A moment of compassion on a battlefield during the Christmas Truce of 1914

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It was 1914. The British Army and the German Army were involved in hand to hand combat near Ypres during Wold War I.  It was brutal. Troops on both side were killed or injured in huge numbers. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. Over 40 million military personnel and civilians perished in World War I.  In the month of December 1914, the thoughts of the soldiers went back to their loved ones as it was getting nearer to Christmas, the soldiers frequently sang Christmas Carols in the trenches. Sir Edward Hamilton Westrow Hulse, 7th Baronet and a British Army Officer with the Scots Guards wrote detailed accounts of life in the trenches during World War I. Describing what happened in December, Sir Edward wrote that he was organising a concert party on Christmas Day which would “give the enemy every conceivable form of song in harmony” in response to frequent choruses of  German soldiers singing Deutschland Uber Alles. 

Soldiers on both sides were celebrating the birth of a Saviour, Jesus Christ. What an irony that they were celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace and here they were at war fighting each other on the Western Front. There were ‘unofficial cessations’ of hostilities, particularly during Christmas. Both sides had Christmas trees in the trenches, lit candles and sang Carols.

Then came moments of unimaginable compassion – sadly they were only moments. Captain Robert Patrick Miles who was with the Royal Irish Rifles recalled that moment of compassion in a letter: ” Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternising in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night. “

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Writing about the German soldiers Captain Miles noted: “They are distinctly bored with the war. In fact, one of them wanted to know what on earth we were doing here fighting them.”

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Then came the football matches on Christmas Day. Football and Compassion on a field of war! Gerard deGroot of the Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom wrote: “What a sight; little groups of Germans and British extending along the length of our front,” wrote Corporal John Ferguson of the Seaforth Highlanders. “We were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill. Fraternisation led inevitably to football. Men who could not otherwise communicate shared a common language in the game. “After a short while somebody punted across a football,” one subaltern recalled. “The ball landed amongst the Germans and they immediately kicked it back at our men … it was a melêe. It wasn’t a question of 10-a-side, it was a question of 70 Germans against 50 Englishmen.” That scenario was repeated all along the line. The locations of these matches remain obscure, in part because few soldiers subsequently admitted taking part.

On January 1 1915, an anonymous major wrote to The Times that an English regiment “had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2”. That score echoes through the accounts. Yet since the stories originate from various parts of the front, this suggests either incredible consistency in the results, or a remarkable willingness to remember the event in exactly the same way. Equally possible, all recollections might relate to a single mythical encounter that never actually took place. In truth, it matters not if a match ending 3-2 actually occurred, since myths are often more powerful than facts. The “match” is universally celebrated, even by the English who might otherwise prefer to forget another defeat to the Germans. At least it did not end in penalties.

Playing football rudely exposed the contrived nature of wartime animosity. For that reason, it was quickly quashed. Gustav Riebensahm, an officer in the 2nd Westphalian regiment, immediately complained to his commanders that “the whole thing has become ridiculous and must be stopped”. Near Ypres, a corporal named Adolf Hitler voiced the view that fraternisation “should not be allowed”. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien echoed that sentiment, reminding his subordinate commanders that “Friendly intercourse with the enemy … [is] absolutely prohibited.” An even sterner directive was issued by the 1st Army commander, General Douglas Haig, who warned that soldiers caught fraternising could face a firing squad.

In truth, there was never any danger that goodwill would endure. Everyone accepted that the moment of compassion was just that – a moment. At 8:30 on Boxing Day morning, Stockwell fired three shots in the air, then hoisted a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it. The German captain appeared on the parapet, bowed and fired two shots in reply. “The War was on again,” wrote Stockwell. The guns resumed their murderous cacophony; slaughter resumed. The footballs were put away, ” said Gerard deGroot.

It was a sad moment of humanity and compassion on a battlefield. A brief lull in the fighting and they then resumed hostilities after Boxing Day. Many who met on the field of war to exchange gifts and play football, perished afterwards in a hail of bullets and gunfire.

