It is Christmas, a time of observance by the Christian faithful and celebration by millions of others who have adopted the annual holiday.

This year it also is a time of deepest sorrow in the households of the thousands of people who proudly sent their sons, daughters, husbands, wives and parents to war in a benighted land, never to see them again.

The Iraq campaign is many times smaller than the years-long World Wars I and II, but the killing is no less tragic -- on both sides.

It reminds many of us of one of the most touching stories of World War I. That great conflagration began in the fall of 1914, but the opening German offensive had stalled in a large area of the Somme Valley to be known in the history of warfare as Flanders Field.

The final battlefield toll before World War I ended four years later would be in the multimillions. The war was just 4 months old as Christmas loomed days away. The invading Germans on one side and the British and Belgians in that sector faced each other across the trenches they had dug for some limited protection. Highly limited! The war in that area alone was taking 2,000 to 3,000 lives a day of the finest of German and British youth. The "no-man's-land" between the trenches was a killing ground about the size of a football field. A moderately good quarterback could easily have breached it, except, as survivors recalled, it was stacked like cordwood with the unrecovered dead.

On Dec. 23, this ghastly environment began to give way to the international observance of Christmas. Some German soldiers occupied a bombed-out monastery on the edge of the battlefield and in its ruins held a Christmas service. As they sang "Silent Night" -- in German, of course -- their voices carried across the trenches, and the British joined in with the English words to that classic carol. Along the Germans' front-line trenches, there suddenly appeared a scattering of Christmas trees, a sprinkling of candles sparkling among them.

Across no-man's-land, the British had switched to the carols of their homeland.

Alarmed, their superior commanders, perhaps fearing trickery on the part of the enemy, ordered that there should be no fraternization with the Germans. Disobeying orders, two of the British officers crossed the lines and negotiated a Christmas Day truce with the Germans. Their effort was an unnecessary formality.

Along the whole front line, soldiers and officers of both sides had vaulted the protective sandbags and were embracing in Christian celebration the people they had been trying to kill but hours before.

Both sides broke out in the carols they had once sung in their village churches and big-city cathedrals. From the British rang forth all the traditional numbers: "Good King Wenceslas," "Joy to the World," "Silent Night" and a few not necessarily seasonal favorites -- "Auld Lang Syne" and, just for a brief military touch, "Tipperary" were oft-repeated.

The Germans joined in, as did the British when the Germans struck up such international favorites as "O Tannenbaum."

The candles lighting the Tannenbaum on the German side gleamed bright on Christmas night along the whole battlefield of Flanders Field as the soldiers from both sides patted a goodbye on the shoulders of those whose uniforms were so significantly different than their own.

As the rising sun heralded the dawn of Dec. 26, the first shots rang out. Different sides opened fire at different points along the front. It didn't matter who started it. The slaughter had resumed. But for that brief moment in history, there was unveiled the spirit that gives hope for a lasting peace.


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©2003 Walter Cronkite

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