This year has marked the 100th anniversary of the start of what was called The Great War until another one happened, at which point it had to be called World War I. Man has done some pretty horrible things as a species, but it's very possible that nothing will every match the level of human suffering and waste of human life on such a scale as WWI.
After about five months of fighting, something amazing happened, something that made the Christmas of 1914 unlike any before or since - humanity stopped trying to kill itself. It became known as the Christmas Truce and I didn't find out about it until 9 years ago when my local paper published an article about a resident whose grandfather had been on the front lines in France on December 24, 1914. (This lack in my history knowledge was likely due to the fact that the US didn't enter the war until 1917, so it didn't make the textbooks over here.) Her grandfather was an Australian soldier attached to a Welsh regiment who survived the war and eventually moved to California where he died in 1929.
At some point after he moved to the US, Fredrick John Murray put pen to paper and wrote about his experience that night. It was the only record of his war service that he documented and the yellowed, faded original was kept private by his grand daughter, Gloria Tecca, until 2005 when she had read that the last living witness to the Christmas Truce had passed away that November. The paper published a photo of Murray along with the full text of his account.
Every Christmas since then, I take out my yellowed copy of that newspaper and reread his words. I've never been able to keep from crying when I do. There's a part of me that thinks this was modern civilizations's last chance at sanity and it slipped away. I know that's an incredibly naive way to think about life and war, but the Christmas Truce showed that even in the vilest of situations, men can still recognize each other as fellow human beings regardless of what color uniform they wear or language they speak.
Here now is my transcript of Fredrick John Murray's words. I have tried as best as I can to preserve the wording as it was set in the paper. Any odd English usage is likely because this was written in the 1920's.
Snow covered ground, wet soddened trenches, cold sleety winds, filth, dirt, vermin, and all the horrors of war. What a setting on the Eve of the birthday of the “Prince of Peace”. Attached temporarily to a Welch Regiment – for intelligence – how I wished myself back in sunny Egypt among my own wild Australians. But once in, you must play the game, and as the English Tommy would say, “We’ll go west – one place as another.”
Slowly the hours til midnight drifted away, all was so calm. And still, in our sector, it seemed as if the war had drifted away and that the trench and filth, and all the attendant horrors were only a dream. Occasionally in the distance we would hear the dull boom of a big gun, or see the trailing flash of a rocket in the sky. But in front of us all was still, nothing but the ghostly strands of our own and the German barbed wire, while between the two lay the ghostly strip of no-mans-land, scarce 100 yards wide.
Midnight had passed; softly there came to us the strains of music out of the German trenches. They seemed to be tuning their instruments. Then all at once there burst forth the triumphant strains of “The Soldiers Chorus” from the opera “Faust”. The Welshmen, taking it as a challenge, waited til the Germans had finished; and then there burst forth from our trench the battle song of Wales, “The March of the Men of Harlech”. How those Welshmen sang! It seemed as if the fierce fighting blood of old Owen Glendower flowed a fresh in every man’s veins that night.
We kept low fully expecting a fusillade from the Saxons for we knew – just as they always knew the troops that faced them. Instead of rifle shots, came a burst of applause from the Saxons as the Welshmen finished. Then, from the enemy’s band, came the strains of the music and their soldiers sang the words of that beautiful old German hymn, “Holy Night, Silent Night”.
As the Saxons came to the words, “Peace on earth good will to men”, our men, one by one, slowly rose til their heads were above the parapets. Each soldier seemed like a graven image, so calm and still they stood, til the closing words, “Christ is born indeed, Christ is born indeed”.
And then a sigh, like the dying of the wind, ran through the ranks of those rain soddened, weary soldiers. Their minds drifted back to their Welsh mountain homes, where they too sang those very words in scenes, where war and its horrors were unknown.
Then a voice from the Saxons called out, “Hey Welshmen, sing one of your Carols and we’ll play”. Then, while the Saxon orchestra played, the Welshmen sang “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”.
Oh God, how those rough Welsh miners sang. I have heard great societies in many lands sing, but never did I hear such pathos in words of a song as those men gave that night. Now the Saxons would sing one of their old folk songs, then the Welsh would respond with one of the beautiful quartets, so on they sang alternately while hours oh too quickly passed away.
And then there slowly appeared above the enemy trench, a small lighted Christmas tree laden with cigars and other Christmas joys. “Come over”, they said, “This is for you. We’ll be fighting enough in the future.”
Not to be outdone, one of the Welshmen filled a sand bag with tobacco, cigarettes, candy, and plum pudding and, climbing over the parapet advanced boldly to the enemy’s barbed wire.
There Saxon and Celt exchanged their gifts, wished each other a Merry Christmas, gave a hearty hand shake, and said good bye. As the Welshman dropped into the trench, one of his comrades asked, “What did you see?” Looking his questioner squarely in the face, he replied, “Nothing except barbed wire and a man.”
He had gone and been received as a friend, and the honor of a British soldier forbade that he should reveal what he saw.
All too quickly the night passed. Soon came the first faint glimmering of dawn in the Eastern sky that told us the truce would soon be at an end and we must again resume the grim role of war. Then, out of the enemy trenches, rose a huge fair haired Saxon, a living picture of the warriors of old, in full views of both sides.
There in a beautiful full tone, he sang the words of an old Methodist hymn, I had last heard years before, one Christmas Eve in far off sunny Australia. There silhouetted against the lightening sky he sang those beautiful words: “When Jesus was born in a manger and the shepherds came over to see and the angels proclaim that a Savior is born to a poor sinner like me.”
How strange the words seemed amidst those ghastly surroundings, “To save a poor sinner like men.” Yeh we whom He came to save were trying to kill our fellow man whom he also came to save. As the Saxon finished the last stanza, “He’ll save us and we shall be free,” he turned and slowly disappeared into the trench, just as the dull boom of the guns away to our left burst forth, telling us, grim Mars still ruled and that here the Prince of Peace had nowhere to lay his head.
Many moons has passed and many miles I’ve journeyed, through hospital bed, the rack and horrors of wounds and gas, peaceful voyage to sunny Australia again over the water to U.S.A. Here this Christmas Eve, under California’s reigns; where the troops of gay clad happy children romp and play in the toy lands of the great department stores while parents wish each other seasons greetings and good cheer.