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WWI truce: ‘the most wonderful Christmas’


NASHVILLE (BP) — On Christmas Eve 1914, Austrian soldier Leo Spitzl sat in a military fortification opposite hostile British forces. At dusk the usual sounds of gunfire ceased and an enemy soldier called out, “Hey, Red!” — a reference to Spitzl’s hair color — “Remember me from London?”

Spitzl answered and learned he had worked as a waiter’s apprentice in England with the British soldier before World War I erupted. As the conversation progressed, soldiers on both sides decided to exchange Christmas gifts and sing carols to one another. Not a shot was fired that Christmas.

Despite isolated military skirmishes, similar spontaneous truces broke out across the war’s western front that Christmas, especially between German and British soldiers, creating what some soldiers described in letters to their families as “the most incredible Christmas ever.” Warring troops talked, posed for photographs together, exchanged gifts, sang carols, recited Scripture and played soccer.

By January they were fighting again. Only about one in three truce participants survived the war, Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park report in their book “Not a Shot Was Fired.”

One hundred years later, the World War I Christmas truce is being commemorated with Christian reflections on war and peace and even an evangelistic campaign in the United Kingdom.

“I always thought [the Christmas truce] was just a story of his,” Spitzl’s daughter Charlotte Koons, 80, told Baptist Press. “Then later on when I grew up, I learned that it was a real event.”


“The most wonderful Christmas”

The war began on July 28, 1914, a month after the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist, provoking a series of diplomatic maneuvers and threats. Tensions escalated in Europe as both sides called on their allies for support. Within weeks, the world’s economic powers were aligned in two opposing groups with Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side and the United Kingdom, France and Russia on the other.

The next four years saw 70 million military personnel mobilized for war and more than 9 million soldiers killed, including more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers following America’s entry to the war in 1917 on the side of the British, French and Russians.

By Christmas 1914 much of the war’s western front — stretching through Belgium, France and Switzerland — was deadlocked in trench warfare, a type of fighting in which enemies fought from elaborate systems of defensive bunkers that were generally 250-300 yards apart. In some locations though, opposing trenches were as close as six feet.

Such proximity made it easy for British troops to see when the Germans placed lighted Christmas trees on the tops of their trenches and erected a sign in one battlefield that read, “You no fight, we no fight.” Officers on both sides objected to “fraternization” with the enemy, but that carried little weight with soldiers during the Christmas truce.

At one site, German and British soldiers participated in a bilingual recitation of Psalm 23 during a joint burial service for fallen soldiers, according to “Rites of Spring” by Morris Eksteins. Elsewhere British troops sang “O Come All Ye Faithful” as Germans joined the hymn with the Latin words “Adeste Fideles,” Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton report in their book “Christmas Truce.”

The German Baptist newspaper Der Wahrheitszeuge, “The Witness of Truth,” commented a month before the truce that “for Germans, singing is second nature” and noted that spiritual music was important during wartime. Two weeks later the paper predicted that war would cause men’s inner spiritual life to manifest itself.

A “Christian” war

That is exactly what happened, Andy Rudall, a British historian whose book “Neat Little Rows” chronicles a distant relative’s participation in the Christmas truce, told BP. Such a truce would not have been possible apart from the Christian heritage of the combatants on both sides, he said.

“Christmas is the pinnacle, I suppose, of the Christian calendar,” Rudall said. “And everybody knows what it’s about. It’s about Jesus. It’s about reconciliation. It’s about the start of something that God had planned.”

When soldiers from supposedly “Christian countries” reflected on Christmas, “it must have changed people’s hearts just for a while away from the madness,” Rudall said.

British corporal Leon Harris, a truce participant, wrote to his parents in Exeter, “This has been the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck. We were in the trenches on Christmas Eve, and about 8:30 the firing was almost at a standstill. Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘A happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches.

“Some of our men met some of theirs half way, and the officers arranged a truce till midnight on Christmas Day. It was extended till Boxing Day night [Dec. 26] and we all went out and met each other between the two lines of trenches, exchanging souvenirs — buttons, tobacco and cigarettes. Several of them spoke English. Huge fires were going all night and both sides sang carols. It was a wonderful time and the weather was glorious on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — frosty and bright with moon and stars at night,” Harris wrote.

Albert Wardin, a Southern Baptist historian of German heritage, believes the Germans’ sentimental view of Christmas played a role in the truce.

“They hadn’t been in war all that long,” Wardin told BP. “Then Christmas suddenly came and these recruits [began thinking of] Christmas back at home. The Germans sent Christmas trees to the front, and since the Germans are so sentimental, they began to think of what Christmas meant. Of course, on the other side there was the same Christmas tradition.”

An Episcopal clergyman in Edinburgh, Scotland, asked his congregation a week after the Christmas truce, according The Scotsman newspaper, “Is it merely fanciful to say that, on that anniversary of the birth of God’s Son, there must have been some gracious influence of the Spirit of Christ brooding over the combatants, and suggesting though but for a brief moment, the brotherhood of man in the great family of the Father?”

Remembering the truce

In the United Kingdom “everybody knows about” the Christmas truce because of memorials marking the 100th anniversary, Rudall said.

At the National Memorial Arboretum, Prince William unveiled a Christmas truce memorial in mid-December. A major British supermarket chain has referenced the truce in its holiday ad campaign, and Rudall speculated that pastors across the U.K. will recall the truce in their Christmas sermons.

The British missions organization HOPE has launched an evangelism campaign in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of World War I. As part of its Greater Love campaign, HOPE is distributing replicas of the Gospel of John that British soldiers received. The group is also encouraging Christians to organize Christmas gatherings in stadiums, churches and other venues to sing a new version of “Silent Night” adapted to commemorate the Christmas truce.

Justin Welby, the Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury, issued an invitation for British citizens to attend the Silent Night carol gatherings.

“This Christmas 2014 we are invited to leave our defended positions and meet those we might consider to be our enemies, exchange greetings, make peace and sing carols,” Welby said. “We do this not because of the actions of those soldiers 100 years ago. But because of the actions of God over 2,000 years ago, as He came to us, at great cost, to bring reconciliation and peace, joy and hope, life and light. And He came to us not just to bring change for one day, but for the whole of our lives.”

A German Baptist seminary professor called the Christmas truce a “unique manifestation of the Christian spirit.”

“The Christmas truce of 1914 was one of the last attempts of combatants to return for a couple of days to normal life,” Johannes Dyck, director of the Institute of Theology and History at Bibelseminar in Bonn, Germany, told BP in email comments. “They followed the voice of faith in their hearts remembering together the coming of the Prince of Peace on earth. The voice of military reason, however, prevailed. Only four months later, in April 1915, the Christmas truce site of Ypres in Flanders [in Belgium] became the place of the first poison gas attack. The Christmas truce of 1914 was a unique manifestation of Christian spirit. Even amidst war, faith can be a bridge between enemies.”

To Wardin, the truce illustrates the biblical truth that humans both reflect the image of God and are tainted by sin.

The Christmas truce and subsequent return to war reveal “the two sides of us in our own nature,” Wardin said. “We’re all born in sin, so therefore there is this desire to be on top, to get my way and to fight if necessary to get all of that. Yet on the other hand, we have a sentimental side of us, and we feel we ought to follow what Christ said.”