View from the Vicarage - December 2014/January 2015
To the people of St Andrew’s,
‘It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere. About seven or eight in the evening, there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and then there were lights. And then they sang "Stille Nacht" - "Silent Night". I shall never forget it as long as I live. It was one of the highlights of my life.’
It was the British soldier, Albert Moren, who recorded the unofficial “truce” in the trenches on Christmas Eve a hundred years ago.
December 1914 saw the opposing sides facing each other in trenches stretching about five hundred miles from Switzerland to the French coastline on the North Sea. The famous episode (from which came the expression “all quiet on the Western Front”) took place just outside what is now a camping holiday resort, the French village of La Chapelle d'Armentieres, near Lille.
The English troops joined in with the singing of Silent Night in their native tongue and the enemy sides ventured into No Man’s Land to shake hands, exchange small gifts (tobacco rather than Chocolate as this year’s heart-warming but massively sanitised Sainsbury’s TV ad has it) and play that famous, friendly game of football.
A similar event (reported in a letter to the Newcastle Evening Mail at the very end of December 2014) took place on Christmas Day itself that year:
‘On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part.’
Some might wish to claim that it was a simply triumph of the human spirit that led the warring parties to lay down their guns and meet ‘man to man’ like this a hundred years ago. But the timing of these encounters is surely of the highest significance. It was only on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that there was a temporary cessation of hostilities. It was out of respect, not for the orders of generals or commanding officers, but for the Prince of Peace whose claim on their life was greater. It was inspired by Christ’s teaching to love one’s enemies. No other day in the year could have had the power and significance to cause the machinery of war to stop.
Although, sadly, some of the British Officers who had taken part in the truce were later court-martialled, it was, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in his history of 1914, “one human episode amid all the atrocities.”
We will be singing Silent Night at services on Christmas Eve again this year and thinking of the powerful effect that it had that night a century ago. We will also be praying, as ever, for the reign of the Prince of Peace to grow, that wars may cease and the world may be healed. In short, we look for the dawn of redeeming grace in our time.
So we pray, in the words of Mark Koenig:
God of life and God of hope,
we give you thanks and praise for the birth of Jesus who came as a witness to grace, who proclaimed peace, did justice, lived love, and walked humbly with you.
In his name, we pray for peace and healing wherever your world is broken, wherever violence and injustice reign, wherever your children are in pain. We ask that we might follow Jesus faithfully and so become answers to our prayers for peace on earth, goodwill for all people, and wholeness and wellbeing for all creation.
With love and prayers for a happy and holy Christmas