A Christmas Message of Peace

From the Archive: In today’s “endless war,” there are few moments that inspire hope like the one 102 years ago when soldiers of World War I took a break from killing to exchange Christmas cheer, recalls Gary G. Kohls.

By Gary G. Kohls (First published on Dec. 24, 2015, with updated time)

On Christmas Eve, 102 years ago, one of the most unusual aberrations in the bloody history of the organized mass slaughter that we call war occurred. It was so profound and so disturbing to the professional war-makers that it was never to be repeated again.

“Christian” Europe was in the fifth month of the so-called Great War that would grind on for another four years of what amounted to mutual suicide, ending with all the original participants financially, spiritually and morally bankrupted.

British and German soldiers exchanging headgear during the Christmas Truce of 1914. (From The Illustrated London News of Jan. 9, 1915)

British, Scottish, French, Belgian, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Serbian and Russian clergymen from church pulpits in those overwhelmingly Christian nations were doing their part in fomenting the un-Christ-like patriotic fervor that would result in a holocaust that destroyed four empires, killed upwards of 20 million soldiers and civilians, and resulted in the psychological and physical decimation of an entire generation of young men in France, Britain, Germany and Russia.

Christianity, it needs to be noted, began as a highly ethical religion because of the teachings and actions of the nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth (and his pacifist apostles and followers). Tragically, the nations that profess Christianity as their state religion have, for the past 1,700 years, never nurtured their churches to be truly peacemaking churches.

And, contrary to the ethical teachings of Jesus, modern Christian churches have not been, by and large, actively resisting their particular nation’s imperial aspirations, their aggressive wars or their country’s war-makers and war profiteers. Instead, the churches have become a bloody instrument for whatever warmongers and corporations that have achieved political and economic power.

So, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see that the religious leaders that were involved in World War I were convinced that God was on their particular side and therefore not on the side of those followers of Jesus that had been fingered as enemies on the other side. The obvious contradiction (that both sides were worshipping and praying to the same god) escaped the vast majority of combatants and their spiritual counselors.

Pulpits and pews all over Europe with few exceptions reverberated with flag-waving fervor, sending clear messages to their doomed warrior-sons that it was their Christian duty to march off to kill the equally doomed Christian soldiers on the other side of the line. And for the civilians back home, it was their Christian duty to “support the boots on the ground” who were destined to return home dead or among many of the survivors wounded, psychologically and spiritually broken, disillusioned and faithless.

A mere five months into this frustratingly stalemated war (newly featuring trench warfare, artillery, machine guns, tanks, aerial bombardment and poison gas), the first Christmas of the war on the Western Front seemed to offer a respite to the exhausted, freezing and demoralized troops.

Christmas was the holiest of Christian holidays for all sides, and in this time of death, hunger, thirst, frostbitten limbs, sleep deprivation, shell shock, suicidality, traumatic brain injuries, mortal wounds and homesickness, Christmas 1914 had a very special meaning.

Christmas reminded the soldiers of the good food, safety, warm homes and beloved families that they had left behind and which – they now suspected – they might never see again. They did not yet know that even if they survived physically, they would never be the same again.

The soldiers in the trenches desperately sought some respite from the misery of the water-logged, putrid, rat- and lice-infested, corpse-ridden and increasingly frozen trenches.

Trench Warfare in 1914

By this time, the frontline soldiers on both sides were wondering how they could possibly have fallen for the propaganda campaigns that had convinced them that their side was pre-destined to be victorious and that they would be “home before Christmas” where they would be celebrated as conquering heroes.

Trench warfare during World War I.

Instead, each frontline soldier was at the end of his emotional rope because of the unrelenting artillery barrages against which they were defenseless. If they weren’t killed or physically maimed by the artillery shells and bombs, they would eventually be emotionally destroyed by “shell-shock” (now known as posttraumatic stress disorder – PTSD), suffering horrifying nightmares, flashbacks (usually misdiagnosed as a sign of mental illness), blindness, sleep deprivation, suicidality, depression, hyper-alertness and any number of other mental and neurological abnormalities, including traumatic brain injury.

