The 1914 Christmas truce – when hope and history rhymed
by Don Mullan
WWI engulfed Europe in a devestating war of attrition. The ghastly affair, generated by rival colonial powers, engulfed their colonies and allies in history’s first industrialised war. The war killed over 16 million people.
War’s end, marked by vengeance, brought no solution — merely a lull that sowed the seeds of WWII. Sixty million dead, the majority civilians.
Both wars highlighted the urgent need for international political structures and institutions that would work for stability and understanding through dialogue. The United Nations and the European Union emerged from the carnage.
What do we take away from the lessons of the “Great War” as its centenery approaches?
Rather than tales of sacrifice and the dignity of arms, I am helping to mark the 1914-1918 disaster by emphasizing the most powerful and hope-filled story of World War I.
On Christmas Eve 1914, as darkness descended upon a brutal landscape of trenches and barbed wire, broken earth and decaying corpses, song suddenly replaced the deadly din of bullets and shells. British historian Piers Brendon called it “the most extraordinary celebration of Christmas since those notable goings-on in Bethlehem.”
Young British soldier, Albert Moren wrote of the scene at La Chapelle d’Armentieres, France.
It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; … there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and then there were those lights – I don’t know what they were. And then they sang “Stille Nacht” – “Silent Night”. I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life.
The sound of carols rising from the German lines prompted curious British tommies to raise their heads above the trenches. In the distance they could see the glow of candles on small Christmas trees. Germans were also seen peering back. No shots were fired. Tantalisingly, some soldiers raised their heads higher. The men exchanged salutations. Enemies inched closer and eventually met, surrounded by their fallen comrades. They shook hands, agreeing to a truce the following day.
On Christmas morning they met again. They held joint religious services and they helped to bury each other’s dead. Later they shared tea and coffee, wine, beer and cognac, chocolate and food sent from home. They swapped cap badges and buttons, showed one another photographs of their families and loved ones. They even posed for photographs. They played soccer and watched bicycle races.
Many soldiers like Albert Moren who participated in the Christmas Truce were never the same again. Propaganda on all sides had urged them to believe they were fighting inhuman monsters. On Christmas morning they recognised their common humanity, having been trapped in a seemingly unstoppable vortex of violence in which the vice grip of higher command gave them little option beyond “kill or be killed.”
Since 2008, I have been spearheading a major Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project centred around Messines, Belgium. Collaborating with the Mayor of Messines, St. Nicholas Church, the Messines Peace Village and Belgian and international partners, we’re attracting international attention and support. Our backers include the Belgian and Flemish Governments, the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace, and UNESCO.
Nobel Laureat Archbishop Desmond Tutu will convene a major multi-faith gathering of world religious leaders at Messines on 6 December 2014, the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. We’ll commemorate the Christmas Truce centenary, remembering for peace.
When I first visited Messines only a small wooden cross left in 1999 by former British soldiers remained as a sign of the Christmas Truce. Messines will soon become a great peace centre; a place where social justice, peace and human rights are fermented; a place of pilgrimage for people of goodwill who wish to be inspired and renewed in their work for a better world.
That’s why I acame to Kingston, where PeaceQuest (www.peacequest.ca) has already recognized the importance of the 1914 Christmas Truce. Word of PeaceQuest’s interest reached us in Europe. As international ambassador for the city of Messines Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project, I hope to explore cooperation. Maybe we can link Kingston with Messines, as we seek to build a better, more peaceful world for future generations.
Adolf Hitler was based in Messines at Christmas 1914. He refused to take part in the spontaneous truce because he considered it dishonourable. Ironically, he was billeted in a farmhouse that still stands. It’s called “Bethlehem Farm.” He recovered from injuries in the crypt of St. Nicholas Church. This is where Archbishop Tutu will convene our commemoration on the Feast of St. Nicholas.
We intend to make Messines the antithesis of all that Hitler represented. And, as we remember World War I, commemorate for peace.
Don Mullan was born in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. At 15 he witnessed the 1972 massacre of 13 civil rights demonstrators by British paratroopers. Mullan’s 1997 book ‘Eyewitness Bloody Sunday’ resulted in the official Saville Inquiry and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s eventual apology. A TV producer and journalist, travelled to Kingston to discuss the Christmas Truce project at the Sisters of Providence. His latest book, “Scamming the Scammers,” has just been published.