by Charlene Paul
When I first heard this story, I was sure it was some kind of urban legend. It was a heartwarming story, but it sounded too good to be a true one. I asked friends if they had ever heard about, and none of them said they had. I re-told the story a few times thinking it was one of those feel-good, made-up tales that help us believe humankind isn’t doomed.
And then a friend gave me a tiny, little book filled with Christmas stories. As I flipped through the pages, I came to a story titled, “Truce in the Trenches, 1914.” There it was, in black and white. I had proof for the naysayers.
Years later, I heard Walter Cronkite, acclaimed American broadcast journalist, narrate the story with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. His voice, symbol of “honesty, objectivity, and good humor,” captivated me. It was in his telling of this story that it became real to me. I was then, and am still today, moved to tears when I listen to his rendition.
I hope this true-to-life urban legend brings you peace and comfort this holiday season.
December 1914 was cold and wet across Europe. The skies were often black with the smoke from bombs and machine guns. Young men were far away from their homes and their loved ones. Young wives and mothers worried and longed for their men to return. The nations of Europe were at war, a war that involved digging in and standing one’s ground in order to survive.
The German army was a force to be reckoned with as it marched across Belgium before being stopped at Flanders Field. Troops from Britain, France, and Belgium hunkered down in trenches, pelted by shrapnel and icy rain. In the freezing temperatures, disease took hold and those who weren’t killed by sniper fire constantly worried about the deadly influenza.
Hopes for a quick resolution to the war waned as the days of December faded from one to another. The Great War, as World War I would come to be known, continued to take its toll on both sides – allied as well as axis troops.
On December 23, a few German soldiers held a Christmas service in the ruins of a bombed-out monastery. Later on that same night, flickering candles began to appear on trees, Tannenbaums, along the German trenches. British soldiers across the way took solace in those lights and sang Christmas carols. Music could be heard from the German side as well.
Against orders, two British officers walked across “No Man’s Land” to the German line to negotiate a truce, but it wasn’t really necessary at that point. For the next two days, glad tidings sprang from hearts of soldiers who all held the season in great reverence.
As Christmas day dawned, the muddy field lay strewn with the bodies of soldiers from both sides who had lost their lives. Slowly, men from each side ventured through the barbed wire to bury their dead. Men who had shot at one another days before prayed together as the twenty-third Psalm was read. For a small moment, peace was felt and all was well.
As the Christmas of 1914 came to an end, soldiers returned to their respective sides with No Man’s Land once again between them. The war would rage on for four long years. Lives would be changed. The landscape would be altered. Governments would crumble. But for a small moment, a brave group of fighting men proved that lines could be crossed, differences could be put aside, and the family of man could be one.
During this holiday season, my hope is that we can all look deeply within ourselves and find that charity transcends all difference. It is my hope that we can disagree without being disagreeable, that we can hold to our convictions without convicting, that we can find our light and let it be a beacon for those who are lost. If a ragtag group of men in the early years of the twentieth century could find their way across No Man’s Land during a raging war, can we not do the same today?