Word of the day: “silent” from “Silent Night”
performed by the Piano Guys
One hundred years ago one million soldiers were killed in World War I in the year 1914 alone. When the war began soldiers left jolly, seeing it as a happy excursion that would last a few months at most. The world had never seen machine guns in a conflict of that scale and the guns’ destructive firepower contributed to a new kind of warfare, trench warfare. Both sides literally dug into the ground while the space between them filled with mines, shells, barbed wire and became appropriately known as no-man’s land. Soldiers rarely survived there; they would be too visible and too vulnerable.
On Christmas Eve 100 years ago in 1914 the British saw lights dotting the German lines and thought that the Germans were preparing to attack.
Private Albert Moren of the 2nd Queens Regiment wrote:*
It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights -I don’t know what they were. And then they sang “Silent Night” — “Stille Nacht.” I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.
Rifleman Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade recalled:
Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air! … First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O Come, All Ye Faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.
The Germans warily attempted to broker a truce. Captain Josef Sewald of Germany’s 17th Bavarian Regiment said:
I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted “No shooting!” Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands—a bit cautiously!
Once the truce was established, one of the first actions they took was to bury their dead and in some areas along the front the Germans and British held joint funeral services. Men exchanged souvenirs and enjoyed a pick-up game of soccer.
Not everyone approved of the truce, and among those was Adolf Hitler. Thus the length of the truce varied across the front, and by the end of December the truce had ended just about everywhere. Still, approximately 100,000 soldiers participated in this unplanned, voluntary peace where, for at least one night, the guns were silent on the western front.
I’m glad to remember them in Flanders fields today. Fourteen years ago I visited some of those battlefields for the first time. Then and now I found the image of sheep safely grazing on the still-pockmarked land now covered over with grass a poetic, sad, and slightly chilling juxtaposition and reminder of this most devastating war. Even as I visited in the summer, the sheep reminded me of the shepherds watching over their flocks in the nativity story, of the Lamb of God, and of the only reliable peace I know.
Merry Christmas. Thank you for sharing this countdown and music with me. All my best wishes for a wonderful Christmas and very happy New Year.
* I got these quotations from this New York Times story.