It was an amazing spectacle and must arouse bitter thought concerning those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded such men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's quote refers to an event that took place a century ago on this date in 1914. A remarkable "Christmas Truce" was unofficially observed between opposing soldiers of the Great War. It was a profoundly symbolic and poignant moment of peace in what was to become one of the worst conflicts in history.
In the fall of 1914, German armies invaded France through neutral Belgium. Britain was immediately drawn into the war to halt the German invaders. By that winter, both sides reached a stalemate and constructed 450 miles of trenches stretching from the English Channel to Switzerland. At points along the line, the 2 sides were as close as 100 feet or less, separated by a "No Man's Land" in between. At this point, World War I had been underway for less than 5 months, but already it had claimed a million lives.
Exactly when and where the spontaneous cease-fire started is lost to history. But apparently, German troops started it. British soldiers noticed their German enemies decorating the tops of their trenches with candles and Christmas trees. Then followed the singing of "Stille Nacht." When British soldiers responded with "O Come, All Ye Faithful," the Germans joined in with the Latin words. And then, somewhere on Christmas Eve 1914, it began. A few at first, then 100,000 soldiers along the Western Front laid aside their arms, ignored orders, and met their counterparts in No Man's Land. The soldiers told jokes, exchanged food, and in one area even played a game of soccer. It was, as Doyle wrote, “one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war.”
Nowhere was there an officially organized truce that Christmas, but many similar and spontaneous events took place along other fronts. The remarkable truce lasted through Christmas Day and even a few days longer in some sections. Men from both sides were reluctant to return to the business of war and had to be spurred to return to hostilities by firing artillery overhead.
Sadly, this amazing act of peace on Christmas 1914 was not to be repeated for the remainder of the war. In April 1917, America finally was pulled into the war in Europe, and, suffering over 100,000 of her own killed, was able to help tilt the balance in favor of the Allies. By the time the Great War ended in 1918, more than 7 million soldiers died. Overall, 16 million people perished, and another 20 million were injured.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like countless other parents, lost a son in the "war to end all wars." In a generation before, American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, also had a son who served (was severely wounded) on another battlefield during the American Civil War. Longfellow reflected on war in his well-known poem, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Later set to music as a beloved Christmas carol of the same title, the words describe the narrator's despair at hearing Christmas bells, reminding him that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men." But he also sees beyond the despair to hope and comfort. The carol concludes with the bells ringing even more loudly with renewed hope in ultimate peace found in God's righteousness and justice:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."