It was known as the war to end all wars. In all the history of mankind the scale of destruction and death of World War I had never been seen or remotely imagined. From all the major world powers fighting in 1914, an estimated 65 million men put their nation’s uniforms on and set off to the front-lines to obliterate their enemies. In the end, more than 10 million men would be killed; 20 million would be maimed for life. Thirty-million families lost husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, or the return of their permanently disfigured bodies and minds.
L’absurdité de la Guerre – The Absurdity of War
From the very first shots fired the war spun quickly out of control. By the summer of 1914 European empires were realizing an era of unprecedented scientific and mechanized advancements as a result of the Victorian industrial revolution. The killing efficiency of these new 19th century national armies wiping out swaths of soldiers in a matter of minutes had never been seen on any battlefield at any time earlier. Central Europe was literally a 600-square mile butcher’s block of human and animal limbs and carcasses scattered everywhere in pools of mud, blood, and disease. The poet-novelist Robert Graves wrote:
“[the bodies] we could not get from the German [barbed]wire continued to swell…the color of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-gray, to red, to purple, to green, to black.”
The stench of death is unlike any odor known. I know; I’ve smelt it. Overlooking these unbelievable scenes one looses any remaining hope for humanity’s survival. None of the warring leaders and monarchs had any conception of what killing-machines were being set in motion. The fact that most of them thought the war would be ending by Christmas 1914, shows how arrogantly disillusioned they had become with their national status and power. Too few thought the apocalypse had arrived but watched as masses of ordinary people and soldiers were lead to their deaths.
In some of the darkest hours however, there are some that rise above their circumstances.
In a letter to his brother Nickolai in 1886, Anton Chekhov – thought by most historians to be one of Russia’s greatest writers – described eight simple principles of human decency.
- Respect others as individuals, no more.
- Have more compassion for others beyond beggars or pets.
- Respect other’s property, even pay their debts.
- Do not be devious. Fear lies as you fear fire.
- Do not solicit sympathy from others.
- Do not be vain, thinking you are above certain others.
- Value beauty and talent; nurture it, doing your part to grow it.
- Develop your aesthetic sensibilities, doing your part for the greater refinement of the whole.
On Christmas Eve December 24th, 1914 bitter enemies in opposite trenches of Europe’s Western Front despite the hatred their national leaders, families and military commanders felt toward their enemy, decided not to fight, but to sing. The Germans lit candles and in beautiful harmony sang “Silent night…Holy night.” So moved by their cheer, the British soldiers responded with carols of their own. This goodwill inspired many soldiers on both sides to toss gifts of food over into their enemy trenches. The German side applauded the British singing then the Brits cheered and applauded the Germans. One miracle act of goodness led to another, then another. By dawn Christmas Day, chivalry and kindness were as out of control as the war. They even played a football match together around the large cannon-shell craters and wired obstacles.
I often understand the causes of war and killing: it is the utter failure of peoples or their leaders to do everything humanly possible to resolve dispute, or it is merely the greed of egos and the ignorance of those who follow them. In the end, in every single conflict throughout all of mankind’s history, the price of war and killing is too high and never completely measured for generations to come. In certain obvious cases today it never ends.
Yet on a small level, on an individual basis, when humans can step back and understand the person facing them on a personal level, not as a total stranger who is being led by a delusional greedy ego-maniac monarch or king, that spirit which Anton Chekhov speaks about can and will courageously step forward. The real miracle of this 1914 Christmas between “enemies” was that a few good men did not bow to the fear of a firing-squad or court-marshal by their superiors. Instead they recognized the moment was greater than themselves or their nations — as is almost always the case in any situation of dispute. When people view strangers as anything other than another human being, a human being who also has parents, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters all with the same basic needs as you…the higher perspective, the higher road comes to focus. What remains is the decision to take it.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a supreme act of humanity and goodwill by a group of courageous men in uniforms surrounded by the most despicable acts of nations. Such a truce had never before taken place. And for no apparent intelligent reasons, has never happened again. Though I am not a Christian or a religious man during this time of year, I am the biggest fan-fanatic for humanity and the potential brilliance of the human spirit.
Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men and women. Happy holidays everyone.