Truce on Earth, Good Will to All

By Neil Earle

Christmas cheer: soldiers of the 5th London Rifle Brigade with German Saxon regimental troops during the truce at Ploegsteert.

“Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Over the years the story is getting told more often about that first Christmas on the Western Front in 1914 and the song that stopped a war – however briefly.

Along a sector of trenches manned by a Highland Brigade the tough Scots hear the words of a familiar tune wafting from the German lines: “Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht”

The Fritzes were serenading the Porridge Eaters with “Silent Night,” perhaps the most endearing and poignant of Christmas carols.

German soldiers had placed small Christmas trees and candles outside their trenches. Signs appeared in fractured English in the Gothic German script. “You no fight, we no fight.”

Some Brits cautiously left their trenches, then small parties and whole squads quickly formed in the Wasteland called No Man’s Land. German chocolate cake, cognac, postcards, French newspapers, British bully beef (a rare delicacy), Virginia Slims – all were exchanged. In a few places German and British soldiers actually played soccer (“Germany 3 – British 2” reads the official record of the 133rd Saxon Regiment). But first both sides buried their hallowed dead who had been rotting along the front.

The Spirit of Christmas

Frank Richards recorded for BBC History magazine his view of 150 British and Germans gathered in one cluster and 6 or 7 other clumps of men all along the line in front of the 8th Division. In the Vosges Mountains to the South, a young German solider named Richard Schirrman was so inspired by a similar event with French troops that, after the war, he founded the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.

Peace on earth, among men of good will.

For a brief few moments the spirit of Luke 2:14 transformed the living hell of a tiny part of the worst war men had yet seen. It didn’t last long, although some accounts say the spontaneous fraternization went on into the New Year. Frederick Niven, a Scottish poet, later wrote “A Carol from Flanders.”

O ye who read this truthful rime,
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day,
Shall be as Christmas Day.

German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment and British soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment meet in no man's land, December 26.

8˝ million dead and 21 million wounded. This would be the final tally of the Great War, World War One, 1914-1918. That strange Christmas celebration was a will of the wisp. Officers and generals made sure it didn’t happen the next year. On November 21, 2005, Alfred Anderson, the last British witness to the Christmas Truce died in bed, in Newtyle, Scotland at age 105. But the story of that stark and beautiful Silent Night has gathered force. In 2005 a French film celebrating the Christmas Truce, “Joyeux Noel,” won the Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards.

A few years ago many of us got choked up at CNN’s images of our bulked-up sons and daughters leaning their machine guns against an ancient mud-brick wall outside Baghdad or Tikrit or Kandahar singing “Silent Night,” trying to eat some Christmas turkey along with their K-rations, trying to channel some fleeting memory of the season, of home and peace and special faces.

Thus have soldiers of all decades tried to cope. And cope rhymes with hope, a word that embodies part of the spirit of the season we are in.

In what Paul Fuessel called “the Troglodyte World” of the Western Front with its rats, corpses and incessant noise, the brutality of war served as a potent backdrop for recalling Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber’s masterpiece:

“Sleep in heavenly peace”

Peace – the message that makes the Christmas Truce of 1914 so newsworthy and timeless and whose fragile memory has out lasted the names of the great generals of that cruel conflict. Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, he taught “Blessed the peacemakers,” and brought the Gospel of Peace (Ephesians 6:15). Tha teaching possessed a strange power to silence the guns along the Western Front for a precious few hours is a challenge to us today. How can we live out the meaning of the season? What can we, small individual cogs in a world system that seems programmed for regularly recurring wars, what can we do to bring about peace?

Let Peace Begin With Me

Of course the answer is to begin right where we are, in the midst of our human weakness and awkward life situations. Christians represent a kingdom exhibiting great weakness to the outward view – a baby born of a virgin. Yet it will eventually be the last one standing. “Of his kingdom there shall be no end” it says in Luke 1:33. We ambassadors of that Kingdom, we must grasp the opportunities right there before us, right where we live, on our block, in our complex, in our communities. We may feel as insignificant as grains of mustard seed but of such is the seeding of the eternal Kingdom (Matthew 13:38).

How do we practice peace as ambassadors of peace, emissaries of another Kingdom. Books now get pubished mentioning crises at work, the challenging attitudes we can run into at any given time right there on the job (but not all at once, thankfully). Some of them include:

Recognize one or two of these?

These toxic personality types are the people who made a prophet out of the steel executive who said, “A railway is 10% iron and 90% people.”

Yes, it’s people who fight. People who disturb our peace, and people we must learn to get along with. Jesus said the greatest in His kingdom is the slave of all – the Upside Down Kingdom (Mark 10:34). The apostle Paul said he was called to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22). Romans 15:1 says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak and not to please ourselves.”

There isn’t space in this brief commentary except for raising the issue and saying, There are plenty of books and course and articles dealing with the fine art of getting along and even “handling” the people who seem determined to ruin our peace. It was the Prince of Peace who said we were to be as wise as serpents yet harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16).

Secondly, why not make a resolution to learn more about another culture, another ethnic group, another part of the word. One teacher testified that after reading The Life of Frederic Douglass, Escaped Slave he was never able to view black people the same way again. This is called EMPATHY and oh how your complex, your family, your town needs more of that. Just think: t may be that your voice around the family table, at city council, in the board meeting or at happy hour can make the difference in turning suspicion into acceptance: “Now wait a minute, I know this man, I’ve met his family. I’ve learned a few things about his culture. You can’t say they’re all like that.”

Peace on earth among people of good will. Good will – what a beautiful concept.

Our small lives may seem like only mere fragile candles of hope lit against the fierce and gloomy winds of negativism but …such is the way of the Kingdom of God. But we see too many examples of how one person can make a difference. It all begins with being men and women of good will. Holding up our little candle in a darkening world. Deep down, we know that’s what Christianity challenges us to do.