It’s Christmas Eve, and like many of you, I have my holiday playlist on repeat throughout the house. I decided to recycle a popular Stretch this week based on the Christmas song, “Belleau Wood”, by Garth Brooks which relates a first-person account of a true and extraordinary historical event called The Christmas Truce, which occurred during World War I along the Western Front.
On Christmas Eve, 1914, British soldiers were huddled together deep within their trenches, overlooking a strip of battlefield near Ypres, Belgium, called “No Man’s Land.” German soldiers, similarly entrenched on the opposite side, also waited as temperatures dipped well below freezing and a light snow began to fall. Excerpts from letters written by soldiers that night describe “the frozen fields were still; no songs of peace were sung.” The men reflected on how their families back in England were, at that moment, making them the subjects of their Christmas toasts when they suddenly noticed candles being lit and set up along the edge of the German trench. Then, to their great surprise, they heard a young man’s voice sing out clearly the song “Stille Nacht,” which, even in German, was universally recognizable as the Christmas hymn “Silent Night.” He was soon joined by his German comrades and, in turn, by the British soldiers opposite them, singing in English. The sweet sound of the song filled the empty fields between them which had been devastated by bombs, war, and death just hours before.
But even in the midst of this singing, British troops were jolted to attention when their front-line sentry cried out that a lone German soldier had left his trench and was marching across the battlefield, unarmed and holding a white truce flag. Though all of the men aimed their rifles directly at him, no one fired. Within minutes, one by one, all of the men on both sides began leaving their trenches and meeting their enemies unarmed in No Man’s Land. There, they timidly began to shake hands, eventually trading chocolate, cigarettes, and liquor. Some exchanged photographs of their families back home, causing many men to comment later how similar their enemy seemed to themselves. One of the Germans played his violin while a British soldier played his accordion as men launched flares to light up the field in order to play a game of football – the Germans winning, 2 to 1. The soldiers also agreed to allow each side to send burial parties to bring their dead back behind their own lines, and they held joint services to honor the fallen soldiers.
Bruce Bairnsfather, a British soldier who served in the war, wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think and, being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine-gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
With the first signs of daylight, one solider relates in his letter home “with sad farewells we each began to settle back down in our trenches to await the recommencing of war but the question haunted every man who shared this wondrous Christmas Eve: ‘whose family have I fixed within my sight?’ The ones who call the shots may not agree with our little truce and surely won’t be among the dead but each soldier here now knows that on each end of the rifle, we’re the same.”
World War I killed 10 million men and wounded 20 million. Just try to wrap your head around those statistics. The unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 is seen today as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of modern history.
My dear friend, Jana Stanfield, says in one of her songs, “I cannot do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good I can do.” Maybe we cannot single-handedly stop all the brutality, fighting, and ill-intent of everyone or every nation in the world but… if those brave young men fighting hand-to-hand on that frozen battlefield in WWI had the courage to stand up in their trenches and reach across to one another in a bold gesture of peace and kinship… maybe we can kindly smile at the person who rages at us on the freeway instead of fighting back or assume the best in a person and decide we may not know the whole story of why a store clerk is grumpy or treats us less than perfectly. Maybe we could see our way clear to forgive a slight from a colleague, bow out of a conversation which negatively stereotypes an entire race or population, or refuse to laugh at a racial joke at a party.
Symbolic moments of peace. Find your own this holiday season. Opportunities will certainly abound. And remember the words in Garth’s song: “Heaven’s not beyond the clouds, it’s just beyond the fear.”
All of us at LionSpeak are wishing you, your teams, and your families a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a holiday season filled with light, hope, and peace.
Garth Brooks – Belleau Wood
“Oh, the snowflakes fell in silence
Over Belleau Wood that night
For a Christmas truce had been declared
By both sides of the fight.
As we lay there in our trenches
The silence broke in two
By a German soldier singing
A song that we all knew.
Though I did not know the language
The song was “Silent Night.”
Then I heard my buddy whisper,
“All is calm and all is bright.”
Then the fear and doubt surrounded me
‘Cause I’d die if I was wrong
But I stood up in my trench
And I began to sing along.
Then across the frozen battlefield
Another’s voice joined in
Until one by one each man became
A singer of the hymn.
Then I thought that I was dreaming
For right there in my sight
Stood the German soldier
‘Neath the falling flakes of white
And he raised his hand and smiled at me
As if he seemed to say,
Here’s hoping we both live
To see us find a better way.
Then the devil’s clock struck midnight
And the skies lit up again
And the battlefield where heaven stood
Was blown to hell again.
But for just one fleeting moment,
The answer seemed so clear
Heaven’s not beyond the clouds
It’s just beyond the fear.
No, heaven’s not beyond the clouds,
It’s for us to find it here.”