Project 12: Christmas Story
The War was only supposed to last until Christmas. It’s still raging on.
The world is covered in blood. Thousands of men have already lost their lives on both sides. As Christmas creeps up in the cold land of France, the soldiers wish for anything to brighten the dreary holiday as homesickness takes over in the trenches.
On Christmas Eve, a bright beam of hope blazes through the body-littered fields as men from both sides come to a temporary truce that will leave its legacy on the world, proving that even in the midst of unspeakable terror and darkness, man can still love, and God can still demonstrate His goodness.
The Christmas Truce of 1914, told from the brothers.
On the battlefield you have two goals: stay alive, and keep your brothers alive.
Apart from that, you take it one shot, one minute, one hour at a time, day by bloody day. If you don’t, you go mad, because it’s a cold, wet hell out there. Mud sucks at your damp shoes in the cramped trenches you dug out yourself, and you can feel the death in the air, sense it looming over your shoulders, smell it permeating the war-torn field, even if you can’t see the thousands of bodies lying everywhere. The wood at the bottom of the trenches meant to keep your feet dry does nothing, and if trench foot catches you in the numbing moisture, you may have to amputate your entire leg. There’s lice, filth, lack of privacy, and fear of going to the loo just because the enemy might hurl something in there in hopes of catching someone by surprise.
That was what we fought in.
Men everywhere were constantly screaming in agony, fear, or those horrible rushes of sudden confidence. The screeching of the artillery blended with the voices in a mass of indistinguishable pandemonium, filling every crevice of possible silence as we tried to push the Germans back, keeping them from Paris. We couldn’t give them a base to launch off from to continue taking over the surrounding areas; we couldn’t let our countries down.
We couldn’t let the world down.
At that point, most of us had been on the field for months already. We had expected the war to be over by now; yet here we were, worlds away from our families, sitting in the cold trenches and getting ready to celebrate the holiday by ourselves. A certain gloom hovered in the air, stifling any initial excitement we might have had for the holiday.
In truth, it wasn’t entirely horrible. Thousands of packages came in from home bearing warm clothes, food, tobacco, cigars, and, best of all, letters. Words of love from family, messages of thanks from strangers, and just bits of home found in those pieces of paper filled us with the strength to carry on another day.
On the night of that Christmas Eve, 1914, we huddled around our fires in rare silence, waiting for the next round to begin. Though the past few weeks had been miserably cold and wet, the heavens had dusted the earth with a pure layer of glistening powder as if in preparation for the next day, and the dark sky was clear enough to see a few rays of hope winking down on earth as George read one of his letters aloud to us.
That was when we heard it. It drifted over from the other side, somewhat muted at first, but gaining strength as sweet instruments joined in with the deep voices.
“Stille nacht… heilige nacht...1”
George stopped and looked up, and the rest of us did the same. To our surprise, we could see little lights beginning to light the lines on the other side, and little candle-lit Christmas trees dotted the barbed wire above their trenches.
“Alles schläft; einsam wacht...”
“They’re… singing?” Frederick asked incredulously.
Men from the other dug-outs began to notice the music too, and we peered at the other side in wonder, listening in silence as the simple song echoed across the desolate, body-littered field. As the song went on, a few of our men began humming along, and some even moved closer to hear better. When the song ended, we cheered and called out for more, and the other side obliged until we found ourselves singing Christmas songs with the enemy, switching out verses in different languages across the divide filled with death.
As the night went on, a pleasant voice suddenly called out from the other side in English. “Not schooting! Merry Christmas, English!”
James, ever the daring one, called, “Merry Christmas!” back, and the voice encouraged, “Komen ofer!2”
We glanced at each other. The British High Command had sent warnings that the enemy might attempt an attack on Christmas, but though we had been taught that the enemy were ruthless beasts, it hardly seemed believable now.
