With the centenary of the First World War, we have been reminded of its many harrowing battles, such as Ypres, Gallipoli, Passchendaele, and yet the most impressive incident of this bloody conflict, the Christmas truce of 1914, nearly brought all of these hostilities to an end.
The catalyst for this impromptu détente was little more than a few small decorated trees sitting on the parapets of the front trenches of the German lines.
It began Christmas Eve all along the western front from Belgium to France (with a few incidents in the east involving Russians) and by most accounts, it was the Germans or to be more precise, Bavarians and Saxons, who made the first overtures for a temporary truce in order to celebrate Weihnachten.
As the candles were lit on these tiny Christmas trees and carols sung from the trenches, it must have crossed the minds of many soldiers that maybe the guys on the other side of the barbed wire weren’t murderous Huns or treacherous English, but just people missing their family and homes, much like themselves.
Truth be told, with the exception of the officers, most of these so-called soldiers were little more than ordinary men – people who had been previously employed as bakers, labourers, farmers or waiters.
While soldiers on both sides were enjoying packages from home and even official gifts – such as the brass Princess Mary Tin (filled with cigarettes and a small greeting card) for the allied soldiers and a ceramic Prince Wilhelm pipe for the Germans – the celebrations were understandably muted given the fact that just a few yards from the trenches were the frozen bodies of fallen comrades, left in the tangled mess of mud and shell holes called ‘no man’s land’.
After singing carols to each other the night before, a few brave soldiers raised their hands on Christmas Day and walked out towards the enemy lines, risking certain death for only the chance of a temporary truce.
A few of them found it, and when they did they chose to bury their dead together, share what little Christmas fare they had, exchange trinkets such as brass buttons and listen to each other’s stories of home.
So this Christmas, when you are sitting in your warm, comfortable house, basking in the glow of a decorated tree, remember that there are still hundreds of thousands of refugees caught in conflicts as far flung as Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan – people who are homeless and desperate for peace.
Let’s hope that some of that same spirit that was inspired a century ago by a handful of Christmas trees in those muddy frontline trenches will again bring forth some brave soldiers willing to summon the courage to lay down their arms and risk the hope of peace.
One hundred years ago, sworn enemies put down their guns, looked each other in the eye and chose to shake hands.
Maybe it’s time we tried it again.
Maybe this time we won’t go back to war and ‘peace on earth, goodwill to men’ will become more than a seasonal slogan, but a way of life.
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (firstname.lastname@example.org).