One hundred years ago this month, millions of Europeans got a foretaste of quasi-hell, and some saw a moment of quasi-heaven.
Most German, French, Austrian, and Russian generals had all hoped and planned for quick victories as World War I began in August 1914. By December, the horrible new normal of the next four years was sinking in. As historian Max Hastings put it, “Throughout history, armies had been accustomed to fight battles that most often lasted a single day, occasionally two or three, but thereafter petered out. Now, however, the allies and Germans explored a terrible new universe of continuous engagement. They accustomed themselves to killing and being killed for weeks on end.”
Some individuals had predicted this. German Commander in Chief von Moltke told Kaiser Wilhelm, “The war will utterly exhaust our own people even if we are victorious.” French writer André Gide spoke of entering “a long tunnel full of blood and darkness.”
As battles went on for weeks without respite, Bible-minded soldiers like Kresten Andresen of Germany saw how the dead piled up but the living also felt cursed: “We are on our way into the jaws of Hell.… We’re hardly human any more, at most we are well-drilled automatons who perform every action without any great reflection. O, Lord God, if only we could become human again.”
On Dec. 25, though, a bottom-up initiative in the trenches allowed many soldiers to become human again for a day. As one British soldier wrote to his hometown newspaper, “The Bedfordshire Times and Independent,” “There was no firing on Christmas Day and the Germans were quite friendly with us. They even came over to our trenches and gave us cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and of course we gave them things in return.”
Germans put up Christmas trees with hundreds of candles, and their bands serenaded the British with Christmas carols and ‘God Save the King.’
The informal “Christmas truce,” with about 100,000 British and German soldiers ceasing to fight, began on the night before Christmas, when along miles of trenches Germans put up Christmas trees with hundreds of candles, and their bands serenaded the British with Christmas carols and “God Save the King.” Then as one British soldier wrote, “I was never more surprised in my life when daylight came to see them all sitting on top of the trenches waving their hands and singing to us.”
British and German soldiers put down their rifles and came cautiously out of the trenches. Some had joint worship services and a few even played soccer. Letters home from British soldiers showed amazement: “Fancy shaking hands with the enemy! I suppose you will hardly believe this, but it is the truth.… Who would believe it if they did not see it with their own eyes? It is hard enough for us to believe.… It seemed like a dream.… Now I am going to tell you something which you will think incredible but I give you my word that it is true.… I saw it but thought I was dreaming.”
For the generals, though, this dream was a nightmare: How would the soldiers start killing each other again the next day? A British army order soon forbad “any rapprochement with the enemy in the trenches. All acts contrary to this order will be punished in high treason.” Other countries issued similar decrees, and soon one soldier could write to “The Whitehaven News,” “We’ve started scrapping again; and I can tell you it is not very nice in the trenches up to the knees in water.”
Isaiah, in chapters three and four of his book, forecast God’s judgment on nations that had gone astray: “Your men shall fall by the sword and your mighty men in battle.” Civilians will also suffer: “Instead of perfume there will be rottenness…instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth.” But misery creates pressure to repent: Some suffering comes for reasons beyond the ken of Job or the rest of us; but much of the time, when God slaps us in the face, our response should be, “Thanks, I needed that.”
One hundred years ago, God gave the czar, the kaiser, and their counterparts who claimed to be Christians an opportunity to admit that their strategies for early victory had failed. Yet they did not confess their pridefulness and kneel before God. Instead, they ignored His slap and poured out more buckets of blood.