A holy night on the Western Front

Fr Peter Hosking SJ reflects on the hymn 'Silent Night, Holy Night' and the part it played in one of those most touching events in 20th century wartime history.

The hymn ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ was originally written as a poem by a young Austrian Catholic priest, Joseph Mohr. He and a local organist, Francis Xavier Gruber, composed the melody in 1818.

It wasn’t translated into English until the 1860s. A version by Bing Crosby is the third highest-selling single in history. Only Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ and Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ have sold more records.

The song was also part of one of those most touching events in 20th century wartime history. On Christmas Day 1914, on the Western Front, thousands of German soldiers put down their weapons, climbed out of the trenches and mingled with British, Belgian and French soldiers. It is recognised as a rare moment of sanity in a war that would eventually claim over 15 million lives.

The newly elected Pope Benedict XV had called for a Christmas truce, an idea that was rejected by the powers that be. Yet the sheer misery of the wet trenches motivated troops to initiate the truce themselves.

No one knows where it began or how it spread, but some two thirds of troops — about 100,000 people — participated.

In Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Great War, Private Frank Sumpter described the event: ‘The winter of 1914 was extremely hard because we had no amenities whatsoever. The trenches were just waterlogged ditches, and one was often up to one’s knees in frozen mud. After the 19 December attack we were back in the same trenches when Christmas Day came along.=

‘It was a terrible winter, everything was covered in snow, everything was white. The devastated landscape looked terrible in its true colours — clay and mud and broken brick — but when it was covered in snow, it was beautiful.

‘Then we heard the Germans singing “Silent Night, Holy Night” (“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”) and they put up a notice saying, “Merry Christmas”, so we put one up also. Then one German took a risk and jumped up on top of the trench and shouted out, “Merry Christmas, Tommy.”

‘So, our boys said, “If he can do it, we can do it.” And we all jumped up. A sergeant-major shouted, “Get down!” But we said, “Shut up Sergeant, it’s Christmas time!” And we all went forward to the barbed wire. We never said a word about the War to the Germans. We spoke about our families, about how old we were, how long we thought this would last, and things like that.

‘Afterwards, as a sign of friendliness, the Germans put up a sign saying, “Gott mitt uns”, which means “God is with us”. So, we put up a sign in English saying, “We got mittens too”. I don’t know if they enjoyed that joke.’

Journalist Naina Bajekal later wrote of the event: ‘The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades … Several accounts mentioned impromptu kick-abouts with makeshift soccer balls.

‘The truce was widespread but not universal. In at least two places soldiers attempting to fraternise were shot. Sadly, it was only a truce, not peace. Hostilities returned, in some places later that day and in others not until after New Year’s Day. As war resumed, it wreaked such destruction and devastation that soldiers became hardened to the brutality of the war.

‘The Christmas truce is a tale of subversion: when the soldiers on the ground decided they were not fighting the same war as their superiors. It was a testament to the power of hope and humanity in a truly dark hour of history.’

Even though Sumpter’s unit translated it differently, Gott mitt uns is a translation of the Hebrew word Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23) meaning ‘God is with us’. It proclaims that in the person of the child, Jesus, God has come among the people and will remain with them in a uniquely close way.

Matthew’s Gospel finishes with an assurance of this ongoing presence, ‘I am with you always until the end of time.’

As we finish a year, it is good to remind ourselves how God is with us. As we consider all that has happened this year, there is much to be truly grateful for. Some things may not have happened as we planned and these are what they are. Every story has an end, but in life, every end is also a new beginning.

Fr Peter Hosking SJ is rector of St Aloysius’ College in Sydney. This is an edited version of a piece that originally appeared in the College newsletter The Gonzagan.