Among the other common “killers of the soul” were the perpetual hunger, malnutrition, infections (such as typhus and dysentery), louse infestations, trench foot, frostbite and gangrenous toes and fingers. None of these survivors would truly appreciate being lauded as a military hero in future parades staged in their honor.

Poison gas attacks from both sides, albeit begun by scientifically-superior Germany, began early in 1915, and Allied tank warfare which was a humiliating disaster for the British innovators of the tank – wouldn’t be operational until the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

One of the most stressful realities for the frontline soldiers was the suicidal, misbegotten, “over the top” infantry assaults against the opposition’s machine gun nests. Such assaults were complicated by the shell holes and the rows of coiled barbed wire that sometimes made them sitting ducks. Artillery barrages from both sides commonly resulted in tens of thousands of casualties in a single day.

The over-the-top infantry assaults that sacrificed hundreds of thousands of obedient soldiers were stupidly (and repeatedly) ordered by senior officers such as Sir John French and his replacement as British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig. Most of the old-time generals of a century ago had trouble admitting that their out-dated horse and saber cavalry charges across the muck of No-Man’s Land were both hopeless and suicidal).

The general staff planners of their disastrous attempts to end the war quickly (or at least end the stalemate) were safely out of the range of enemy artillery barrages. The general staff war planners were always comfortably back at their warm and dry headquarters, eating well, being dressed by their orderlies, and drinking their tea – none of them at any risk of suffering the lethality of war.

The continuous digging with their entrenching tools in order to improve the safety of the trenches was frequently interrupted by preparations for attack. Screams of pain often came from the wounded soldiers who were helplessly hanging on the barbed wire or trapped and/or bleeding to death in the bomb craters. Often their deaths would linger for days, and the effect on the troops in the trenches, who had to listen to the desperate, unanswerable cries for help was psychologically devastating.

By the time Christmas came and winter hit, troop morale on both sides of No Man’s Land had hit rock bottom.

Christmas in the Trenches

So on Dec. 24, 1914, the exhausted troops settled down to Christmas with gifts from home, special food, special liquor, chocolate bars and the hope for peace, even for only one night.

A magnanimous (and deluded) Kaiser Wilhelm had ordered 100,000 Christmas trees with millions of ornamental candles to be sent up to the front, expecting that such an act would boost German troop morale. Using the supply lines for such militarily unnecessary items was ridiculed by the most hardened officers, but nobody suspected that the Kaiser’s Christmas tree idea would backfire and instead be a catalyst for an unplanned-for cease-fire, a singular event previously unheard of in the history of warfare and one that was ultimately censored out of mainstream history books for most of the next century.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a spontaneous event that happened at a multitude of locations all along the 600 miles of trenches that stretched across Belgium and France, and it was an event that would never again be duplicated. An attempt at a Christmas Truce in 1915, orchestrated by the boots on the ground, was quickly put down by senior officers.

Ten years ago, the movie “Joyeux Noel” (French for “Merry Christmas”) received an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film of 2005. It tells the moving tale that was adapted from the many surviving stories that had been told in letters from soldiers who had participated in the truce.

As told in the movie, some young German started singing “Stille Nacht.” Soon the British, French and Scots on the other side of No Man’s Land joined in with their versions of “Silent Night.” Before long, the spirit of the Prince of Peace and “goodwill towards men” prevailed over the demonic spirit of war, and the troops on both sides began to sense their common humanity.

The natural human aversion to killing other humans broke through to consciousness and overcame the fear, patriotic fervor and pro-war brainwashing to which they had all been indoctrinated.

Soldiers on both sides gradually dropped their weapons and came out of their trenches to meet their former foes face-to-face. They had to step around shell holes and over frozen corpses (which were later to be given respectful burials during an extension of the truce, with soldiers from both sides helping one another with the gruesome task).

