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COLUMN: War and the Christmas Truce

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By JIM ADKINS, Guest Columnist

World War I began in August of 1914. Tragically, by December, thousands of young men had died and the war was at a stalemate. Trench warfare had begun and countless German and British boys were cold, scared and homesick. The Christmas season only made matters worse as the soldiers reflected on past holiday seasons spent in warm homes amidst loved ones.

For many, it seemed that things couldn’t get much worse.

Freezing soldiers stood watch in the trenches of both sides looking out upon no-man’s land. Shivering, they looked through the clouds of their own breath for any sign of activity from the enemy lines, only 90 yards away.

The night dragged on and sleepy eyed, the men began nodding off. Catching themselves, they would snap awake, only to start drifting again moments later. It was Christmas Eve on the Western Front.

British sentries were suddenly alert as a new sound drifted across the battlefield. At first, it was faint, but before long it became audible and soldiers popped up all around rushing to the edge of the trench to gaze at the German lines.

Could it be? British faces grinned for the first time in months. The sound of Christmas carols carried over from the German sector.

A flood of emotion touched the dumbstruck British as they remembered the songs of their youth. Although sung in German, all the men recognized the tunes. Tears began to flow down many dirty faces and the English soldiers (called Tommys), silently mouthed the words as the German boys sang them.

After a rendition of “Silent Night,” there was a pause, and as if on cue, the young English soldiers began singing another carol back across the shell-pocked fields near Ypres, Belgium.

As the English peered into the darkness, a light appeared in the distance, then another and another. Soon, the outline of a candle-lit Christmas tree could be seen.

Heads turned all along the trench as the soldiers looked at each other in wonderment, unable to speak. The men stood and watched. Soon, from the distance, a German-accented voice yelled out in English, “Merry Christmas Tommy.”

Several voices erupted in unison from the English trench, “Merry Christmas, Fritz.” Many of the men noted that the incessant artillery fire in the distance had stopped. The sudden silence was eerie after months of shelling.

One of the English soldiers yelled out, “How about a truce, mate?”

“Yah, a truce, we have a truce,” came the German reply.

Soon the soldiers went over the tops of their trenches and walked haltingly toward each other. Within minutes the young men were laughing and joking, trying on one another’s helmets and trading chocolates and tobacco.

Wallets came out and family photos were shown all around.

Then, a soccer ball appeared and an impromptu game began with much good spirited camaraderie, as each side rooted for their team.

After the game, someone brought out a Bible and everyone fell silent and bowed their heads as the 23rd Psalm was read aloud. As the passage reached its midpoint – Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil – Englishmen and Germans alike held hands in a circle.

When it ended, they reverently whispered, “amen.”

After that, the groups of men bade farewell and slowly drifted back to their own lines, realizing that what had taken place was a miracle. In the midst of the savage man-made hell of warfare, the spirit of the season had brought men together in a moment of goodwill and fellowship.

In the months following the Christmas Truce the casualty rates in the area subsided; none of the soldiers seemed able to hit an enemy with a rifle shot. Senior officers in the rear seemed puzzled, but the boys on the front knew why. They didn’t want to harm the friends they had made on that very special Christmas night in December of 1914.

Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, love your enemies…”

Adkins lives in Tell City and has written articles and short stories for several publications.