Silent Night - A 2009 Talk on the 1914 Christmas Truce
This is a talk I gave five years ago (12/13/2009) in my ward in Valrico, FL. I was asked to speak on a Christmas Hymn. I chose Silent Night. I found this and it has fallen into disuse all this time, and its worthy of dusting off, not because of anything I add to it, but because of what happened.
The hymn I chose to speak on today is originally an Austrian song called Silent Night.
Ten years ago today, late in December of 1999, a group of nine friends wearing makeshift uniforms came to a muddy field in Belgium. Working in the rain and snow, these men began digging trenches and reinforcing them with sandbags and planks which literally disappeared into the bottomless mud. For several days they cooked their rations, reinforced their parapets, and slept soaked through to the skin. Many of the local villagers looked on curiously, and the even enjoyed some media visits. Before they left, they planted a large timber cross in the quagmire, filled back their trenches and left.
Months later these men were astonished to learn that local villagers had put a wood preservative on their crude memorial, and set it in a concrete base. When they're in season, poppy flowers bloom beneath it.
There are thousands of World War I memorials in town squares and cemeteries across Europe, but the after-thought of these men is the only memorial to the Christmas Truce of 1914 (Weintraub, xvii)
I want to tell you about a true, but incredible story that occurred in those fields across the Western Front. Some of you may have heard about it. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a few years ago, made it the theme of their Christmas musical.
Many young men on both sides were anxious to answer the call to defend their borders. One of the methods the English used to encourage enlistment, was to allow school friends to enlist together and be in the same regiment. The results of this was that when a whole regiment was killed in a battle, whole towns were left without their precious young men. Many German men returned home from England where they had jobs to enlist in the German army.
By the time December came around, the British, French and Germans were well entrenched on their sides in freezing muddy trenches. Between the trenches, across the field are strewn the wounded and moldering corpses of soldiers from both sides. Unless the soldiers moved around, they would sink into the liquefying mud. Many slept standing up if they could, leaning against dripping walls. It was a stomach churning environment to eat one's rations. (Weintraub, 2)
One of the descriptions of the awful circumstances that these men endured was given by German artists Otto Dix. He described it as:
"Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, underground caves, corpses, blood, liquor, mice, cats, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fire steel: that's what war is. It is the work of the devil." (Weintraub, 2)
As Christmastime approached and the war dragged on to a seemingly endless duration, and despite propaganda from both sides about how the Germans were monsters or the British were monsters; neither side on the battlefield had strong feelings about fighting each other, other than to defend themselves and the men that had become their extended family.
The troops at times started to become somewhat friendly with each other. In one place where both sides were only 60 yards apart, they were so close that they throw newspapers to each other, by wrapping them up around a stone, and sometimes they would throw ration tins. (Weintraub, 5)
On December 19th, one Lieutenant wrote to his mother:
"A most extraordinary thing happened...Some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of their wounded and we ourselves immediately got out of our trenches and began bringing in our wounded also. The Germans then beckoned us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us to bury our dead. This lasted the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men. There the night before we had been having a terrific battle and the morning after, there we were smoking their cigarettes and they smoking ours." (Weintraub, 5)
Leading up to Christmas these were short encounters that started happening in various places in the trenches that lined the Western Front.
Many of the higher officers and bureaucrats were not happy about these types of activities. "One Hungarian Captain Rudolf Binding wrote to his father on December 20th, that if he were in authority, he would ban the observance of Christmas 'this year'." (Weintraub, 6)
As the higher British officials learned of what was beginning to occur, they tried to forbid friendly exchanges, step up the war by ordering attacks on German trenches and on Christmas Eve, they even issued a bogus intelligence report claiming the Germans were about to attack.
"Very few commanders believed this...report, relying instead on their own intelligence information, which was that the German troops were in all-out preparation...to celebrate Christmas." (Hyde)
"From the German side came a report that the men were redressed by an officer who ordered the men in the foulest of language to start shooting, saying, 'Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!' The men in this case reportedly spent that day and the next firing their rifles, but deliberately firing above the opposing troops 'wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.'" (...)
"After nightfall on [December] 23rd...Germans from Leipzig began placing small Christmas trees on the parapets of their trenches [with candles attached]. They watched [as English] Tommies crawled out of their trenches...to ask about the glittering trees which had materialized on the bare, blasted landscape. Although fraternizing [with the enemy] was a court-marital offence on both sides, company officers pretended not to notice.
"[The German men] explained to the English that the Tannenbaum was more important than the war. Nothing would keep them from celebrating Christmas Eve among their festive trees" (Weintraub, 14)
These Christmas trees began to appear up and down the line by the thousands until it seemed that whole night sky was aglow with candlelight.
