The end of the 19th century revealed a dazzling Western civilization, which seemed to have materialized every dream of wealth and splendour hitherto imaginable. At the head of the brilliant Prussian army, Otto von Bismarck asserted: “I am bored; we have already done every great thing”; Germany was enjoying an industrial miracle; the intellectual and cultural wealth of France made Paris the centre of attention, giving rise to the popular expression: “As happy as God in France”; England had complete dominion over the seas; the court of the Russian Empire sparkled with opulence; the young and prosperous United States of America was vigorously developing. Poets, scientists, philosophers and magnates composed the flower of a humanity whose interrelations seemed peaceful.
It was in this frame of mind that men crossed the threshold of the twentieth century. However, their hearts, formerly attached to Heaven through the influence of the Holy Church, now became bound to this earth under the deceptive enchantment of success and prosperity, and they drifted far from their Creator. And just as the moon, without the magnificence of the sun’s rays, is but an insignificant body submerged in darkness, so men sink into horrors when not enlightened by the light of divine grace… The dark errors of that society were not long in manifesting themselves.
One death, an omen of many others
June 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, had just inspected the summer exercises of some corps of the Imperial Army in Bosnia and observed the military manoeuvres with two of his best generals. On the 28th of that month, he went on to the capital, Sarajevo. While driving through the city in an open car, he was ambushed by an armed assassin, resulting in his death and that of his wife, Sophie.
What some imagined and others perhaps did not even suspect was that this event, apparently only of great import for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, opened a new chapter in history. That seeming world peace, which, in reality, only cloaked a growing tension between world powers, had just reached its end. The murder of one couple presaged incalculable other deaths that would ensue in an immense international paroxysm never before seen by man: the First World War, then known as the Great War.
It seems disproportionate that the Sarajevo magnicide should have triggered such a tragic and far-reaching event. This has been an oft-analysed question over the decades, about which historians have raised numerous hypotheses. However, it is certain that the ambition of key figures in the governments of European nations found in this occasion an excellent opportunity to serve their interests.
The war begins
The Austro-Hungarian Empire formally declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. Eight days later, eight countries, including five of the six great powers of Europe, were at war with at least one of their neighbours. Soon the politics of alliances, driven by the hostilities and interests of each nation, gave rise to the two well-known belligerent blocs, formed on one side by Germany and Austria, and on the other by France, England, Russia and, later, the United States.
Millions of men donned their uniforms at the outset of the fighting, imagining that the undertaking would not last long… How wrong they were! The tragedy would last four long years, eventually devastating the European continent and casting into the mud of the trenches the aforementioned splendour that had characterized the Belle Époque.
On the western front, Germany was advancing rapidly with its characteristic discipline and excellent logistics. Thirty-seven days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the first German troops crossed the French border after having invaded Belgium, which had opposed their passage. There, they faced the French and British soldiers who joined forces to confront them. The Battle of the Borders had begun, which, being a mere prelude to the fighting, resulted in a calamitous total of two hundred and sixty thousand casualties.
Between advances and retreats, in the Battle of the Marne, which took place in September of 1914, the Franco-British army managed to repel the Germans, who were already about to invade Paris, and forced them to take refuge in the Aisne Valley. At a certain point, however, a series of failed flanking manoeuvres left both sides with no room to advance… Accordingly, they were forced to build trenches and by November they had dug continuous lines of them, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss border.
In this so-called “no man’s land”, the advance of troops was stalled, but the exchange of fire was incessant. Wounded and dead soldiers lay all around. Humanity was aghast, scarcely able to recall such a calamity: families torn apart, homes lost and copious bloodshed…
Faced with this disastrous situation, efforts towards a peace treaty began. A group of one hundred and one British dames published an Open Christmas Letter, a public message of peace addressed mainly to German and Austrian women; and on December 7, Pope Benedict XV proposed an official truce of the armies: “Let the cannons at least be silent on the night when the Angels sing.” All in vain, for the requests were rejected. The war would continue.
Christmas carols in the heat of the battle
Suddenly, the sentries saw lights in the neighbouring field: the German soldiers were improvising a Christmas celebration
An unexpected event, however, brought some much-desired peace to those gloomy and blood-soaked days.
After long hours of fighting, tired and mud-covered British soldiers in their trenches watched the night fall. The shooting had ceased, and the stars were shining. Some, perhaps, were nursing their wounds, others were cleaning their weapons; all, despite the great tension, were trying to rest. Suddenly, the sentries saw lights in the neighbouring field. The unusual scene soon caught the attention of several men who were in the shelter and they too began to observe what was happening. It was the night of December 24.
Soon everyone realized what was taking place: the German soldiers, moved by the graces proper to the birth of the Saviour, were improvising a celebration in the middle of the battlefield. Even more amazed, the English heard the singing of Stille Nacht! Surrendering to the same grace, the English also sang a Christmas carol. The hostility between the two armies vanished for a moment, as if by magic…
A private from the London Rifle Brigade, Graham Williams, who was present on that occasion, described the scene as follows: “Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently makeshift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air! Other sentries had, of course, seen the same thing, and quickly awoke those on duty, asleep in their shelters […]. Then our opponents began to sing ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’. […] They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang The First Nowell. and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, O Tannenbaum. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up O Come All Ye Faithful the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste fidelis’”. Williams concludes his account with the comment: “And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”1
Centre of history, Prince of Peace
Soon all the soldiers jumped unarmed out of their hiding places to greet each other and to exchange gifts
German and English soldiers during the “Christmas Truce”, on December 25 of 1914
In this atmosphere full of joy, a German soldier ventured out of the trench as a sign of peace. His attitude instilled confidence in the others and soon they all jumped unarmed out of their hiding places to greet each other and exchange gifts such as chocolates, tobacco and souvenirs. They played and sang together, as well as celebrating Christmas by attending a bilingual Mass, celebrated by a Scottish priest. In addition, they returned the bodies of deceased combatants, and even celebrated funerals together.
