Of War, Peace and the Distant Memory of a 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 warfare.

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 obscurity.

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 conflicts.

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 war."

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 anew.

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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