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“…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” - John McCutcheon
One hundred years ago this month, one of the most unusual aberrations in the bloody history of the organized mass slaughter that is war occurred—never repeated since. “Christian” Europe was in the fifth month of the world war that finally ground to a halt four years later, with all sides exhausted and most sides financially and morally bankrupted.
British, Scottish, French, Belgian, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Serbian, and Russian church pulpits in those essentially Christian nations back home were doing their part in contributing to the un-Christ-like patriotic fervor that would result in a holocaust that destroyed four empires, killed upwards of 20 million soldiers and civilians, and resulted in the psychological and physical decimation of an entire generation of young men in France, Britain, Germany, and Russia.
Tragically, Christianity, which began as a pacifist, highly ethical religion because of the teachings and actions of the nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth (and his nonviolent apostles and pacifist followers), has for the past 1,700 years been anything but a peacemaking church that follows Jesus by actively resisting its particular nation’s imperial aspirations, its nation’s wars, its nation’s war-makers, and its nation’s war profiteers.
So it wasn’t any surprise that the religious leaders involved in World War I were convinced that God was on their particular side of no-man’s land—and therefore not on the side of the Christians who were trying to kill and maim them. The obvious contradiction—that both sides were praying to the same god—escaped most of them.
Pulpits and pews all over Europe, with few exceptions, reverberated with flag-waving fervor, sending clear messages to their doomed and baptized warrior-sons that it was their Christian duty to march off to kill the equally doomed Christian soldiers on the other side of the line. And it was the Christian duty of the loved ones back home to “support the troops” in that satanic mission—troops that were destined to return broken, disillusioned, and faithless.
Five months into this perpetually and frustratingly stalemated war (newly featuring trench warfare, artillery, machine guns, tanks, aerial bombardment, and poison gas), the first Christmas of the war on the Western Front was upon the exhausted and demoralized troops.
Christmas was the holiest of Christian holidays for all sides, and in this time of death, hunger, thirst, frostbitten limbs, sleep deprivation, shell shock, suicidality, traumatic brain injuries, mortal wounds, and homesickness, Christmas 1914 had very special meaning.
Christmas reminded the soldiers of the good food, safety, warm homes, and beloved families that they had left behind and that they now suspected they might never see again. They did not yet know that even if they survived physically, they would never be the same again. The physically exhausted, spiritually deadened, and combat-traumatized soldiers on both sides of the battle lines desperately sought some respite from the misery of the water-logged, putrid, rat and lice-infested, corpse-infested, and increasingly frozen trenches.
The Cold Reality of Trench Warfare in 1914
By this time, the frontline soldiers on both sides were wondering how they could possibly have believed the ridiculous propaganda from their leaders that had convinced them that their side was pre-destined to be victorious and “home before Christmas”—home where they would be celebrated as conquering heroes.
Instead, each frontline soldier was at the end of his emotional rope because of the unrelenting artillery barrages against which he was defenseless. If they weren’t killed or physically maimed by the artillery shells and bombs, they would eventually be emotionally destroyed by “shell-shock” (now known as posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD), suffering horrifying nightmares, hallucinations, blindness, sleep deprivation, suicidality, depression, hyper-alertness, and any number of other mental and neurological abnormalities. Other common “killers of the soul” included perpetual hunger, malnutrition, infections such as typhus and dysentery, louse infestations, trench foot, frostbite, and gangrenous toes and fingers.
Poison gas attacks wouldn’t appear until 1915, but both British and Germans scientists in 1914 were working hard to perfect that new technology. Tank warfare, which proved to be a humiliating disaster for the British innovators of the tank, wouldn’t be operational until the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
One of the most stressful realities for the frontline soldiers was the suicidal (or was it homicidal?) “over the top” infantry assaults against the opposition’s machine-gun nests and the rows of coiled barbed wire that stopped them in their tracks and made them sitting ducks. Artillery barrages commonly resulted in tens of thousands of casualties in a single day.
The over the top infantry assaults that sacrificed hundreds of thousands of obedient soldiers were stupidly and repeatedly ordered by senior officers like Sir John French and his replacement as British commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig (apparently preparing for the classical but hopelessly outdated horse and sabre cavalry charges across the muck of no-man’s land). The general staff planners of those uniformly disastrous attempts to end the war quickly (or at least end the stalemate) were safely out of the range of enemy artillery barrages. As they made their plans, they were comfortably back at headquarters, eating well, being dressed by their orderlies, drinking their tea, with none of them at any risk of experiencing the lethality of war themselves.
The frequent shoveling to improve the comfort of the trenches was often interrupted by preparations for attack. Screams of pain often came from the wounded soldiers out in no-man’s land who had been hit by machine-gun fire but who were helplessly hanging on the barbed wire or bleeding to death in the bomb craters, their deaths—and the screams—often lingering for days. The effect on the troops in the trenches who had to listen to the desperate, unanswerable pleas for help was psychologically devastating. When winter hit, troop morale on both sides of no-man’s land had hit rock bottom.
Christmas in the Trenches
So on December 24, 1914, the exhausted troops settled down to Christmas with gifts from home, special food, special liquor, and special rest. A magnanimous (and deluded) Kaiser Wilhelm had 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 was ridiculed by the most hardened military officers, but nobody suspected that the kaiser’s Christmas tree idea would backfire and instead be a catalyst for an unplanned-for cease-fire, a singular event previously unheard of in the history of warfare and one that was ultimately censored out of mainstream histories, especially military histories, for most of the next century.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a spontaneous event that happened at a multitude of locations all along the 600 miles of trenches stretching across Belgium and France, and it was an event that has never again been duplicated, although an attempt at a Christmas truce in 1915 was quickly put down by senior officers.