Captain Robert Miles, of the Shropshire Light Infantry, also recounted, in a letter later published in the Daily Mail, what happened that night: “Friday. We are spending the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. There is a sort of haphazard and absolutely unauthorized truce, but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed between us and our friends on the front.”
In fact, peace – so idolized nowadays – can only be obtained through the Christian Faith. Under its radiance, all the pseudo-reasons dictated by egocentrism to justify error fade away. Those Christmas carols, full of piety, illuminated consciences, even if only for a moment: “Why are we fighting? What is the reason for all this enmity? Are we not all children of the same God?” The contentions then disappeared. It was the remnants of Christianity that throbbed in the depths of the hearts of those who, despite the circumstances, still considered Our Lord Jesus Christ the true centre of history.
Let us desire true peace!
“Lux in tenebris lucet” (Jn 1:5), says St. John the Evangelist regarding the Birth of Our Lord. And for humanity of every age, the feast of Christmas is always full of light and promise.
Indeed, in this present year, so threatened by wars, convulsions and terrors, what shall we beseech when we come before the Crèche? Certainly, the end of so many conflicts, some will answer. However, perhaps this is not the most perfect petition. Perhaps it would please God more if we were to implore the sincere conversion of all hearts – beginning with our own – to His Divine Son, King of Peace: then humanity will be able to draw its dearly desired, vital and much-spoken-of peace from the inexhaustible spring where it can truly be found. ◊
1 BROWN, Malcolm. The Christmas Truce 1914: The British Story. In: FERRO, Marc et al. Meetings in No Man’s Land. Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in the Great War. London: Constable & Robinson, 2007, p.29.
Peace: Precious Gift of Christmas
O beata nox! Yes, blessed night which saw the birth of a Child who inaugurated a new historical era. On that night humanity was offered a precious gift that would not be taken away even when that Child would return to eternity: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). […]
The Newborn Infant Jesus with the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph – Sacred Heart Church, Tampa (FL
All of Jesus’ words pertain to eternal life and are mysteriously attractive. But when they are recalled before the Nativity scene, they prompt us to probe their meaning, especially the words referring to the peace brought to us on that night. What is the nature of this peace? It is the peace which every human creature avidly desires, but often seeks where it cannot be found, and is mistaken, moreover, regarding its true content and substance!
Is this error not the main reason for the wars and catastrophes that have beset the world for millennia? These spring from the pseudo-peace that the world holds out to us, so unlike that which the Angels proclaimed to the shepherds on that blessed Christmas Eve. […]
In a message, Benedict XVI has this to say on the same subject: “First of all peace must be built in hearts. It is here, in fact, that sentiments develop that can nurture it or, on the contrary, threaten, weaken and stifle it. Moreover, the human heart is the place where God intervenes. In this regard, in addition to the ‘horizontal’ dimension of relations with other human beings, the ‘vertical’ dimension of each person’s relationship with God, the foundation of all things, is proving to be of fundamental importance.”1
This Christmas, then, despite the present-day crises, the hymnody of the Angels sounds as clearly as it did long ago for the shepherds. It holds out true peace to each one of us individually, inviting us to subject our passions to reason, and reason to faith. It also offers us an end to civil war, class struggle and wars among nations, on the condition that we carefully observe the demands imposed by hierarchy and justice. In brief, to receive this desirable offer of the Angels, we must be reconciled with God, to acknowledge Him as our Legislator and Lord, and to love Him with all our enthusiasm.
St. Cyril explains this with logic and unction: “Look not therefore upon Him who was laid in the manger as a Babe merely, but in our poverty see Him who as God is rich, and in the measure of our humanity Him who excels the inhabitants of Heaven, and who therefore is glorified even by the holy Angels. And how noble was the hymn, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of good will!’ For the Angels and Archangels, Thrones and Dominations, and high above them the Seraphim, preserving their settled order, are at peace with God: for never in any way do they transgress His good pleasure, but are firmly established in righteousness and holiness. But we, wretched beings, by having set up our own lusts in opposition to the will of Our Lord, had set ourselves as enemies against Him. But by Christ this has been done away: for He is our peace; for He has united us by Himself unto God the Father, having taken away from the middle the cause of the enmity, even sin, and so justifies us by faith, and makes us holy and without blame, and calls near unto Him those who were afar off.2 […]
And with no less spirituality, St. Jerome adds: “Glory in Heaven, where there is no dissension, and peace on earth, where there is daily strife. And peace on earth.’ And this peace in whom? In men. […] ‘Peace to men of good will,’ that is, those who receive the newborn Christ.”3 ◊
Taken from: CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio.
Glory and Peace! In: New Insights on the Gospels.
Città del Vaticano-Nobleton: LEV; Heralds of the Gospel, 2013,
v.I, p.99-100, 104-106
1 BENEDICT XVI. Message on the 20th Anniversary of the Interreligious Meeting of Prayer for Peace, 2/9/2006.
2 ST. CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA. Explanatio in Lucæ Evangelium, c.II, v.7: PG 72, 494.
3 ST. JEROME. Homilia de Nativitate Domini. In: Obras Completas. Obras Homiléticas. 2.ed. Madrid: BAC, 2012, v.I, p.959.