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McCULLOUGH: Christmas hope from the unlikeliest of places

Christmas Eve, 1914, Ypres, Belgium, on the Western Front.

Europe has been at war since August. Military tactics have not caught up with the technology of destruction, and it’s become apparent that the war everyone thought would be over by Christmas will drag on.

To learn more

For a complete account of the 1914 cease-fire, read “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” by Stanley Weintraub.

A network of trenches has been dug that stretches from the English Channel to the other side of France. On one side sit the British and French with their assorted allies. On the other side, the Germans and theirs.

Life in the trenches is utmost misery. They are cramped, cold, and damp. Frequent rain fills them with mud and water. Clothing, boots and feet rot from the constant murk. Uniforms are infested with lice. Rats feed on the bodies that lie exposed. The stench of decay, waste and death is overwhelming. Some call it Hell on Earth. Others say Hell can’t possibly be this bad.

By Christmas Eve, the constant rain has been replaced by frost. As darkness approaches at Ypres it is mostly quiet, but soldiers remain vigilant, so when a British sentry hears a curious noise coming from the other side, the troops go on alert.

The German and British trenches are quite close in places, and the soldiers often taunt each other during lulls. But the voices the British hear this night are not taunting. They are singing.

The strains waft in German across the area between the trenches called No Man’s Land:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,

Alles schläft, einsam wacht

At first, no one knows what the song is. A British commander warns men to be aware. “Fritz” may be preparing some sort of trick.

But then one of the British soldiers recognizes the tune, and without asking permission, answers in English:

’Round yon virgin Mother and Child

Holy infant so tender and mild

Before commanders can stop it, men on both sides join in:

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh

Sleep in heavenly peace

Throughout the night both sides continue to sing carols. Then on Christmas Day a lone German soldier crawls from his trench and begins to walk across No Man’s Land, a suicidal act of such lunacy that stunned British soldiers can only stare in curiosity. He is carrying something. The British watch as he waves to them and tries to show he is not armed. As he gets closer, it becomes obvious what he is carrying.

It’s a Christmas tree.

Wary British commanders tell their men to keep their heads down, but it’s a useless order. One of the men crawls out to meet the German and accept his gift. They shake hands, and the German delivers his message: We won’t shoot today, if you won’t.

As the word spreads, soldiers on both sides emerge and meet in the middle. Some bring food or tobacco to trade. Others pose for pictures. They share stories of home, some “enemies” even finding out they were neighbors before the war.

As the day wears on someone produces a soccer ball and an impromptu pitch is created in the middle of No Man’s Land. Men who’ve been shooting at each other for months spend Christmas playing a game. (By most accounts, the Germans won 3-2.)

At some point during the day, the soldiers stop and help each other bury the dead. Foes stand shoulder to shoulder and hold a memorial for those who’ve celebrated their last Christmas.

All up and down the Western front are similar scenes. Of course, the message doesn’t get through to everyone, and in some places the fighting goes on. But for many, Christmas, 1914, becomes a day to forget the horrors of war. The cease-fire even continues past Christmas in some places.

The men in high places can’t have that, of course. How can you conduct the business of war if the soldiers won’t fight?

The message from above on both sides is delivered loud and clear: Get back to shooting at each other or we will shoot you for treason.

By the beginning of 1915, the message is heard, the truce is off, and the war is back on. It will continue for nearly four more years, cost millions of lives and eventually lead to an even deadlier war. The story of Christmas on the Western Front will be mostly forgotten or dismissed as a fable.

But it wasn’t a fable. Whether the account I just relayed is 50 percent true or 100 percent has always been a source of debate. But what is not debatable is the truce. It happened. Ninety-six years ago, bitter enemies put down their weapons and by mutual agreement called off the war, even if only for a little while.

In the process, they gave us a Christmas gift we should always keep alive and pass on: Proof that peace on Earth is possible.

Remembering that makes for a merrier Christmas.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.