The spirit of retaliation had been replaced by a spirit of reconciliation – and the desire for peace on earth. New friends shared chocolate bars, cigarettes, wine, schnapps, soccer games and pictures from home. Addresses were exchanged, photos were taken and every soldier who genuinely experienced the emotional drama was forever changed.

And the generals and the politicians were appalled.

An Act of Treason

Fraternization with the enemy (as well as refusing to obey orders in time of war) is regarded by military commanders as an act of treason and is severely punishable. In the “Great War,” such crimes were dealt with by firing squad.

In the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914, most officers feared mutiny and did not want to draw public attention to the potentially contagious incidents by using such penalties. War correspondents were forbidden to report the unauthorized truce to their papers. Some commanding officers threatened courts martial if fraternization persisted (getting to know your supposed enemy was obviously bad for the killing spirit).

There were still lighter punishments to be invoked. Many of the Allied troops were re-assigned to different and less desirable regiments. Many German troops were sent to the Eastern Front under much harsher conditions, to fight and die in the equally suicidal battles against their Russian Orthodox Christian co-religionists.

If humanity is truly concerned with the barbaric nature of militarism, and if our modern-era wars of empire are to be effectively derailed, the story of the Christmas Truce needs to be retold again and again. These futile, unaffordable and very contagious modern wars are being fought by vulnerable, thoroughly indoctrinated Call of Duty or Halo first-person shooter gamers who, unbeknownst to them, are at high risk of having their lives negatively and permanently altered by the physical, mental and spiritual damage that always comes from participating in actual violence.

Combat war can easily doom its participants to a life overwhelmed by the wounds of war (PTSD, sociopathic personality disorder, suicidality, homicidality, loss of religious faith, traumatic brain injury, neurotoxic, addictive drug use, either legal or illegal) all of which, it must be pointed out, are totally preventable.

It seems to me that it would be helpful if moral leadership in America, especially its Christian leaders, would discharge their duty to warn the children and adolescents that are in their spheres of influence about all of the serious consequences that being in the killing professions can have on their souls and psyches.

War planners do whatever it takes to keep soldiers from recognizing the humanity of their enemies, whether they are Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Vietnamese, Chinese or North Koreans. I have been told by many military veterans that military chaplains, who are supposed to be nurturers of the souls of the soldiers that are in their “care,” never bring up, in their counseling sessions, the Golden Rule, Jesus’s clear “love your enemies” commandment and his other ethical teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.

Military chaplains seem to just be another cog in the apparatus of making war maximally effective for their military, economic, political and corporate overlords. Christian chaplains, who are very well paid, seem to not pay much attention to the Ten Commandments either, especially the one that says “thou shalt not kill.”

In their defense, I suppose, military chaplains, similar to their colleagues from divinity school, may have never been schooled adequately (beginning in their Sunday School upbringings) in the profoundly important gospel truths about humility, mercy, non-violence, non-domination, non-retaliation, unconditional love and the rejection of enmity.

Theological Blind Spots of War

These theological blind spots are nicely illustrated near the end of the “Joyeux Noel” movie in a powerful scene depicting a confrontation between the Christ-like, altruistic, antiwar Scottish chaplain and his Calvinist bishop.

As the chaplain was mercifully administering the “last rites” to a dying soldier, he was approached by the bishop, who had come to chastise the chaplain for fraternizing with the enemy during the Christmas Truce. The bishop summarily relieved the simple pastor of his chaplaincy duties because of his “treasonous and shameful” behavior on the battlefield.

The authoritarian bishop refused to listen to the chaplain’s story about his having performed “the most important mass of my life” (with German troops participating in the celebration) or the fact that he wished to stay with the soldiers that needed him because they were losing their faith in God. The bishop angrily denied the chaplain’s request to remain with his men.

