Moment of truce at No-Man's Land

Excerpts from the presentation by Walter Cronkite given during the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square Christmas Concert. The full text, by Steve Wunderli, is available at:

"As the Christmas of 1914 drew near . . . the nations of Europe were at war. A 19-year-old German boy left his job in London to enlist in his nation's army. English boys working and studying in Hamburg and Paris returned to London, donned uniforms, and went back to the front to fire upon former friends.

"With hardly a backward glance, the promise of youth was poured into the blind and futile aggression known as the Great War — World War I. . . .

"The German army had marched across Belgium but were slowed to a stalemate at Flanders Field. Some 60 meters away the British, French and Belgian troops languished in trenches infested with rats and lice; pelted with freezing rain and shrapnel. . . .

"Between the opposing trenches was an area about the width of a soccer field aptly named No Man's Land. Littered with barbed wire and frozen corpses, it was a sobering reminder of what the future might bring. . . .

"In December the war slowed. . . . As they contemplated their desperate situation, nights grew long and hearts yearned for peace.

"Dec. 23, a group of German soldiers quietly moved to the ruins of a bombed-out monastery. There they held their Christmas service. Later on that night, a few Christmas trees, Tannenbaums, as they were called, began to appear along the German fortifications, their tiny candles flickering in the night.

"Across the way, British soldiers must have taken an interest in those lights as they sang together the carols of their youth. Word spread, and heads peeked cautiously over sandbags at the now thousands of Tannenbaums glowing like Christmas stars.

"Two British officers ventured over to the German line and, against orders, arranged a Christmas truce. But the negotiation was a formality. Up and down the trenches, men from both sides had been crossing the line to join in the celebration.

"Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse 'assaulted' the enemy with music. . . . The Germans responded with a Christmas concert of their own. It was not long before the cold air rang with everything from 'Good King Wenceslaus' to 'Auld Lang Syne.'

"For the next two days, those tidings continued to spring from the hearts of common men.

"Further down the line, a German violinist . . . framed against the skeletons of bare trees and wrecked fortifications . . . conveyed the poignant beauty of Handel's 'Largo.'

"Whatever the Spirit of Christmas had been before that hour, it was now, above all, the spirit of peace.

"A British war correspondent reported that later the soldiers heard a clear voice singing the beloved French carol 'O Holy Night.' The singer: Victor Grandier of the Paris Opera.

"As Christmas Day dawned over the muddy fields, both sides cautiously picked their way through the barbed wire and together buried their dead. . . .

"Men who had shot at each other only days before gathered in a sacred service for the fallen. Prayers were offered. . . .

"Nineteen-year-old Arthur Pelham-Burn, who hoped to study for the ministry after the war ended, remembered, 'The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. Yes, I think it is a sight one will never see again.'

"As the Christmas of 1914 drew to a close, soldiers who had sung together, played together and prayed together returned to their trenches. They must have felt reluctant to let the common ground between them become No Man's Land again. But even as the darkness fell around them, a lone baritone voice floated across the few yards of earth on which they had stood together as one. And for a brief moment the sound of peace was a carol both sides knew by heart.

"In the true spirit of Christmas, one voice, then another, joined in. Soon the whole world seemed to be singing, and for a brief moment, the sound of peace was a carol every soul knew by heart."

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