Something remarkable happened 100 years ago in 1914 on Christmas Day – enemy troops threw down their weapons and greeted each other in peace. It was a rare moment when the good in religion transcended the evil created by political governments. And it is a story of when front-line troops, the ones really bearing the burdens of war, took the leadership role and ignored the commands of their leaders.
World War I in 1914. In August 1914 Germany declared war on France and began several aggressive attempts to move into France. Britain came to France’s defense and by the fall of 1914 was helping France fight back against the Germans. The two sides had reached what some might refer to as a stalemate from almost the North Sea down to the border of Switzerland. Each side had dug its own trenches to protect its forces. This became known as “the Western Front.” These battle scenes were recently made famous in Downtown Abbey and the film War Horse.
While the troops would fight each other in skirmishes, they also had more down time. The German and British troops began to fraternize and cooperate with each other. They would allow each to retrieve their dead and wounded soldiers. They would yell friendly things back and forth. And, occasionally, share stories and food.
Christmas 1914. As Christmas approached that year, there was already a modest level of cooperation among some enemy troops. By Christmas, though, many thousands of troops left their trenches and made peace for the moment with the enemy. As Frank Richards, a British soldier wrote, “On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one…. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.”
While it was a dangerous thing to do, and often happened against the orders of superiors, the practice spread all along the Western Front. It became known as the “Christmas truce”. During this truce soldiers from both sides began to trade goods like plum pudding from the British troops and pipes from the Germans. And they prayed, buried dead troops, sang carols, shared dinner and even played soccer.
This truce only lasted a few days until senior officers got more aggressive about increasing the battle attacks and strategies and even a few court-martials for those front-line leaders who commenced the peaceful activities.
This year the British grocery store, Sainsbury, produced a video advertisement to honor this moment of peace 100 years ago. (This is an interesting and subtle three-minute commercial.)
It does teach us what can happen when we approach others in the spirit of peace and cooperation. While I understand there are many layers to the complexity of war, this reminds me to think first about using cooperation as a strategy – it might just lead to the best outcome.