The bishop then delivered a rousing pro-war, jingoistic sermon (which was taken word-for-word from a homily that had actually been delivered by an Anglican bishop later in the war). The sermon was addressed to the fresh troops who had to be brought in to replace the veteran soldiers who, because their consciences had been awakened, had suddenly become averse to killing and were refusing to fire their rifles.

The image of the dramatic but subtle response of the chaplain to his sacking should be a clarion call to the Christian church leadership of our militarized, so-called “Christian” nation – both clergy and lay. This good man of God hung up his cross and walked out of the door of the field hospital.

“Joyeux Noel” is an important film that deserves to be annual holiday fare. It has ethical lessons even more powerful than “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Carol.”

One of the lessons of the story is summarized in the concluding verse of John McCutcheon’s famous song about the event. It is title “Christmas in the Trenches”:

“My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell.

Each Christmas come since World War One, I’ve learned its lessons well: That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”

A critical scene from the movie is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPk9-AD7h3M

Additional scenes from the move, with the narration of a letter from one of the soldiers involved can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehFjkS7UBUU

Dr Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, Minnesota. He writes a weekly column for the Reader, Duluth’s alternative newsweekly magazine. Many of his columns are archived at http://duluthreader.com/articles/categories/200_Duty_to_Warn

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22 comments for “A Christmas Message of Peace

  1. Sam F
    December 24, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Political and religious leaders and their propaganda media do not teach the “truths of humility, mercy, non-violence, non-domination” let alone the psychic consequences because they are not moral leaders. They rise to power solely through lack of ethics, demagoguery, and fearmongering. The young believe them because government and religion obviously do not bring peace. The right wing rises to power on fear of the right wing elsewhere.

    The lesson is that leaders cannot resolve disputes due to poor government structure, and poor social and political education, largely due to the control of mass media and elections by big business.

    We need a true Progressive party for moral leadership. We will not shed the right wing if the Dems field another fake liberal to catch the backlash from Trump. We shall have 40 to 80 years of containment by better nations, punctuated by military defeats and market crashes. The right wing warmongers will blame the left for all of that until they are all dead or in prison, and the sooner the better.

  2. Zachary Smith
    December 24, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    A Much Smaller Christmas Truce in 1944

    Two remarks about this one – it happens to be the truth, and for some reason it has a deeper impact on me than even the one in 1914.

  3. Zachary Smith
    December 24, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Gus Plays a Diplomatic Role

    An old Christmas favorite of mine. I doubt if this tiny story – or anything like it – would be allowed in the pages of either the New York Times or the Washington Post.

  4. Zachary Smith
    December 24, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Christmas Eve at the Model Garage

    Martin Bunn seems to have written only two of these stories. More the pity!

  5. Zachary Smith
    December 24, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    The Season for Forgiveness

    Opinions vary widely, but it’s mine that Poul Anderson was the best science fiction writer of all time. This was first published in the December 1973 Boy’s Life magazine.

    docsford.com/document/813606

    (backup if Google Books becomes uncooperative)

  6. Emanuel E Garcia
    December 24, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    Actually that episode inspires despair. Why didn’t the soldiers simply throw down their arms and decide not to fight at all, when it was well within their grasp? A real and sane revolt against the utter insanity of murder.

    THAT would have been hope.

    • Zachary Smith
      December 24, 2016 at 5:53 pm

      It wouldn’t have worked. The 1917 Mutinies were met with a combination of “carrot” and “stick”.

      The new commander General Philippe Pétain restored morale by talking to the men, promising no more suicidal attacks, providing rest for exhausted units, home furloughs, and moderate discipline.

      and

      Starting 8 June the military authorities took swift and decisive action: mass arrests were followed by mass trials. Those arrested were selected by their own officers and NCOs, with the implicit consent of the rank and file. There were 3,427 conseils de guerre (courts-martial).

      There was a rumor the French marched troublesome divisions to “quiet” sectors” and hit them with French artillery as punishment. The wiki claims this didn’t happen, but I’ll always wonder.