Ivan Corea

Sainsburys actually produced a film for Christmas recalling the story of the Christmas Truce of December 2014 and the football match between the British and German armies.

Here are some amazing photographs from 1914 of British and German solders meeting together during the Christmas Truce.

 

Photographs courtesy of Wikipedia and Pixaby

Excerpt from an article by Gerard deGroot in the Telegraph newspaper in London titled: ‘The Truth about the Christmas Day Match.” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/11310353/The-truth-about-the-Christmas-Day-football-match.html

Youtube clips from the Sainsbury’s advertisement on the Christmas Truce and the football match and genuine photographs from 1914 from Yesterday Today.

Showing compassion to your enemies

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The quote attributed to Sir Winston Churchill is an interesting one. They say he may not have said it, however it does provoke discussion about having enemies. If you take a stand on an issue, there will be those who will try to bring you down. Churchill had many enemies on the battlefield, in the British parliament and even in his own cabinet. Winston Churchill had a bulldog spirit he did have low moments in his life but he refused to give up and give in – he famously said ‘never, never, never give up,’ and another quote attributed to Britain’s war time Prime Minister: ‘If you are going through hell, keep going!’ He always took the fight to the enemy. Allen Packwood of the Churchill Archives at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom noted:

“Churchill led from the front in his willingness to take real risks to implement an aggressive policy, he was prepared to denude Britain of armour, and to transport it by the quicker, but more hazardous, Mediterranean route. Where he differed from those around him was in the intensity of his desire to engage the enemy. For him it was never just about defence. Victory depended on taking the fight to the enemy on the ground.  “

We come across people who try to bring us down, make us stumble and fall – sometimes even through entrapment. An enemy might violate your fundamental human rights, bring pain and distress to your friends and family, even involve your own children, smear you behind your back, go to great lengths to bring you down, some brazenly use bribery and corruption. There are those who say the only way to stop your enemy is take the fight to them, meet fire with fire, hire lawyers and sue them for compensation. The media is awash with indictments before grand juries, court injunctions, in the United States – in the United Kingdom a few years ago, a huge phone hacking, email and voice mail hacking scandal even brought down a British newspaper who were forced to close down, with millions given out in compensation to people who had been illegally and unlawfully hacked. There are times whenever people resort to evil, it has a ‘boomerang effect,’ however much you try to do things behind your victims back and think you can get away with it – what goes around, comes around. No one is above the law.

The Scriptures talk about a Day of Reckoning – Judgement Day – Ecclesiastes 12:14 says: “for God will bring every deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. ” Romans Chapter 2 verse 16 talks about that final day: This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” Your enemy would do well to digest Romans Chapter 2!

Psalm 23 reveals that ‘he prepares a table in the presence of my enemies.’ It doesn’t say ‘he prepares a table in the absence of my enemies.’ This is the ultimate rebuke to your enemies – they will have to stand and watch from the very edges of society as you eat in the King’s presence, you will enjoy the favour of the Lord and your enemies will not be able to do one thing about it.

So why did Jesus have to take on so much suffering at the hands of his enemies? Here’s a view from the gotquestions.org website: “Jesus suffered severely throughout His trials, torture, and crucifixion (Matthew 27Mark 15Luke 23John 19). His suffering was physicalIsaiah 52:14 declares, “There were many who were appalled at Him—His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” His suffering was emotional: “All the disciples deserted him and fled” (Matthew 26:56). His suffering was spiritual: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus had the weight of the sins of the entire world on Him (1 John 2:2). It was sin that caused Jesus to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus’ brutal physical suffering was augmented by His having to bear the guilt of our sins and die to pay our penalty (Romans 5:8).

Isaiah predicted Jesus’ suffering: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:35). This passage specifies the reason for Jesus’ suffering: “for our transgressions,” for our healing, and to bring us peace.

