This cartoon was drawn by Capt. E.R.P. Berryman, a British officer who participated in the Christmas truce in December 1914. (In case you can’t read it, the drawing at the top shows a British soldier, on Christmas Eve, shooting a German soldier and exclaiming, ‘Got ‘im!’ The drawing below shows a British soldier on Christmas Day coming out of his trench saying, ‘Bonjour, Fritz.’)
The Christmas truce was a spontaneous series of ceasefires that broke out on the Western Front between regiments of the British and German armies.
It happened again in 1915 though with fewer soldiers, and by 1916 after the carnage of the Battle of the Somme, it ceased.
Later interpretations of these events claim they constituted a rebellion against the insanity and futility of war.
That view is hard to sustain when reading soldiers’ letters from the time. Many saw it as a welcome and temporary lull in the fighting, fully cognisant that they would return to their trenches determined to beat (and kill) the enemy.
Nonetheless, it was a brief interruption in the killing. It was a point of human contact with the enemy. Gifts were exchanged, the dead were buried, and in some places, a football was kicked around. (Contrary to the movie, Joyeux Noel, there was no church service, and certainly no female opera singer in the front line.)
As the cartoon suggests, it was an ambiguous event – fraternising, however briefly, with men who had previously tried to kill you and had likely succeeded in killing your mates. After the truce, one soldier wrote, ‘It really is a funny war, isn’t it? I should like the war to finish, and yet I should like to see the Germans wiped out; they thoroughly deserve it.’
Early in December 1914, Pope Benedict XV had suggested a ceasefire in order to offer an opportunity to the combatant nations to find a peaceful solution to their conflict. That call was unheeded. No combatant nation was interested in finding a peaceful solution.
I visited the northern sector of the Western Front about six weeks ago, which includes the area where the Christmas truce occurred. All along the front line, especially in the cemeteries, there is a discomforting sense of unending and unfathomable sadness.
It’s hard to make sense of the Christmas truce. It appears to hold together, however briefly, impossible contradictions.
I wonder now if it might constitute an unsettling symbol of hope.
The Christmas story in Luke speaks of ‘good news of joy’ and ‘peace on earth.’
There wasn’t peace on earth that Christmas, though there was a little taste of it. And, it was at odds with everything else that caused those soldiers to be sheltering in mud-soaked trenches (Apparently, December 1914 was unusually cold and wet).
Any sense of hope that emerged in the confines of that death-dealing world must have been difficult to comprehend.
In terms of the outcome of World War 1, the Christmas truce was utterly ephemeral. There was, however, a pause, a glimpse, and an opportunity to climb out of the mud and violence and see something different – another human, previously known as an enemy.
The Christmas truce was and is inherently inadequate and insufficient as a sign of hope, but maybe that is the nature of hope.
It is never enough, but it is a glimpse, a confusing glimpse that is nonetheless compelling.