    • Bill Bodden
      December 24, 2016 at 8:00 pm

      Why didn’t the soldiers simply throw down their arms and decide not to fight at all, when it was well within their grasp?

      One factor that played a role was the traditional subservience of people in the lower economic classes of that era to those in the upper classes that provided the officer corps. One saving grace for those in the ruling classes that endorsed the war was their willingness to put their own lives and the lives of their children on the front lines where they were at great risk. Rudyard Kipling was a writer who was a gung-ho propagandist for the war and was proud of his son serving on the front – until his son went missing and was never found again leaving Kipling in a state of grief until his own death. A lesson in the reality of war that was learned too late.

      • Joe Tedesky
        December 25, 2016 at 11:08 pm

        I think Teddy Roosevelt suffered the same fate with his son who died in WWI, as Kipling did.

        The only lesson that was learned by the elite after WWI, was that the monarchs would move to the back of the limelight, and push the politicians to center stage.

  7. Bill Bodden
    December 24, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    On Christmas Eve, 102 years ago, one of the most unusual aberrations in the bloody history of the organized mass slaughter that we call war occurred. It was so profound and so disturbing to the professional war-makers that it was never to be repeated again.

    At the end of the war in the early hours of the 11th day of November, 1918, despite the war-makers knowing that an armistice would be signed at 11:00 in the morning some of them insisted on fighting until the last minute ensuring that more people would die in vain. US Generals Pershing and MacArthur wanted the war to continue and take the fighting on to German soil despite millions of soldiers and civilians having been killed or maimed physically or mentally during the preceding years.

    Fast forward to the 21st Century and we find an abundance of warmongers who have learned nothing from past wars. Instead, their corrupt souls are looking for more wars.

    • Zachary Smith
      December 24, 2016 at 10:07 pm

      My link speaks of Pershing, but doesn’t seem to mention MacArthur.

      To Pershing the very idea of an armistice was repugnant. ‘Their request is an acknowledgment of weakness and clearly means that the Allies are winning the war,’ he maintained. ‘Germany’s desire is only to regain time to restore order among her forces, but she must be given no opportunity to recuperate and we must strike harder than ever.’ As for terms, Pershing had one response: ‘There can be no conclusion to this war until Germany is brought to her knees.’

      http://www.historynet.com/world-war-i-wasted-lives-on-armistice-day.htm

      Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, Pershing was right. The Germans were quickly chanting the “We Weren’t Defeated” theme, and that led directly to WW2. But the man WAS NOT the person making the strategic political decisions, and he was many kinds of murderous fool to slaughter his Army and Marine troops just to make a meaningless point.

      MacArthur was an ambitious jackass in WW1 same as he was later. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he didn’t try to “suck up” to Pershing by pushing his own units into deadly and pointless action at the eve of peace.

      I’ve read that :Pershing was a political General who go undeserved promotions because he married well. Wouldn’t surprise me if this is the truth.

      • Bill Bodden
        December 24, 2016 at 11:04 pm

        Zachary: This was my source for that day: Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918: World War I and Its Violent Climax by Joseph E. Persico

        Pershing and MacArthur were both political climbers. MacArthur’s mommy had a lot to do with his rise. Of course, some of our recent and current generals appear to have also climbed the political ladders.

        • Joe Tedesky
          December 25, 2016 at 11:01 pm

          One of my Dad’s friends served under MacArthur, and he said that MacArthur’s nickname was ‘dugout Doug’.

  8. Bill Bodden
    December 24, 2016 at 8:07 pm

    Pulpits and pews all over Europe with few exceptions reverberated with flag-waving fervor, sending clear messages to their doomed warrior-sons that it was their Christian duty to march off to kill the equally doomed Christian soldiers on the other side of the line.

    Related: “American Imperialism’s Military Chaplains” by Rev. William Alberts – http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/07/24/american-imperialisms-military-chaplains/

  9. Emanuel E Garcia
    December 24, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    All the more credit to Muhammad Ali when he refused to serve in Vietnam.

