On Remembrance Day, the story of an impromptu WW1 truce offers inspiration and hope

A friend visited last weekend bearing gifts, which is always nice. Even nicer when it’s beer. They brought a can of Storyteller Lager because they see me as a storyteller. (I tell myself they meant it as a compliment.) 

As a wannabe novelist, sometimes writer of columns like this one, and as a preacher, I give a lot of thought to the very human  activity of telling stories.

Stories have power in our lives. They inform our expectations, how we see the world and how we interact with people.

If you’re brought up with stories about good neighbours and folks working together and looking out for each other, you are more likely to see the world that way and to make your own effort to be a good neighbour.

If you are brought up with stories about how “those people” are untrustworthy and “those other people over there” are dangerous, you may grow up hyper-vigilant, fearful and judgmental.

The rationale for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine was fabricated using stories about what Russia is, and what Ukraine is, and what it is not. 

One narrative is that Ukraine is actually “Little Russia.” This implies Ukraine needs the guidance and protection of big Russia, like an older sibling or parent who knows what’s best. That sounds so much like the story told by those who colonized North America, taking control from those they saw as primitive. (That’s a story for another day.)

Another story the Russian people and their army have been told is modern-day Ukraine is controlled by neo-Nazis, even though Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, is Jewish. 

Clearly, stories don’t need to be true or even make sense to have traction and influence people to behave badly. When stories are more and more slanted, to make us think and feel and behave in certain ways, we need to be careful. 

We need to think for ourselves and ask questions about why we are being provoked to hate or look down on others. What are the motives, the agenda of the hate-mongers, who are so willing to use the power of stories to rile us up and to justify terrible actions?

It’s also important to share other stories that remind us of better ways for people and nations to be with each other. Sometimes all it takes is a little glimpse of light, the tiniest reminder of who we are meant to be, to turn us in a better direction.

With Remembrance Day approaching, a story I love to share is about what historians call the Christmas Truce. You can find many versions of it, with varying details, on the internet.

In December 1914 soldiers on both sides of the line in the Ypres region of Belgium were weary of the war and longing for a break in hostilities. This longing may have been deepened, emboldened by the arrival of care packages from home, some of which included delectable treats. 

In one sector German troops snuck a chocolate cake and a message to the British side. In some areas, the treacherous area between the opposing trenches, no-man’s land, was less than 50 yards wide. 

The note with the cake proposed an informal, unsanctioned, temporary ceasefire that evening, signalled by each side by the placement of lit candles on the parapets of the trenches.

British soldiers accepted the invitation and offered tobacco as a return present.  That evening, German heads popped up and started to sing Stille Nacht. The British may not have known the German words, but recognized the tune of Silent Night.

Soldiers from each side ventured out to meet in no-man’s land. Some exchanged small gifts, like uniform buttons.  Soldiers who’d been barbers gave free haircuts.  One soldier, a juggler, gave an impromptu performance.

There were reports the break in hostilities afforded time for the retrieval and burial of the dead. In some places, Germans and British soldiers joined together for funeral services.

About 100,000 troops from both sides were involved in unofficial cessations of conflict along the Western Front. There were even stories of soccer games breaking out.

On Jan. 1, 1915, the London Times published a letter from a major in the medical corps reporting that in his sector the British played a game against the Germans opposite and were beaten 3-2.

One German officer left this account in his journal: “The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued.  How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

Good stories guide us, inspire us, help remind us there is a reality beyond us and point us towards a better way to live. The stories say this is what life can be, if we try.

The Christmas Truce story is like that. It carries the hope, the message, the hint that there are things more important, more transcendent than fighting and better than killing. There is getting along, and sharing, and helping and feeding, and gifting, and playing together. 

We hear the Christmas Truce story and perhaps for a moment we can believe we don’t have to give up on each other or on the possibility of getting along. That may sound naive or foolish but isn’t it better to be reminded that we can be better? That the world can be better?

Soon we will gather on Remembrance Day to honour those who have paid the price. Those who never came home and those who came home but carry the memories, the wounds, the marks, visible and invisible, of war. 

We remember the stories of their sacrifices, their hardships, and all that was endured by their families, loved ones and communities. Perhaps we can raise a glass, or a can of Storyteller, and share stories that point us toward a better way. 

Darrow Woods is the pastor at Harrow United Church and chaplain of Branch 338 of the Royal Canadian Legion. He lives in Kingsville.

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