“It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere,” said Albert Moren as he recalled a Christmas Eve more than hundred years ago. “And they sang ‘Silent Night.’ I shall never forget. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
Moren was a British soldier occupying a trench. The “they” doing the singing were his enemies; German soldiers just yards away, hunkering in their own trenches on the other side of the infamous “No Man’s Land” of the First World War. Moren was describing the impromptu Christmas Truce of 1914.
Thousands of troops – Allied and German forces – poured from their fortifications to celebrate Christmas together. No rifles; no bombs or bayonets; only the singing of carols and the exchanging of modest gifts – cans of beef and jars of sweet jam.
The Great War was only a few months old at the time, having begun the previous summer. Already, thousands were dead, but in the years that followed the combined casualties – military and civilian – would approach 20 million people; a horrific, unprecedented ordeal that would shatter countries, world-views, and the hoped-for utopia indicative of the early 20th century.
Still, peace prevailed, if only for a few hours of Christmas celebration. It was a symbol of the very meaning of Advent. As the angels sang on the first Christmas morning, “Glory to God in the highest! On earth peace, good will to all!”
Peace is a rare thing. Since that spontaneous truce in 1914, our country has carried some 650,000 flag-draped coffins to their final resting place, all while trying to care for more than a million young men and women who have been wounded. Such loss is not the cause of the young soldier in the trench.
He or she is told: “Do this for your country. Do this for the cause. Do this to make the world better.” And with eager hearts he or she goes. As Albert Einstein said, “It is the old men who start wars that the young men must fight;” and as Franklin D. Roosevelt quipped, “War is young men dying with old men talking.”
So, don’t fault the soldier, who by conscience feels compelled to serve. He or she is young, devoted, not parsing geo-political motivations. But don’t think for a minute that the system which put that boy or girl in harm’s way is of the same unimpeachable conscience. Peace will never have a chance so long as politicians, bureaucrats, and moneyed-interests send the best and bravest to the front lines – a place the moguls are unwilling to go themselves.
Albert Moren recognized this a century ago. He said, “If the Christmas truce had gone on, it could have meant the end of the war.” His peer, Murdoch Wood, said the same: “If we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.” Left to ourselves – our common humanity without the interference of power – might be the path to peace.
Photo by Tamara Menzi