War is an ugly thing. Property is destroyed. Men are wounded. People die. Some are even lost completely for one reason or another.
No war was uglier than World War I. It was trench warfare, where men faced each other in trenches a mere hundred or two hundred yards apart for months. When anything moved, shots rang out from both sides. People died. It was also a time when chemical warfare killed and damaged tens of thousands.
But on Christmas Day 1914, a beautiful thing happened on the battlefield in Europe. Wikipedia says: “The truce was, first and foremost, an act of rebellion against authority. In the trenches, though peace on earth seemed a ridiculous fantasy, impromptu ceasefires had been occurring as early as December 18. The British High Command, alarmed that the holiday might inspire goodwill, issued a stern order against fraternization. Officers were warned that yuletide benevolence might “destroy the offensive spirit in all ranks.” Christmas, in other words, was to be a killing time.
“The Germans, however, were stubbornly festive. In an effort to bolster morale, truckloads of Christmas trees were sent to the Kaiser’s forces. All along the line, Germans were acting in bizarrely peaceful fashion. Guns fell silent. Candles and lanterns taunted British snipers. Late on Christmas Eve, Germans singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night) echoed across no man’s land. The British, initially perplexed, soon joined in. Then came shouted messages – in English – from the German trenches. “Tomorrow is Christmas; if you don’t fight, we won’t.”
“Dawn usually brought a chorus of rifle and artillery fire. On Christmas Day, however, an eerie quiet persisted, as if the war itself had evaporated. As the sun rose, the Germans called to the British to meet them in no man’s land.”
The Germans stood, unarmed in “no-man’s land. The British officers were suspicious, but it eventually gave way to trust. The Germans and British came together in the middle, and exchanged cigarettes, beer, food, and handshakes. Soon conversation led to a challenge. A sports challenge on the “football” (soccer) field. Soon, there was a game, Germans against British.
On January 1 1915, an anonymous major wrote to The London Times that an English regiment “had a football match with the Saxons (Germans), who beat them 3-2.”
On Christmas Day 1972, I was in Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam. It was exactly like every other day. We launched 20 missions that day. There were many “Alpha strike” bombing missions (at least one hundred aircraft on target) over Hanoi and Haiphong that day. And Da Nang was rocketed, as I remember.
We had hoped for a Christmas Truce. I did not know anything about WWI in 1914 at that time, so I did not expect anything. But I did want a break. I had been fighting the Vietnam war since Easter, 20 -22 hours a day, seven days a week. We were all tired. We were all emotionally spent. A break in the fighting for one day would have been wonderful.
I heard that there were efforts to make a Christmas Truce. They did not work out.
But that Christmas Day in 1972 we did not play football. We did not exchange food, beer, tobacco, or handshakes with the enemy. We fought the enemy, and they fought back.
Why not? Why couldn’t we take a break. For a day. Christmas Day. Is it because they don’t honor and respect Christmas Day. Possibly. Only a small percentage of the world does.
Was it because we are just bad men. Possibly. But more likely it is just a lack of trust.
How much trust do you think it took for two enemies to walk together and shake hands on the battlefield that Christmas Day in 1914? How much fun and relief did they have that day?
Do you have that much trust in your enemies? I can’t say that I do.
But until we do have some level of trust. Until we can face our enemy, and walk together to shake hands and talk, we can never hope for a Christmas Day Truce, let alone a cessation of all fighting.
Let us hope that someday, we can trust our enemy, walk out on the battlefield, face them, and shake hands.
Think about your personal relationships. Do you have any enemies? If you do, could you make the first move to create a truce? What would it really take?
Are you ready to make the first move? Why not? Take a chance. Like the Germans so many years ago, have a little trust. Make the first move.
It will be good for both of you.
Please Remember: Many of our young men and women have sacrificed greatly around the world, to protect our country, our rights and freedoms, our allies, and the Flag of the United States of America. I am proud to have been one of them, and would gladly defend this great country again today or any day.
Jim Daly, a retired captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, is a member of the Aberdeen Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 224 and its Veterans Service Officer. He is also a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America.