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Respite from war, sadly brief

The Christmas truce underscored the insanity of the fighting.

By Chris Gibbons

The peace that night was said to have been somewhat strange. "I remember the silence - the eerie sound of silence," recalled British World War I veteran Alfred Anderson. "All I'd heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking, and whining of bullets in flight, machine gun fire, and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning across the land, as far as you could see."

It was Christmas Eve, 1914, and thousands of Allied and German soldiers were dug into their trenches as they faced each other across the cold, muddy battlefields of Belgium. They were separated by a mass of barbed wire, dead trees, and scorched earth that came to be known as "No-man's-land." The war was entering only its fifth month, but there had already been thousands of casualties, and the demoralized soldiers had begun to wonder if they would ever see home again.

The silence that night gradually succumbed to a beautiful sound arising from the trenches. It was the German soldiers, softly singing "Stille Nacht," or "Silent Night." The British soldiers responded by singing "O Come All Ye Faithful." The Germans knew the Latin version of that song and began to sing it in unison with their foes. Throughout the cold, moonlit night, the voices of the singing soldiers drifted across the battlefield.

As dawn approached, the German soldiers held up signs in fractured English: "You no fight, we no fight." Men on both sides cautiously climbed out of their trenches and onto the barren landscape that separated the lines. They met in No Man's Land and exchanged gifts of cigarettes, candy, whiskey, and uniform buttons. Christmas trees were hastily pieced together from the splintered pines. In at least one area, incredibly, a soccer game was played.

German private Carl Muhlegg carried a makeshift Christmas tree across the scarred land and presented it to a French captain. "Never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war," Muhlegg wrote in his journal.

The soldiers hopefully believed that the killing might finally be over. Unfortunately, though, the impromptu peace was very brief. Upon hearing news of the unauthorized truce, angry generals on both sides ordered the men to resume fighting. "The silence ended in the early afternoon, and the killing started again," recalled Anderson, the British veteran.

It would continue for four more bloody years. When the war finally concluded, nearly 10 million had been killed and more than 20 million wounded.

World War I is now a dim memory. Fewer than 10 surviving veterans are said to remain around the world. Anderson, the last surviving Allied witness to the Christmas truce, died in 2005 at the age of 109.

The veterans of the Great War - certain that the brutality and devastation wrought by it would induce nations to seek diplomacy rather than armed conflict to resolve their disputes - sometimes referred to it as "the war to end all wars." One only has to pick up a newspaper to realize that their hopes were naive.

Sadly, the saga of the Christmas truce of World War I still resonates today. Even though we shake our heads in disbelief at the insanity that followed that night, we still tacitly accept the grim prospect that, somewhere in Afghanistan, lonely, homesick soldiers may once again be softly singing Christmas carols on a battlefield as the specter of war continues to haunt humanity.

Although I believe our cause is just, I wish the World War I veterans had been right - that it had actually been the war to end all wars.

I know that the enemy facing our soldiers cares nothing for our traditions, and that there will be no truce or any singing in unison with them. But I hope our troops will take some small comfort in knowing that, as many of us celebrate this holiday season, we will be thinking of them and praying that they have a safe and silent night this Christmas.