Wishing all readers a very happy Christmas and New Year!
And here’s a story I read yesterday that explains better than anything the transcendent influence of shared traditions:
A previously-unseen letter which describes the legendary football match of the Christmas Day truce during the First World War has been discovered.
The letter was sent by staff sergeant Clement Barker four days after Christmas 1914, when the British and German troops famously emerged from their trenches in peace.
Sgt Barker, from Ipswich, Suffolk, describes how the truce began after a German messenger walked across no man’s land on Christmas Eve to broker the temporary ceasefire.
British soldiers then went out and recovered 69 dead comrades and buried them.
Sgt Barker said the impromptu football match soon broke out between the two sides when a ball was kicked out from the British lines into no man’s land.
His nephew Rodney Barker, 66, found the letter when he was going through some old documents following his mother’s death.
Sgt Barker wrote to his brother Montague:
“…a messenger come over from the German lines and said that if they did not fire Xmas day, they (the Germans) wouldn’t so in the morning (Xmas day).
“A German looked over the trench – no shots – our men did the same, and then a few of our men went out and brought the dead in (69) and buried them and the next thing happened a football kicked out of our Trenches and Germans and English played football.
“Night came and still no shots. Boxing day the same, and has remained so up to now… We have conversed with the Germans and they all seem to be very much fed up and heaps of them are deserting. Some have given themselves up as prisoners, so things are looking quite rosy.”
His optimistic outlook proved quite wrong, as the truce was the last act of chivalry between the two sides and the war went on for four more years, with the loss of ten million lives.
Sgt Barker’s letter had to pass through the censors before it made its way to his brother Montague. The unofficial truce took place on December 24, 1914, in the trenches around Ypres.
It started with German soldiers putting decorations up around their trenches and singing Christmas carols, including Stille Nacht – Silent Night.
The British soldiers responded by singing O Come all ye Faithful.
Soldiers on both sides then shouted Christmas greetings to each other and suggested meeting in no man’s land when they shook hands and exchanged cigarettes.
Sgt Barker joined the army in 1902 at the age of 18. He served with the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards and survived the Great War.
In 1920 he left the army and worked for the Ministry of Defence. He died in 1945 aged 61.
At the time it was all hushed up because our troops weren’t supposed to fraternize with the enemy. It shows that the German troops in particular were pretty fed up even though the war was only three months old at this stage.’
The normal state of human beings is to seek common ground; knowing this, governments prevent their soldiers from talking to the other side. The first world war was made possible by the Prussian education system begun in the late 1800’s, which ensured all members of society had the same views, and were willing to become obedient mineworkers, soldiers or civil servants, valuing the state above their own self.
Thus willing fodder was created for the next two massive wars; nevertheless, the first world war would have expired in the first year, had bankers and financiers not conspired to keep it going, racking up huge sales in manufacturing, energy consumption and arms sales.
As for war, excepting the psychopath, there is nothing in it for the individual, only for the state. To maintain war the population must be kept frightened of the enemy’s terrible nature; in fact both sides are just human beings, with the imagined enemy having no more interest in leaving their homes to go killing than does the population being terrorised by propaganda. The ficititious “War on Terror” is just the latest in a long line of demonising projects to shock a population into war, a population which, left to their own devices, would be far more interested in making friends. The above story shows that even when manipulated and bullied to jump on to a bonfire in the midst of Hell, ordinary people still want to find peace.
I remember also an incident from WW2, in which a Jewish woman was being arrested at gunpoint by a female Nazi officer and led away down her stairway to what could be certain death in the camps. At that moment a massive bomb went off nearby, alarming them so much that they embraced tightly, instinctively, for reassurance, the officer abandoning her gun, as the building shook from the foundations. The dust settled and the officer retrieved her weapon, and the grim arrest continued as before.
Or take Victor Frankl’s example from Auschwitz, where a kindly guard, observing his efforts to revive the flagging spirits of other inmates, slipped him a crust of bread. “The bread was soon gone, but that single act of kindness kept me alive for three months.” The human spirit is always ready to make amends when not manipulated and terrorised by corrupt, greedy, sociopathic arms corporations and well-heeled financiers masquerading as governments.
Today, Christmas day, there is another kind of truce: there are no cars racing furiously past; no businesses demanding responses, no agencies collecting money. All this barrage of abuse has ceased thanks to a celebration based on a human being who lived one of the simplest, most exemplary lives imaginable, two thousand years ago. He owned nothing of any value, ate and slept on the ground, befriended outcasts and the insane, and preached a message of brotherhood and unselfishness.
For once greed’s ambitious empire, usually so eager to preach and cajole, falls quiet, having nothing to say about matters of the spirit. Diverted from material greed, united in some common emotional context, mankind is indeed a sound creation, and its spirit an everlasting resource, no matter the conditions it is placed in. The brightly lit tree in the window is a symbol of that loyal flame, a light which never goes out.
Happy Christmas to all!