Leadership Lessons: We are all more than our uniforms

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- This past December marked the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce of 1914. On Christmas Eve and Christmas of 1914, only a few months into World War I, thousands of British, French, and Belgian soldiers, and the opposing German soldiers, laid down their weapons, emerged from their trenches, and celebrated Christmas together.  It is poignant that this brief moment of peace, brought on by an unofficial cease-fire between the men in the trenches on the Western Front, could occur in a war that would eventually claim over 15 million lives.  The Christmas Truce of 1914 has become legendary in military history due to the spontaneous gesture of goodwill and chivalry between the two warring sides, one that was never to be repeated in the "war to end all wars."

By December 1914, the hostilities had already been ongoing for five months.  British soldiers on the Western Front near Ypres, Belgium, had just recently dug their trenches along their lines in an attempt to stop the German advance.  After fortifying their positions, it was clear that the "Great War" was going to be a protracted war of attrition.  Conditions in the trenches were deplorable; it was cold, wet, and lacking of amenities.  Pope Benedict XV had suggested a cease-fire to celebrate Christmas, but had been officially rejected by both sides.  Fighting continued into Christmas Eve, but the gunfire and artillery began to subside by nightfall.  As darkness came across the battlefield and the moonlight shined on the frosty ground, the British soldiers noticed something surreal: the German soldiers were coming out of their trenches and began putting up Christmas trees adorned with candles.  And then came the singing which put everyone in a festive mood.  A British soldier, Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, remarked:

"First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing - two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war."

On Christmas Day, German troops came out of their trenches into "no man's land" wishing the Allies "Merry Christmas" in English.  Apprehensively, the British obliged by coming out of their trenches and shook hands with the same Germans they were shooting at the day before.  Gifts of food, drink, cigarettes, and clothing were exchanged while the caroling continued.  There were even reports of a friendly game of soccer between the two sides.  The break in the fighting also afforded the opportunity for both sides to bury their dead.  In commemoration of the Christmas Truce centennial, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, dedicated a memorial in England on December 12, 2014.  The memorial depicts a soccer ball frame with two hands clasped inside it.  Additionally, the British and German Army soccer teams played a friendly match the following week.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is remarkable because it is a reminder that soldiers will dutifully answer their nation's call and endure the horrors of war, but still yearn for peace.  It is a story of hope; that no matter how fleeting, the hope that one day the violence will end.  It is an acknowledgement of the camaraderie within the profession of arms.  The soldiers at the Christmas Truce had a mutual respect for their enemies on the other side of no man's land because they shared the ugly realities of trench warfare.  They realized that underneath their uniforms, they were very much alike.  They had families back home and liked to laugh, eat, drink, sing, and play sports as well.

Ultimately, we must look at the man or woman behind the uniform; that which transcends geopolitical affiliation, treaties, allegiances, socioeconomic class, or religion.  Ultimately, we are bound together by our humanity.