I’ve been studying World War I. In a word, it was horrifying – 40 million military and civilian casualties. There were, of course, many stories of bravery and kindness along with the brutality. Here’s just one story of mans’ humanity to his fellow man.
This was a war fought from trenches. Battles gained little ground and what was gained was often lost the next day. Instead, wins were measured by the number of enemy killed.
Opposing trenches could be as close as 100 feet apart – soldiers could hear each other talking. On Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers could hear their enemies singing Christmas carols. One British soldier recounted:
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
Some reported German soldiers calling out “Merry Christmas” as they emerged from their trenches; others held up signs “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Slowly both sides met in “no man’s land” and, over the course of the day, shook hands and exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. About 100,000 soldiers are thought to have participated in this extemporaneous truce. It also allowed the soldiers to bury their dead, many of whom had lain fallen for weeks.
There is much that divides us today but nothing like the chasm of this war’s no man’s land – hopefully our humanity will prevail and allow us to meet in the middle and shake hands.
P.S. Peter Jackson has directed an excellent documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old”, refurbishing 100-year old film footage from World War I paired with recorded accounts of British soldiers who fought on the Western Front.