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Monday, June 17, 2024

When the shooting stopped

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After six months of savage fighting, soldiers on both sides were firmly ensconced in their respective trenches. Bullets had incessantly rifled through the air. Planes rained hellfire from above. Masses of bodies lay strewn along the battlefield, falling where warriors had succumbed to the cruel truth of their mortality. The living prayed for relief.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the weapons of war fell silent. Against all rational expectation, a spontaneous truce had begun. A poignant story from that day recounted how one side heard the other side singing, with inescapable irony, “Silent Night”. Other accounts detailed how one side heard calls from their enemies to “meet them halfway” on the battlefield. Slowly, hesitantly, heads began to pop up from the trenches like prairie dogs wary of predators. The trickle eventually became a flood.

The uneasy peace hadn’t been dreamt up – and certainly was not sanctioned by – the men who designed meticulous battle plans. Indeed, those men would issue stern warnings and even threats to their troops not to engage in unauthorized respite from the carnage.

But why had the fighting abruptly halted? What caused the combatants to stop their aggression? The answer is that they did so to commemorate the birth of a child that had taken place long ago in a faraway land. The date was December 24, 1914. Christmas Eve. The conflict was World War I.

Miraculously, the cessation of hostilities was not confined to just one battlefield. While most of the accounts detail exchanges of pleasantries, trinkets, and cigarettes on the Western Front, they also occurred in the East. Small pockets of English, French, German, and Belgian soldiers greeted each other as fellow human beings. Soccer matches broke out. While most of the revelry ranged from a couple hours to a full day, some participants suggested that a few of the truces stayed in effect for days.

Today, there stands a memorial at England’s National Memorial Arboretum commemorating those truces. Prince William dedicated it. On the 100th anniversary in 2014, the German and English national soccer teams staged a friendly match in England to honor the soldiers’ impromptu soccer games. (England won 1-0.) While nobody knows exactly how many troops laid down their arms in order to extend their hands, Time magazine estimated that as many as 100,000 did so.

As is common during times of war, many soldiers wrote about their experiences. (Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five was based on his duty in World War II.) A German Lieutenant named Kurt Zehmisch, who was a schoolteacher by training, journaled about a soccer game in his diary, which was found in an attic near Leipzig in 1999. He wrote in part, “Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

Of course, not every fighter engaged in the merriment. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that a 25 year-old German soldier admonished his comrades during the Christmas Truce, saying that such things should not happen during wartime. That soldier’s name was Adolf Hitler. Still, for many soldiers, a night (or two) of humanity overpowered brutality and bloodlust.

Given its (then) unprecedented devastation, World War I was often referred to as “The Great War” after it ended. Famed author H.G. Wells optimistically dubbed it “The war to end all wars”. He did so because he thought that the conflict would render future wars impossible. Tragically, he was wrong. Technology had given mankind weapons of mass destruction for the first time. An estimated 15 million people were killed as a result. A few decades later, as many as 60 million people were killed in World War II.

The Christmas truces of 100+ years ago were eventually squashed by the leaders of the warring factions. Still, the celebrations were real, if ephemeral. Some people believe that evolution ushers humanity ever forward, making us more civilized. Yet, various devolutionary impulses cast doubt on that hypothesis. Today, there are wars, conflicts, or major uprisings in Sudan, Gaza, Ethiopia, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and myriad other places. Islamist insurgencies plague too many African nations. Some of the conflagrations are civil wars. All of them are uncivil in their actions. Stevie Wonder wrote, “Someday, at Christmas, men won’t be boys – playing with bombs like kids play with toys. One warm December our hearts will see a world where men are free.” From my seat in a Midwestern town during an anthropogenically-caused warm December, I welcome lasting truces, regardless of the reason.

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