Sometimes wars stop because of the thoughts, words, and actions not of presidents and generals but of ordinary people. Other times, on-the-ground combatants exhibit genuine mercy towards each other. Occasionally, good leaders hold out an olive branch to their foes. In the long run, and sometimes the short run, the power of peace is greater than the power of war.
By Mark D. Harris
Every December my family and I watch short videos about Christmas, in addition to our normal Christmas movie fare. I have two favorites, the video describing Handel’s Messiah, and a video discussing the Christmas Eve Cease Fire between German and British troops on the Western Front of World War I in 1914. A similar but smaller truce happened on Christmas Eve in 1915. Local truces, occasioned by ordinary soldiers rather than politicians or generals, have happened in military history.
The American Civil War
The American Civil War saw not infrequent unofficial truces, at least locally, in which Union and Confederate soldiers shared tobacco, food, treats, or stories. In one unplanned incident, Ira Sankey from the 12th Pennsylvania was singing Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us while on guard duty one bright moonlit spring night in 1862. A confederate sniper nearly shot Sankey but instead let him finish the song and go. The confederate soldier met Sankey again on a riverboat on Christmas Eve in 1876 and told him the story. Ira sang the song, and afterwards the former confederate stepped away.
More official ceasefires also occurred, such as that between Grant and Lee at Cold Harbor in 1864 (American Battlefield Trust, 2014).
World War I
Probably the most famous cease fire in modern military history occurred at scattered parts of the trench line on 24 Dec 1914. In one area manned by the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, as told by Marmaduke Walkinton, British soldiers heard German troops in nearby trenches singing Christmas carols well known to both sides (Robson, 2017). The Germans then put small fir trees, Christmas trees, with little lanterns, in front of their trenches. British soldiers began singing carols that they knew their German counterparts would know, such as Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Enemies began talking to each other.
The next day, men on each side climbed out of their trenches. Ernie Williams, of the 6th battalion, Chesire Regiment, recalled that the Germans produced a soccer ball and a “couple of hundred” soldiers from both sides kicked the ball about (Robson, 2017). Others recount that using their hats for the goals, some German and British soldiers played soccer. In one game, the Germans beat the Scots 3-2. The men exchanged food, champagne, cigarettes, and other gifts, buried casualties, and improved the livability of their trenches (Robson, 2017). The cease fire continued throughout Boxing Day (26 Dec 1914). As told by a German artillery officer, Herr Rickner, some French soldiers also made a local truce with their German enemies on their parts of the line (Robson, 2017).
Not all parts of the line were peaceful. In one area manned by the 1st Battalion Hertfordshire Regiment, as told by Clifford Lane, Germans shouted to the British in the trench. British officers immediately ordered their men to begin shooting. They did. The Germans did not return British fire, but simply continued their celebration. Mr. Lane thought that his command behaved “like idiots (Robson, 2017).” Occasionally, troops in one sector of the front line who were enjoying a truce were fired upon by troops in an adjacent sector who did not know what was happening (Robson, 2017).
Vexed senior officers on both sides ordered the men to stop. The cease fires died out, and the war resumed. Smaller cease fires occurred on the Western Front at Christmas, 1915. Some very small local cease fires happened at other times in the year. Harold Lewis, 240th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, who came to France in March of 1915, doubted that it happened at all (Robson, 2017).
Kaiser Wilhelm’s German Army performed many atrocities early in World War I. As a result, propaganda in Britain tried to convince the public that their enemies were subhuman. Propaganda in Germany, France, and other nations was similar. These truces contradicted the government line, and news of them was suppressed as long as possible. John Wedderburn-Maxwell of the Royal Field Artillery sent a letter home describing the truce and his father contacted the Daily Telegraph, who published an account (Robson, 2017). Maxwell was reprimanded for writing to the press. Many soldiers on both sides took pictures with personal cameras, and gradually the word got out. When the pictures were published, it became impossible to deny that the Christmas truce really happened.
World War II
The campaign in Africa between Rommel’s Afrika Korps and Auchinleck’s 8th Army was known for its dignity and humanity, termed a “war without hate,” including acts of honor and temporary cease fires on both sides. In one instance, a German unit traded antimalarial medication to the British in exchange for the return of a captured German doctor. Fighting in the harsh desert conditions, including scorching winds, sudden downpours, and featureless tracks which made navigation impossible after dark, except on the brightest nights, contributed to cooperation between the sides.
During the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944, a German shell hit a castle housing dozens of British soldiers, burying them under a mound of rubble. British, Indian, and Gurkha soldiers ran to the site and began tearing debris away in the hope, however fading, that they may find some alive. A few minutes later German paratroopers emerged from their foxholes and joined in the rescue attempt, side by side with their Allied adversaries (Stephenson, 2003). Adversaries talked, exchanged cigarettes, and worked together.
In a related incident, Germans defending the crossing at the Rapido River in the Monte Cassino campaign offered American leaders a two hour cease fire to evacuate their wounded (HistoryNet, 2018). The offer was accepted, and German troops emerged to help their American enemies find dead or wounded GIs and move them.
Pope Paul VI helped negotiate a cease fire on 1 January 1968 (Kenny, 1972). Sadly, the North Vietnamese broke the truce, ambushing a Republic of Vietnam battalion and attacking a US Army base on New Year’s Day. Within a month, Vietnamese communist forces launched the Tet Offensive, also during a time that previously had been a de facto truce to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year. These truce violations raise the question of why some adversaries engender peace and others betray their agreements with enemies.
Over the centuries, warring sides have created local cease fires time and time again. Sometimes they were initiated by high command, as when the Union and Confederacy agreed on a truce to evacuate casualties from the battlefield at Fredericksburg in December of 1862. Other times, such as France in 1914, cease fires were initiated by a few men, swelling into hundreds and then thousands, who simply wanted the war to end…at least for a while. Little kindnesses of a thousand types, from giving water to a wounded soldier to respectfully burying a fallen enemy, occur amidst and despite the carnage of war.
Why do some truces arise spontaneously from the soldiers, such as in the American Civil War and the two world wars? Why do some fall apart minutes after beginning, such as the Tet truce in Vietnam? Why does such cruelty reign in many fights, and mercy in others? Is it because of political opposition, cultural barriers, or something else? How much of a role does religion play? These questions deserve answers. The dissertation Echoes of War sheds significant light on this question.
Christians oppose war, while accepting that in a sinful world, war is sometimes necessary. Thus, theologians over the centuries have developed criteria by which a individual conflict may be considered just. Yet even in the midst of war, the power of God and the spirit of peace can overcome individual hatreds and national strife, if only for a while. In the end, The Lord will bring His peace forever, and we will practice war no more.
- American Battlefield Trust. (2014, June 3). Flag of Truce. American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/flag-truceHistoryNet. (2018, May 8). A Surprising Encounter at Rapido. HistoryNet. https://www.historynet.com/surprising-encounter-rapido/.
- Kenny, D. (1972). Pope Paul VI and Vietnam. https://carnegiecouncil-media.storage.googleapis.com/files/v15_i007_a007.pdf.
- Robson, H. (2017). The Real Story of the Christmas Truce. Imperial War Museums. https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-real-story-of-the-christmas-truce.
- Stephenson, M. (2003). Battlegrounds : geography and the history of warfare. National Geographic.
- Porter, Wayne W. (2005). The Life of Ira D. Sankey, https://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/biosankey4.pdf.