Although the causes of World War I remain debatable, it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on July 28, 1914 that propelled the event past the point of no return. From the very start the cataclysmic characteristic of the first global episode became immediately apparent. There were now new lethal devices, primarily, deadly mustard gas.
This combined with blind dedication and unquestionable courage would force soldiers to confront each other in trenches while adorning themselves with gas masks and makeshift hazmat attire. The main objective was conditioned into every combatant’s intention to inflict devastation on the opposition. Never before was there so much blood spilled, lives lost or collateral damage. Surely this would be the war that ended all wars!
By the time Christmas was approaching despair was universal among the enlisted grunts on the front lines while politicians and commissioned officers conducted their affairs often miles away. Each night brought endless loneliness and heartache even when the front was quiet; each new day, unimaginable devastation and death which seemed to lead to another night of sorrow and greater depression. It was first believed that the “conflict” would last no more than a few months. Perhaps if they knew it would go on for more than four and a half years it would not have started in the first place.
Christmas Eve brought an apparent needed distraction from the constant destruction at the battle front. Without prompting, things were calm. It was whisper quiet in the freezing atmosphere. The men held their breaths as to listen for any detection of sound, but there were none. The contrast seemed completely foreign, mystical. Late in the evening, as the French and British huddled together for the psychological advantage of warmth, a faint, almost recognizable melody seemed to carry the distance from the enemy trench. As ears strained “Silent Night” harmoniously shimmered across the calm battlefield and into the hearts of the French and British warriors.
Perhaps a strong baritone voice in a German dialect penetrated the sobering cold. Then, gradually, other Germans would chime in. After a while there was Brit and French accompaniment from the far side. Several bagpipes even sounded in. The allies began to look over the banks of the trenches with cautious curiosity. They were surprised to see that some of the German troops had already ascended and were fully exposed by sight. According to a diary, one was even holding a Christmas tree with lit candles. It was as though a Divine force was compelling both sides to emerge and approach their fellow man across the common combat zone. Before long thousands recognized a supreme experience that, if only for a few minutes, took spontaneous precedence over color and design of uniform, language barriers or political differences.
As apprehension began to subside, a wave of gift exchange took place with chocolate, wine, cigarettes and cheese changing hands. Nonperishable articles such as uniform buttons and bayonets were also presented and accepted. It is not certain if the joyous occasion lasted a few minutes or hours. At one point it is reflected that a German soldier produced a soccer ball, and several soldiers engaged in a friendly game of football.
Soon it became certain that even the most peaceful celebration amidst such calamity would be short lived. Perhaps it was the distant sound of bomb burst that brought both sides back to sobering reality. It is reasonable to assume that both sides felt a familiar sense of urgency as they briskly made their way back to their bunkers. Undoubtedly, men who had enjoyed each other’s company on this magnificent Christmas Eve were expected and thus destined to kill each other come daybreak.
It is strange that a hundred years later we can recall the impromptu miracle of peace in the midst of battle but not ever know what caused the war. Perhaps someday we will not bother with conflict. Until then, we will have to simply celebrate one miracle at a time in the midst of human-made tragedy.
(Rick Besecker is Gunnison County Sheriff. His Christmas stories have become an annual tradition in the Times’ pages.)