"When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages …
behind the lines … something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and
French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited
each other … and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black
bread, biscuits and ham,” a German soldier, Richard Schirrmann, wrote of a
memorable event in the First World War.
This spontaneous truce took place on Christmas 1915, a year
after such truces sprang up in so many places where armies of several nations
were faced off in trenches bristling with massed rifles and machineguns backed
by artillery barrages that the world war Christmas Truce was enshrined in
One hundred years later, this soldiers’ truce is being
commemorated big time in England,
which lost a generation of men in the war. Speaking at the unveiling of a statue
at the National Memorial Arboretum, Prince William lauded the story of the Christmas
"We all grew up with the story of soldiers from both
sides putting down their arms to meet in no man's land on Christmas Day 1914 -
when gunfire remarkably gave way to gifts,” he said. "It remains wholly
relevant today as a message of hope and humanity, even in the bleakest of times,”
reported the Daily Mail.
The statue’s design of two clasped hands inside a soccer
ball frame commemorates accounts of British and German soldiers singing
familiar carols across the battlefield, then climbing out of their trenches,
exchanging gifts and playing football or soccer.
In commemoration, this year British football leagues
organized Football Remembers events involving thousands of professional,
amateur and youth football players. Information packets about the historic
significance of the Christmas Truce were sent to more than 30,000 schools, the
This story has yet to stir much interest in the US, aside from
an Associated Press story picked up by The Salt Lake Tribune.
“This Christmas, the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s
has taken the idea and turned it into a blockbuster ad, showing opposing
soldiers living the truce amid a football match at the center of the
heart-tugging, some say sanitized, view of that Great War day,” the AP noted of
a stunning video that has been circulating on Facebook.
Meanwhile, the news agency continued, “Michel Platini, the
president of Europe soccer’s governing body, underscored that unique mood of
brotherhood at the unveiling of the Christmas monument on Thursday on the
former battlegrounds known as Flanders Fields in western Belgium, scene
of some of the most horrendous killing. The monument is a steel ball sitting on
the remains of a World War I shell.”
But some Americans get it. Singer-storyteller John
McCutcheon is performing a series of “Christmas in the Trenches” concerts this
month in Knoxville, Seattle,
Kansas City, and New York.
As the Seattle Times reported today, “McCutcheon’s most
treasured memory of ‘Christmas In the Trenches’ having a real impact comes from
a concert he gave in Denmark
30 years ago.
“’I met four German men who traveled from Berlin because they’d heard the song on the
radio and wanted to meet me. They were in their late 80s and had been a part of
the Christmas Truce. They were just kids when it happened. They’d tried to tell
people about it and weren’t believed. I was gobsmacked that they wanted to
thank me,’ he recalled.”
McCutcheon’s tribute to the World War I truce will be the
highlight of his “Christmas in the Trenches” concert at the Great Hall of The
Cooper Union in New York
on December 20. McCutcheon’s audience will include many veterans who fought in
numerous wars since The War to End All Wars.
The 7:30 pm concert is sponsored by the Veterans Peace
Council of Metro New York, whose member organizations include Veterans For
Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Iraq Veterans Against the War,
Military Families Speak Out, and Friends and Family of the Abraham Lincoln
The veterans’ groups issued a public call: “ON THE
CENTENARY OF THE 1914 WORLD WAR I CHRISTMAS TRUCE, LET’S HONOR THE PEACEMAKERS
AND BUILD A PEACE TO END ALL WAR!”
Hopefully, this centennial call will be heard in this season of
Christmas celebrations, amid seemingly endless US
military operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
I'm a poet, journalist, author and editor of several books, including A Citizen's Guide to Grassroots Campaigns, Earth Songs: New and Selected Poems, and Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. I also teach writing workshops and college journalism courses. For more information: www.janbarry.net.