|Christmas Truce Angus McBride|
All along the front the guns fell silent and the strains of “Stille Nacht” floated through frozen air, hanging like angel-song between warring armies…
The Christmas Truce of 1914 has become steeped in a rich mythology all of its own. We have fallen in love with the moment when the shooting stopped, soldiers all along the Western Front breathed a sigh, and humanity briefly turned away from its struggle to destroy. The images of Tommies and Germans exchanging cigarettes and schnapps in No Man’s Land, along with the stories of impromptu games of football and carol-singing have become cherished symbols of humanity’s ability, just occasionally, to rise above hatred and violence, and to allow the expression of compassion, fellow-feeling and decency. That moment in history, we like to believe, shows us that we are so much more than we often fear ourselves to be and that it is really the better angels of our natures which are in charge of our destinies. For a brief while the bloodshed paused, and there really was “Peace on Earth; Goodwill to All”.
Of course, it wasn’t quite like that. The Truce was not held all along the line; indeed, in some sectors of the front fierce fighting continued through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There were many instances of fraternisation involving cigarettes and alcohol, but, alas, there are no accounts in any official records or personal reminiscences of those football matches so beloved of the public imagination and advertising executives. In fact, often the “festivities” were limited to a mutual agreement to allow the collection and burial of dead from No Man’s Land and an undertaking “not to shoot first”. No, the fabled Truce was not all it is cracked up to be.
But, as with all fables, the Truce’s power lies not in the truth of historical detail from which it springs, but in the wider truth we take from it. Take the fabulous story we are celebrating now. Is the Nativity Story a Christian fable? What is the kernel of truth here? Was Jesus really born in a stable attended by shepherds and angels? Did wise men really follow a star to find him? Does it matter whether any of it actually happened as described? I don’t know, but in a sense the matter of fact is not important to me because I do know that the story, dramatic and poignant, points to the wonderful truth of God’s great love for us.
Similarly, the story of the Truce, however embellished, tells us that even in the midst of war’s soulless, industrialised misery enemies can put aside their differences and simply be human. True, throughout all wars there have been individual instances of kindness, compassion and love shown between those who should hate each other, but the collective act of the Truce has become for us all a precious icon of the best, rather than the worst of what we can be. In the generous exchange of cigars and whisky, the sharing of photographs and songs, and even in the fictional additions of football matches we see the truth of which we constantly need reminding: that, wherever we are, whatever the circumstances, God is alive in us.
Nigel Day Director of Music CTK, Battyeford