Christmas Truce 1914 (copy)

On Christmas in 1914, soldiers fighting War War I initiated a truce themselves.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., the Rev. William Barber, Dr. Cornell West, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and hundreds of other faith leaders from across the United States and around the world have called for a Christmas Truce in Ukraine in hopes that the carnage could be halted for a period around the holiday, and ideally into the new year.

In a statement, they said:

“As the war in Ukraine rages on, the toll of death and destruction continues to mount and the potential for escalation and the use of nuclear weapons grows. The direct catastrophic impact the war has already had on the people of Ukraine is still unknown but countless thousands of civilians have already died and 14 million have been displaced. The war’s impact is multiplied outside of Ukraine’s borders as rising prices for wheat, fertilizer and fuel are creating growing crises in global hunger and poverty. Whether it’s Christians around the world preparing for Christmas or Jews awaiting the Festival of Lights holiday of Hanukkah all of the Abrahamic faiths embrace the prophetic voice of Isaiah who exhorted us to transform swords into plowshares. In this winter holiday season of peace, we ask our government’s leaders to recall another murderous conflict between nations that took place on the European continent over a century ago.”

That last reference is to the Christmas Truce of 1914 — a brief respite from the death and destruction of World War I that saw soldiers of both sides in the conflict lay down their arms, climb out of their trenches and celebrate together along the 500-mile Western Front.

Alfred Anderson, who died in 2005 at the age of 109, was the last surviving soldier known to have participated in the truce that he referred to as “a short peace in a terrible war.”

That peace, which was initiated not by presidents or prime ministers, but by the soldiers themselves, serves to this day as a reminder that war is seldom so necessary — nor so unstoppable — as politicians would have us believe.

So it comes as no surprise that the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a bit of history that many in power have neglected over the past century. But Anderson’s long survival, and his clear memory, made it impossible to write this chapter out of our history. And it inspires us to this day.

On Dec. 25, 1914, Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier serving with 5th Battalion, Black Watch, of the British Army, one of the first to engage in the bloody trench warfare that was the ugliest manifestation of a war that claimed 31 million lives. On that day, however, there was no violence.

Rather, Anderson recalled in an interview on the 90th anniversary of the truce, “there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas,’ even though nobody felt merry.”

The calls of “Merry Christmas” from the Brits were answered by Germans singing: “Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht.”

The Brits responded by singing “Silent Night” in English. Then, from the trenches opposite them, climbed a German soldier who held a small tree lit with candles and shouted in broken English, “Merry Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot.”

So began the Christmas Truce. Soldiers of both armies — more than 1 million in all — climbed from the trenches along the Western Front to exchange cigarettes and military badges. They even played soccer, using the helmets they had taken off as goalposts. And they did not rush to again take up arms. Along some stretches of the front, the truce lasted into January of 1915.

Eventually, distant commanders forced the bloodshed to resume.

Thus it has ever been with war. As George McGovern, the decorated World War II veteran who would become one of America’s greatest champions of peace, said, “old men (are always) thinking up wars for young men to die in.”

But Alfred Anderson remembered, well beyond the century of two world wars and too many lesser conflicts, the remarkable moment when young soldiers of opposing armies recognized that they had more in common with one another than they did with the old men who had sent them into battle.

The memory of the courage of Anderson and all those who chose, however briefly, to see the humanity in one another, and to lay down their arms during one of the most brutal wars this planet has ever seen, offers hope as Christians again prepare to mark the birth of the Nazarene who was called the Prince of Peace.

If Alfred Anderson and the British and German soldiers of World War I could halt one of the most horrific conflicts of the 20th century, then surely the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers of our time could halt one of the most horrific wars of the 21st century.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. 

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