The Germans began a makeshift Christmas service as the Tommies looked on. Church bells were heard in the German villages. Early on, they heard the Germans singing Silent Night, Holy Night and they shouted "Guten singing, Jerry!" (The English often called the Germans "Jerry", or "Fritz" and the Germans called the English "Tommy" as a way of making fun of them and being friendly at the same time. The English responded with Christmas carols of their own including "God rest, Ye Merry Gentlemen".
"'Bravo, Tommy!' echoes from the unseen German trenches, and a Fritz announces that a gift from his side is coming." (Ibid.)
Still a bit scared and not quite sure if they were safe,
"The British dive for cover, shouting for a sandbag to cover it, but the container, a boot, explodes only with sausages and chocolates. [The British] scurry to find something to return, and one furnishes his Christmas card from Princess Mary, and another 'the old girl's Christmas pudding.' The Germans offer 'good Deutsche Schnapps' if the Brits will meet them 'in the middle.' In [soccer] terms, a Tommy agrees, 'See you in the penalty area.' and they move out warily to greet each other." (Ibid.)
These men "enemies" actually played a game of soccer together on Christmas Eve.
In other parts of the line, Germans wrote and held up signs that read in broken English "YOU NO FIGHT, WE NO FIGHT." (Ibid., 25)
"News of the exchanges [traveled fast in the] dugouts on both sides. Then, in [another] section of the line, out of the dusk from across No Man's Land came the invitation, in English, 'Come over here!'
'Come over yourself!' [was the response]. With such overtures, the Christmas truce began." (Ibid., 20)
The artillery up and down the line of trenches fell silent as the informal and spontaneous truces continued through Christmas and after. Against orders, the men ventured across to greet their foes with whom they realized they had a common brotherhood with.
From across the barren landscape a voice could be heard singing O Holy Night. That voice was later identified as Victor Granier, a tenor with the Paris Opera.
They exchanged gifts which included cigars, chocolates, cakes, even sausages, wine, cognac, pumpernickel bread, biscuits and ham.
Proper burials for their fallen were had. British, French, German, Hungarian, Austrian standing side by side where they mourned their dead together and paid their respects.
War Begins Again
As mysteriously as the truce had begun, it ended and the men picked up their weapons of war again, many reluctantly to fire upon their fellow men and the war continued for several more long years until Germany was decimated.
"British [and German] commanders...vowed that no such truce would be allowed again.... In all of the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. Troops were also rotated...to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy." What the Spirit of the Lord did, these men sought to undo and ensure it never happened again.
More than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, were mobilized in one of the largest wars in history. More than 15 million people were killed, making this one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
"..when the soldiers themselves called a truce and, had it not been for intervention by the higher authorities on both sides, World War I might have ended." (TNA, Kurt Hyde)
There is so much more to this story, than time would permit me to tell, but it is worth the telling. So I encourage you, if you can, to find out more about it yourself.
After the repeated horrors of the next great World War President J. Reuben Clark told the saints “I believe that permanent peace will never come into the world from the muzzle of a gun. Guns and bayonets will, in the future as in the past, bring truces, long or short, but never peace that endures.” (Let Us Have Peace, Church News, November 22, 1947.)
In Stanley Weintraub's book Silent Night he relates that:
"[The hostile wartime slogans used to rouse patriotic fervor seemed hollow] and suggested that the men fighting and often dying were, as usual, proxies for governments and issues that had little to do with their everyday lives...'Live-and-let-live' accommodations occur in all wars...[but] none had ever occurred on the scale of, or with the duration, or with the potential for changing things, as when the shooting suddenly stopped on Christmas Eve, 1914. The difference in 1914 was its potential to become more than a temporary respite. The event appears in retrospect somehow unreal, incredible in its intensity and extent, seemingly impossible to have happened....Like a dream, when it was over, men wondered at it, then went on with the grim business at hand." (Weintraub, xvii)
Satan and his agents on earth in order to fulfill their purposes teach men that they must be enemies of one another. The Spirit of Christ moved upon those war torn men in 1914, and they discovered they were all a great brotherhood — sons of Heavenly Parents who ask us to love one another.
The Doctrine and Covenants tells us regarding the never-ending wars of the last days:
"And it shall come to pass among the wicked, that every man that will not take his sword against his neighbor must needs flee unto Zion for safety. And there shall be gathered unto it out of every nation under heaven; and it shall be the only people that shall not be at war one with another." (D&C 45:68-69)
The hymn Silent Night, Holy Night not only represents the Christmas songs those men most notably sang together, but the peace that befell that those nights. No longer did blasts of gun powder, issues of smoke, ratcheting metal and cries from the wounded and dying fill the air, but songs commemorating the birth of our Savior, and to these men, peace on earth had come.