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Enemy soldiers left trenches to celebrate Christmas together

By Paul Paproski, OSB

12/14/2016

The nations of Europe and their allies, a century ago, were reaping the harvest of an arms race fuelled by nationalism. Countries, jockeying for influence on the world scene, had invested heavily in the military and formed powerful alliances to secure peace. Feelings of loyalty were heightened in August of 1914 when Great Britain declared war against Germany. Canada automatically joined with Great Britain in the Great War, which was christened by some as the War to End All Wars.

Patriotism was strong in the Prairie provinces. Crowds gathered on the streets in Regina in a mood of jubilation after learning of war. Many revellers threw their hats into the air. The excitement, in Saskatoon, led to an impromptu parade watched by crowds waving Union Jacks and singing patriotic songs. The train station in Saskatoon became a focal point of the city just 10 days after the declaration of war. Soldiers gathered there to be sent away to battle. A throng of well-wishers arrived and they became so numerous that the train had to be delayed an hour to give soldiers time to board. Military experts were certain the war would be over before Christmas and were sure the Canadian troops would not see action.

The Prairie provinces soon provided more than 40,000 recruits for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many soldiers viewed the war as an opportunity to both serve the empire and visit Europe. About 20 per cent who enlisted had been unemployed and facing poverty. Businessmen and politicians were optimistic the oncoming war would end the recession. Saskatchewan had gone through boom years and some of its cities had borrowed heavily anticipating expansion. The economic downturn in 1913 threatened to financially ruin them.

The fighting between the Allies and central powers in Europe was fierce. Soldiers dug a system of fortified trenches and fought in trench warfare. By Christmas Eve 1914 the opposing armies faced each other from trenches filled with mud and rats.

Families in the British Empire sent Christmas cards and letters to the trenches to cheer up their loved ones. When Christmas Day arrived some Allied soldiers began to sing Christmas songs. Others accompanied them in song from the German trenches. Some brave soldiers from opposing sides put their lives at risk and met in the open. They were joined by more of their comrades. The enemies exchanged food, souvenirs and cigarettes. The camaraderie soon evolved into a soccer match. The instantaneous friendship among foes was shocking. These men had gone through horrendous fighting. The Canadians, even before the declaration of war, were aware of Germans being referred to as “the hated Hun.” News of this insubordination soon reached the generals who put an immediate stop to it. The men were herded back into the trenches. The absurdity was replaced, that evening, by fighting.

The Christmas incident of 1914 says much about the power of Christmas. The Christmas Spirit in 1914 brought enemies together and united them as a common human family. The Christmas spirit dissolved the hatred and division fed by nationalism and patriotism. Christmas, for a moment, brought Peace on Earth.

Rev. Flor McCarthy, SDB, a spiritual author, writes that the notion of peace is much deeper than the absence of war. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, conveys a richer meaning than its English equivalent. Shalom stands for a sense of completeness and well-being that is possible even in the midst of troubles. Shalom offers a peace so profound that it will not let itself be manipulated by outer circumstances, no matter how violent or brutal.

The peace emanating from shalom is a state of inner calm that flows from a right relationship with God and out to other people. Peace is a gift from God and does not come by human effort alone. Peace is the gift of Christmas. When the Son of God came to us as a helpless child, God was reaching out to us in peace. God became one of us. God reaches out to us in peace and offers us the gift of peace. Our gift, in return, is to make peace with ourselves and with one another.

Paproski is a Benedictine monk at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, Sask.