Jesus told His disciples that His suffering was certain: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Luke 9:22; cf. 17:25). Note the word must—He must suffer, and He must be killed. The suffering of Christ was God’s plan for the salvation of the world. “

So what did Jesus do when he was faced with an onslaught from enemies all around him? He forgave. That was the simple message – forgive. Did he have lawyers at his trial, were there character witnesses to vouch for him – absolutely none. The enemies of Jesus targeted the weakest link in his inner circle. Who was the weakest link? Judas. The keeper of the purse. What was his weakness? The love of money. He is called a thief in John Chapter 12 verse 6:  “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. ” How did they persuade him to betray Jesus? They bribed him, used corruption, gave him 30 pieces of silver. Give us a sign, kiss him on the cheek they said. Peter denied him three times before the cock crowed thrice. The disciples fled. Jesus was tortured, his face disfigured, a crown of thorns placed brutally on his head, he was physically and verbally abused, spat upon, whipped, battered, bruised, dehydrated, exhausted. And yet he forgave. Great leaders show mercy.

Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness: Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew: Chapter 18, verses 21-22). In that chapter Jesus teaches us that we are to forgive our brother from our heart. Now learning to forgive can be very hard. How can you forgive someone who has been trying to destroy you and your family – out of sheer spite, hatred, anger, jealousy and has, say, tried to harm your children? Jesus on the cross forgave the robber, forgave all those who had committed those terrible crimes against him – even though it did not excuse their actions.  Jesus taught, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” (Matthew: Chapter 6:14). Even after the Resurrection, Jesus told his disciples: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.” (John Chapter 20: verses 22, 23). Jesus had  a such a deep forgiveness ministry. 

The life, the death, the resurrection, the teachings and the forgiveness ministry of Jesus has resonated with so many down the centuries. The Guardian newspaper of Great Britain noted:” If you think religion belongs to the past and we live in a new age of reason, you need to check out the facts: 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group. Members of this demographic are generally younger and produce more children than those who have no religious affiliation, so the world is getting more religious, not less – although there are significant geographical variations. According to 2015 figures, Christians form the biggest religious group by some margin, with 2.3 billion adherents or 31.2% of the total world population of 7.3 billion.”

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Martin Luther King famously said: ‘We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.’

Richard Branson recently shared on social media the words of a lady from Igniting Change who said: ‘People who are inflicting the most pain (on others) are in the most pain themselves.’ These people who do you wrong could be in terrible torment within themselves. Pray for your enemies, forgive them and bless them, their children and their children’s children.

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Even from a personal perspective, there was a time in my life when I had serious disagreements with my father. It caused so much bitterness inside me. I just didn’t want to talk to him. Then came the realisation that life was too short, God was asking me to forgive him and I needed to seek forgiveness too. So I went and met him, I told him how much I loved him and said: ‘Father, forgive me.’ There was a radical transformation in that precious moment, between a Father and a Son.

My father was 75 years old at the time. After that incredible breakthrough in our relationship, whenever I telephoned him to say I coming to visit him, he would walk up the road and stay near some bollards, waiting for me. The passage of time had mellowed him. When he saw me, he put his arms around me and hugged me, tears rolling down our faces. This was unconditional love. Later that year, my father passed away and I was glad there had been a breakthrough – I was able to celebrate his life at a service of thanksgiving and thank God for that act of forgiveness. When I think of him now I think of him with so much love – the bitterness, the anger has melted away.

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He said love your enemies – here is a clip from Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ.”  When you forgive you don’t keep any bitterness, hatred, anger inside of you. It doesn’t eat into your soul,  crippling your mind and your heart. Forgiveness brings release, freedom. You let go of the angst, that heavy burden will be lifted from you. It will set you free from the shackles of a bitter heart. Forgiveness is a very powerful tool and it releases God’s favour and blessings.

Ivan Corea

 

Quotations from the Bible from the New International Version.

Reference to Christ’s suffering courtesy of  gotquestions.org

Reference from the Guardian article:”Religion: why faith is becoming more and more popular.” Published in August 2018.

Clips from YouTube courtesy of the Passion of the Christ film.

Photograph of Winston Churchill taken from a portrait at his residence in Chartwell, Kent in the United Kingdom.
Photographs courtesy of Pexels and Pixabay.