable traumatic brain injury, toxic drug use (including both legal and illegal drugs), and a host of other nearly impossible to cure problems that were eminently preventable, including the radiation poisoning from depleted uranium armor-piercing weaponry that will contaminate forever the bodies of soldiers and innocent civilians who have inhaled the poison dust in Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Militarists do whatever it takes to prevent soldiers from experiencing the humanity of their enemies, whether they are Iranians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Vietnamese, Chinese, or North Koreans. Military chaplains, who are supposed to be nurturers of the souls of those soldiers in their care, never talk about Jesus’ Golden Rule, his clear command to love one’s enemies, or the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. Military chaplains are part of the apparatus of war that pays no attention to most of the Ten Commandments, especially the ones that say “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s oil.” In their defense, military chaplains, in their seminary training and, sadly, even in their Sunday School upbringing, may have never heard about the profoundly important gospel truths about non-domination, non-retaliation, unconditional love, and the rejection of enmity.

Theological blind spots of war

These theological blind spots are illustrated near the end of “Joyeux Noel” in a powerful scene depicting a confrontation between the Christ-like and therefore antiwar Scottish chaplain and his pro-war bishop, just as the chaplain was administering the “last rites” to a dying soldier. The bishop had come to chastise the chaplain and relieve him of his duties because of his “treasonous and shameful” behavior (that is, being merciful to and fraternizing with the enemy) on the battlefield.

The authoritarian, German-hating bishop refused to listen to the fact that on Christmas Eve the chaplain had just performed “the most important mass of my life” (involving German enemy troops celebrating it) and that he wished to stay with the troops who were losing their faith. The bishop angrily denied the chaplain’s request to remain with his men.

The bishop then delivered a rousing pro-war sermon, the exact words of which had been chosen by the film writers from a homily delivered by an Anglican bishop in England later in the war. The sermon was addressed to the fresh troops who had to be brought in to replace the suddenly pacifist veteran combatants, who now refused to kill their fellow Christians on the other side of the battle line. The dramatic but subtle response of the chaplain to his sacking should be a clarion call to the Christian church leadership in our militarized, so-called “Christian” America—both clergy and lay.

“Joyeux Noel” is an important film that deserves to be annual holiday fare. It has ethical lessons far more powerful than “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Carol.”

One of the lessons of the Christmas Truce story is summarized in the concluding verse of John McCutcheon’s famous song “Christmas in the Trenches”:

“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.”

Check out the video of McCutcheon singing his song at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJi41RWaTCs. For a good pictorial history of the reality of WWI’s  trench warfare, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTXhZ4uR6rs.

The official trailer of “Joyeux Noel” is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXcseNVZGRM.