Of War, Peace and the Christmas Truce

This has been a year of war, not peace, when a president elected
to end conflicts instead expanded the U.S. occupation of
Afghanistan. So as it closes we would do well to recall an old
warrior who came to see the futility of fighting. British veteran
Harry Patch was the last survivor of World War I's brutal trench

Patch, who died in July at age 111, fought for a year with the
Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry before returning home to work as
a plumber, raise a family and disappear into relative

A modest man who had refused to speak of his experience in the
trenches until it was pointed out that he was among the last
survivors of "the war to end all wars," the aging vet finally told
his tale to the BBC. What he described was the "calculated and
condoned slaughter of human beings" on the Western Front. "Too many
died," declared Patch. "War isn't worth one life."

In an autobiography published two years before his death, "The
Last Fighting Tommy," Patch bemoaned: "(The) politicians who took
us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their
differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than
legalized mass murder."

The veteran's passing in July brought many tributes. Yet it
would seem that the finest memorial to Patch and others who
recognized the futility of the First World War in particular, and
of wars in general, was erected when the veteran still lived.

On Nov. 11, 2008 - the 90th anniversary of that 11th hour of the
11th day of the 11th month when World War I ended - there was
dedicated in Frelinghien, France, a memorial to the most remarkable
event not merely of that particular conflict but perhaps of all

The memorial recalls a soccer game played on Christmas Day 1914
between men from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and
the 134th Saxon Infantry Regiment. The Saxons won, 2-1.

Then the two teams partook of plum pudding proffered by the
Welshmen and a barrel of beer rolled onto the field by the Saxons.
They sang a few carols and hung candles from a bush in the rough
fashion of a Christmas tree.

Those who know their military history will recognize that what
was remarkable about the game was that it involved soldiers in the
service of the British king and German kaiser who, only hours
before, had been battling one another - and who, in short order,
would be battling once again.

They were participants in an event that was almost lost to
history: the Christmas Truce of 1914.

The British and German governments denied that the truce even
took place. War historians neglected this chapter in the story of
"the war to end all wars." But those who participated in that
soccer game and sang those carols remembered.

The last to recall the truce was Alfred Anderson, who died in
2005 at 109. In his final years, new generations turned to Anderson
for confirmation of what was called "a short peace in a terrible

That peace, which was initiated not by presidents or prime
ministers but by the soldiers themselves, serves to this day as a
reminder that war is seldom so necessary - or so unstoppable - as
politicians would have us believe.

So it comes as no surprise that the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a
bit of history that many in power have neglected.

But Anderson's long survival, and his clear memory, made it
impossible to write this chapter out of history.

On Dec. 25, 1914, Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier serving
with the 5th Battalion, Black Watch, of the British Army, one of
the first to engage in the bloody trench warfare, which was the
ugliest manifestation of fighting that claimed 16 million lives.
But on that day, there was no violence.

Rather, Anderson recalled in an interview on the 90th
anniversary of the truce, "there was a dead silence that morning,
right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted 'Merry
Christmas,' even though nobody felt merry."

The calls of "Merry Christmas" from the Brits were answered by
Germans singing: "Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft,
einsam wacht."

The Brits responded by singing "Silent Night" in English. Then,
from the trenches opposite them, climbed a German soldier who held
a small tree lit with candles and shouted in broken English, "Merry
Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot."

Thus began the Christmas Truce. Soldiers of both armies - more
than a million in all - climbed from the trenches along the Western
Front to exchange cigarettes and military badges. To play soccer,
they used the helmets they had taken off as goalposts. And they did
not rush to again take up arms. Along some stretches of the front,
the truce lasted into January of 1915.

Finally, distant commanders forced the fighting to begin

Thus it has ever been with war. As Harry Patch, whose service
came after the Christmas Truce, noted in his autobiography, the
politicians who send young men (and now young women) to fight and
die rarely know and even more rarely recall the dark truths of the
wars they begin.

But in this holiday season, as Christians mark the birth of the
Nazarene known as the Prince of Peace, we might pause to recognize
the wisdom of the old soldiers like Alfred Anderson, who celebrated
"a short peace in a terrible war," and Harry Patch, who concluded
that war itself "isn't worth one life."

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