Shrugging slightly, James began walking over to the other side, jumping over the carnage and barbed wire that separated the two sides. We watched him carefully, half expecting him to be shot at, desperately hoping this was genuine. He disappeared into the enemy lines, and we waited, holding our breaths, wondering what would happen…
A few minutes later, he reappeared, and we cheered as he made his breathless way back. As he stumbled into our camp, we welcomed him back with pats on the back. He grinned, and then, to our surprise, suddenly opened his hands to reveal a handful cigars and cigarettes.
“They gave me this, and I gave them some Maconochie,3” he explained in answer to our questioning looks. “They said they won’t shoot if we don’t, at least until midnight tomorrow.”
We wouldn’t shoot if they didn’t.
The next morning dawned on a nearly perfect Christmas day. The skies were blue, and the air was astonishingly quiet without the resounding of gun shots. We began huddling around cheerful fires for breakfast when a head suddenly popped up from the other side and shouted, “Vee good! Vee no schoot!”
The man held up a lamp first, looking as if he expected someone to shoot at him, but when no one did, he cautiously rose out of the trench, then made his way to No Man’s Land. A few other Germans joined him, and we watched as they moved around the bodies of the fallen.
Walter rose suddenly and moved to join them. No one stopped him, though we all hesitated as he stepped out. Finally, as he began to kneel beside the bodies, the rest of us slowly joined him, men from both sides moving to respect the dead by giving them a proper burial in a nearby field.
We found some of the men who had gone missing and laid them down to rest. So many had fallen from both sides; the bodies lay side by side without any regard to country, age, religion. The gruesome irony of it made us cringe. We were fighting to settle our differences, but in the end, what difference did it really make? We would all end up in the same place.
We wished our brothers a merry Christmas one last time, then said our farewells; and with that, the introductions and Christmas celebrations began. Walter met a Walther from the other side, finding a common interest in poetry with him. Frederick and Friedrich joked around together the entire day until neither side wanted them back; George and Josef made each other cry sharing memories and thinking of home; James met his match in football with Hans as our “enemy” beat us 3-2.
It’s a strange thing, celebrating Christmas with someone who you know will be trying to kill you the next day, and vice versa. But we played football with them, traded gifts, sang songs, laughed, missed home together, and overall found that, despite outer differences, inside, people are maybe not so different from each other than they may think. As we tried to understand each other for the first time, we realised just how much of a common core God has given to man, and though we went back to fighting as normal the next day, we would never forget the Christmas when man paused a war to celebrate Christ’s birth with his enemies.
Since then, history has never seen another such time.
Four years later, the Great War finally wound to an end, taking with it the lives of 6.6 million civilians. Eight million soldiers had perished in the bloody feud – 6,000 soldier deaths every day of the war, with 1.2 million men falling during the Battle of the Somme alone for the Allies to gain a mere 12.6 kilometres of territory.
Walter and George never returned home. Bernard left the field one leg short; James received a wound that would leave him with a limp for the rest of his life; Harold had a bullet lodged in his arm indefinitely. We all returned to our countries, weary and wounded, scarred physically, mentally, eternally. Try as we might to move on, nothing felt normal after years of war, and flashbacks of the trenches haunted us until the end of our days.
Yet out of all the fighting, the gunshots, the destruction, one day shone brightly amidst the darkness of the first World War. On that Christmas day, far from home, in the cold, muddy trenches with death on every side, a beacon of hope was lit: a beacon that shone brighter than the darkness of war; a beacon that showed the world that even in the midst of humanity’s brokenness, even in the trenches of hell, man can still find a reason to love, to live, to sing. And that’s what drives us on. That’s what we fight for.
Joyeux Weihnacthen.4 Friede auf Earth.5
Based off true accounts from the Western Front, December 1914. In honour of all soldiers who sacrifice(d) everything for their countries.
1Bits of the song Silent Night in German.
3A common type of canned stew used in World War I.
4A mix of French and German: “Merry Christmas.”
5 A mix of German and English: “Peace on Earth.