World war I was entering into its fifth month. Millions of soldiers bedded down in makeshift trenches across the European countryside. Opposing armies were dug in within 30 to 50 yards of each other, within shouting distance. The conditions were hellish. The bitter-cold winter air chilled to the bone. The trenches were waterlogged. Soldiers shared their quarters with rats and vermin. Dead soldiers littered the no-man’s land between opposing forces, the bodies left to rot and decompose within yards of their still-living comrades.
As dusk fell over the battlefields, something extraordinary happened. The Germans began lighting candles on the thousands of small Christmas trees that had been sent to the front to lend some comfort to the men. The German soldiers began to sing Christmas carols – first “Silent Night”, then a stream of other songs followed. The English soldiers responded with applause, at first tentatively, then with exuberance. They began to sing Christmas carols back to their German foes to equally robust applause.
A few men from both sides crawled out of their trenches and began to walk across the no-man’s-land toward each other. As word spread across the front, thousands of men poured out of their trenches. They shook hands, exchanged cigarettes and cakes and showed photos of their families. They talked about where they hailed from, reminisced about Christmases past, and joked about the absurdity of war.
As the Christmas sun rose over the battlefield, tens of thousands of men talked quietly with one another. Enemies just 24 hours earlier, they found themselves helping each other bury their dead comrades. More than a few pickup soccer matches were reported. Even officers at the front participated, although when the news filtered back to the high command in the rear,the generals took a less enthusiastic view of the affair.
Worried that the truce might undermine military morale, the generals quickly took measures to rein in their troops. The surreal “Christmas truce” ended as abruptly as it began – a small blip in a war that would end four years later with 8.5 million military deaths – but for a few short hours, no more than a day, tens of thousands of human beings broke ranks, not only from their commands but from their allegiances to country to show their common humanity.
While the battlefield is supposed to be a place where heroism is measured in one’s willingness to kill and die, these men chose a different type of courage. They reached out to each other’s very private suffering and sought solace in each other’s plight. Walking across no-man’s-land, they found themselves in each other.
The men at Flanders expressed a deep human sensibility – one that emanates from the very marrow of human existence. We need only ask ourselves why we feel so heartened at what these men did. They chose to be human.