The movie “Joyeux Noel” (French for “Merry Christmas”) received an Academy Award nomination in 2005 for best foreign film. It tells the moving tale that has been adapted from the many surviving stories revealed in letters from soldiers who were there.
One of the stories that emerged from the event was that in the quiet of Christmas Eve night, some young German started singing “Stille Nacht.” Soon the British, French, and Scots on the other side of no-man’s land joined in. Before long, the spirit of peace and “goodwill towards men” prevailed over the demonic spirit of war, and the troops on both sides sensed their common humanity. The natural human aversion to killing broke through to consciousness and overcame the fear, patriotic fervor, and brainwashing to which they had all been indoctrinated.
Once the spirit of peace was felt, soldiers on both sides fearlessly dropped their weapons and came out of their trenches to meet their former foes face to face. To get through to the other side, they had to step around shell holes and over frozen corpses (which were later given respectful burials, soldiers from both sides helping one another with the gruesome task).
The spirit of retaliation had been replaced by a spirit of reconciliation, and the desire for peace on Earth emerged. New friends shared chocolate bars, cigarettes, beer, wine, schnapps, soccer games, and pictures from home. Addresses were exchanged, photos were taken, and every soldier who genuinely experienced the emotional drama was forever changed.
And the generals and politicians were appalled.
Fostering Peace on Earth in Times of War is an Act of Treason
Fraternization with the enemy (as in refusing to obey orders in time of war) has historically been regarded by military commanders and politicians as an act of treason, severely punishable, sometimes with execution by firing squad. In the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914, most officers tried hard not to draw public attention to the potentially contagious incidents. Some commanding officers even threatened courts martial if fraternization persisted (getting to know your enemy is bad for the killing spirit), but relatively few executions took place.
There were still punishments, however, including the re-assignment of many of the Allied troops to different regiments and reassigning the German troops to the Eastern Front to kill and die fighting in the equally suicidal battles against their Russian Orthodox co-religionists.
This unique story of the Christmas Truce needs to be retold over and over again if our modern-era false flag-generated wars of empire are to be effectively derailed. These futile, unaffordable wars are being fought by thoroughly indoctrinated, macho, pro-war, World of Warcraft gamers who, unbeknownst to them, are at high risk of having their lives permanently altered by the physical, mental, and spiritual damage from participating in war and violence, after which they might be doomed to a life overwhelmed by the wounds of war (PTSD, sociopathic personality disorder, suicidality, homicidality, loss of religious faith, traumatic brain injury, legal or illegal addictive drug use—all of which are, however, totally preventable).
Society has an Ethical Duty to Warn
It seems to me that it would be helpful if moral leadership in America, especially Christian leaders, would discharge their duty to warn the children and adolescents that are in their spheres of influence about all the serious consequences that participation in the killing professions can have on their souls and psyches.
War planners do whatever it takes to keep soldiers from experiencing the humanity of their enemies, whether they are Iranians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Syrians, Yemenis, Vietnamese, Chinese, or North Koreans. I have been told by many military veterans that military chaplains, who are supposed to be nurturers of the souls of the soldiers who are in their “care,” never seem to bring up in their counseling sessions Jesus’ Golden Rule, his clear “love your enemies” commands, or his other ethical teachings from the Sermon on the Mount.
Military chaplains seem to just be another cog in the apparatus of making war maximally effective. Christian chaplains seem to not pay much attention to the Ten Commandments either, especially the ones that say “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s oil.” In their defense, I suppose, military chaplains may have never been schooled adequately (whether in their seminary training and in their Sunday school upbringings) in the profoundly important gospel truths about humility, mercy, non-violence, 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 the “Joyeux Noel” movie in a powerful scene depicting a confrontation between the Christ-like, antiwar Scottish chaplain and his pro-war bishop, just as the chaplain is mercifully administering the “last rites” to a dying soldier. The conservative bishop had come to chastise the chaplain for being merciful to a wounded soldier in no-man’s land and for fraternizing with the enemy. The bishop relieves the chaplain of his duties because of his “treasonous and shameful” behavior on the battlefield.
The authoritarian, German-hating bishop refuses to listen to the chaplain’s story about his having performed “the most important mass of my life” (with German troops scandalously participating in the celebration) and about how he wishes to stay with the troops that need him because they are losing their faith. The bishop angrily denies the chaplain’s request to remain with his men.
The bishop then delivers a rousing pro-war, jingoistic sermon (which was taken word for word from a homily actually delivered by an Anglican bishop from England later in the war). The sermon is addressed to the fresh troops that had to be brought in to replace the veterans who, because their consciences had been awakened during the truce, have suddenly become averse to killing and are refusing to shoot their weapons.
The image of the dramatic but subtle response of the chaplain to his sacking should be a clarion call to the Christian church leadership of our militarized, so-called “Christian” America—both clergy and lay. This good man of God hangs up his cross and walks out of the door of the field hospital.
“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 story is summarized in the concluding verse of John McCutcheon’s famous song about the event, “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 and, 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
Dr Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, MN. He has been actively involved in peace, justice and nonviolence issues for much of his adult life and, since his retirement, has written a weekly column for the Duluth Reader. His columns mostly deal with the dangers of American fascism, corporatism, militarism, racism and other movements that threaten American democracy.