    • David Smith
      December 25, 2016 at 2:29 am

      EEG, my reply to your comment is below.

  10. David Smith
    December 25, 2016 at 2:25 am

    Ali was playing a celebrity game for fame, media attention, girls and so he could refuse to pay restaurant bills with no consequences. How about some credit to the U.S. Army helicopter pilot who landed his chopper between Lt. Calley’s scumbags and the unarmed Vietnamese civilians the courageous Lt. Shithead was intent on murdering? He ordered his door gunner to point the M-60 at Calley’s heroes to stop them. All he got back in The States was death threats and dead animals left on his front porch. I doubt he felt entitled to walk out on restaurant bills for what he achieved.

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      December 30, 2016 at 7:51 pm

      Do have any evidence for that accusation against Muhammed Ali? Since the war was popular at that time, I rather doubt that fame was his motivation. Now, considering the fact that you are anti-Semitic, anti-Semites are often anti-black racists, Muhammed Ali was black, and the helicopter guy you talk about is white…I think I know YOUR motivation for saying that about Ali.

  11. backwardsevolution
    December 25, 2016 at 6:44 am

    Gary Kohls – very good article. Thank you for posting it. My son, a master Halo gamer, does not glorify war. He has heard “War, what is it good for, absolutely nothing” since he was knee high to a grasshopper. We have discussed over and over how wars are started and why, and how they always end up with a whole lot of poor kids dying, never the ones (or their children) who start them. I have hammered into him how overcome I was at seeing the Vietnam Memorial, reading that the average age of the dead was 19, seeing the distraught families searching for their loved one’s name on the wall. I’ve told him about how his relative, at the young age of 17, joined the Black Watch in Scotland, said good-bye to his family and went off to his death in the Boer War. It was a slaughter; they were sitting ducks. And for what?

    I like what you said about “do unto others”. I think this is significant. How many families ever teach their kids this anymore? How many families ever teach their kids at all? How many families instill in their children a sense of honor that their grandfather or father was in a war; the whole thing is glorified in the minds of the child, so much so that when he grows up, he wants to be just like dad or grandpa. Instead, that grandfather ought to be telling his grandson about the horrors of war.

    “Do unto others” has to be learned early, like a language, and it should come from the family. Too many people speak the words, but they really don’t feel them. Maybe it’s because we’ve been so conditioned to follow rules and orders that we never really ended up thinking for ourselves.

    • Joe Tedesky
      December 25, 2016 at 11:05 pm

      There are a lot of politicians, generals, and diplomats, in DC who should be taught the ‘do undo others’ lesson.

  12. Brian
    December 25, 2016 at 10:38 am

    The Resurrection Painting

    Artist Ron DiCianni who is known for his murals of Christianity discusses The Resurrection Painting which he was recently commissioned to paint. Painting The Resurrection took Ron two years to complete due to the murals size and level of detail.

    https://youtu.be/-yABivU-AKQ

  13. December 26, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    December 24, 2016
    There Will Be No Merry Christmas

    There will be no merry Christmas for the victims of wars
    Their countries are in ruins because of war criminal whores
    Their homes have been destroyed and huge numbers are dead
    While others are wandering and searching for bread

    Others are refugees and seeking to escape
    From the hellish bombings that the West and its “allies” helped create
    Others are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea
    Along with their children as they try to flee

    There is no “peace on earth or goodwill to men”
    When war criminals rule that are evil and insane
    These mad men in power are totally corrupt
    They are the “people” that caused wars to erupt

    Justice has been killed and truth has become lies
    These demons from hell make sure decency dies
    Evil is what they’re spreading around this world
    Their plotting and planning is being fulfilled

    They need to be arrested and put on trial
    Their crimes and atrocities are monstrously vile
    Will something be done, will we see justice at last?
    For unless this happens, there will be no Merry Christmas

    Stephen J. Gray
    December 24, 2016.
    http://graysinfo.blogspot.ca/2016/12/there-will-be-no-merry-christmas.html

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