“Harvard’s church leaders insisted that the cenotaph commemorate all of its own who perished in World War One, not just those who fought for the victors.”
By Allegra Jordan
IN PSYCHOLOGY, the term “quantum change” refers to a vivid, surprising, benevolent and enduring personal transformation through an identifiable, distinctive and memorable experience.
On the evening of Dec. 24, 1914, a quantum change in European history occurred that continues to have a mesmerizing hold over Western moral imagination.
102 years ago this Christmas Eve, pockets of soldiers on the opposing sides of World War One’s Western Front negotiated an unofficial cessations of hostilities for the following day and typically the day after. Soldiers emerged from muddy, cold trenches, sang Christmas songs, traded souvenirs and organized games.
Time magazine, The Washington Post, and the New York Times all cite research indicating up to 100,000 people participated. Other reports, from the Imperial War Museum and the BBC do not estimate the number of participants.
To be clear, the truce did not represent a complete cessation of hostilities. Fighting occurred on the Western Front that Christmas Day in some places. (For example, this article discusses two victims of Christmas 1914 German snipers.)
I learned the story of this miraculous, yet imperfect, peace in 1991 while attending the annual Christmas Carol service at Harvard’s Memorial Church. The church was built in 1932 as a memorial to students of the university who had fought for the Allies in World War One.
Each year, the Harvard Carol service’s bulletin typically notes that the choir and congregation sing Silent Night to commemorate the Christmas Truce of 1914. A similar excerpt from the 2015 service reads:
Our service opens in the Memorial Room, which documents the names of Harvard’s men who perished in World War One; during the ongoing centenary of that sad conflict, this very building adds its note of poignancy to the proceedings. Towards the end of the service, the congregation is invited to participate in the singing of “Silent Night” in English or in German: this practice memorializes that most moving episode of one hundred one years ago when, on Christmas Day 1914, soldiers from both sides of the trenches laid down their arms and climbed into no-man’s land to sing this cherished carol.
What the note glosses over is the fact four Harvard students died in the service of the Kaiser and are not remembered in the Memorial Room.
These ill-fated alumni were the subject of great controversy when the church was built. But it was a sermon delivered by Harvard Rev. Peter J. Gomes entitled “The Courage to Remember” that he made the case for this unlikely tribute. That sermon inspired my World War One novel, The End of Innocence.
Harvard’s War of Remembrance
Harvard’s Memorial Church was erected a mere 14 years after World War One ended.
The university had contributed overwhelmingly to the Allied war effort. Even before, the U.S. entered the fighting in Europe, students deserted classes to enlist in a way they had not since King Philip’s War (1675-1678). Eventually, more than 11,000 Harvard and Radcliffe alumni, students and faculty went to war.
Harvard students joined the Red Cross; volunteered with the French or British armies and supported an early ROTC-style training program to prepare warriors for America’s anticipated eventual entry into the fray. Harvard also made significant contributions to naval training, took part in materials distribution efforts and conducted basic warfare research.
Once the U.S. declared war, the numbers of Harvard-trained soldiers – and casualties – rose. Those injured and killed included more than 370 of Harvard’s beloved sons and daughters including Lionel de Jersey Harvard, the only member of the Harvard family to attend the school that bore their name; Alan Seeger, the famed poet; and Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Lowell also insisted that the Harvard Memorial Church be rebuilt as a memorial to the school’s Allied war dead.
The problem was that the building would also be a designated place of worship. As such, Harvard’s church leaders insisted that the cenotaph commemorate all of its own who perished in World War One, not just those who fought for the victors.
To include one’s enemy in a memorial after such a brutal war was beyond the moral imagination of many in the Harvard community. Yes, the four German students who fought and died for the Kaiser did so before the U.S. entered the war. Yes, the students were found to be of good character and even Lowell said if he had advised them, he would have only counselled that they consult their conscience. But they did fight for a brutal enemy. How could such facts be reconciled with one memorial?
Lowell was reluctant to budge. It took a considerable campaign for him to compromise. A truce was finalized as described in a famous passage from a sermon by the late Harvard reverend Peter J. Gomes in “The Courage to Remember:”
Over on the North Wall, in the far back is a plaque in Latin, which most of you will be unable to read. In translation it says this, “Harvard University has not forgotten its sons, who under opposite colors also gave their lives in the Great War.” And then there are listed four German members of the University who died in the service of the Kaiser in the First World War. This is one of the more extraordinary memorials in this church. You will notice that it is separated by a vast acreage from the memorial to the war dead of the First War in the Memorial Room. This was a controversial matter in 1932 when this church was built. And the university authorities said that they could not in good conscience include the war dead of the enemy in the same place as the war dead of the Allies. And it was my predecessor, the Chairman of the Board of Preachers, Willard Sperry, who with his colleagues said this is wrong. “We cannot contravene the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Who are we against them?” But we could improve upon their narrow vision and in this church we shall remember them. And we did and we do and there they are. A reminder of the fact that humanity transcends the sides and there are no victors ultimately; there are only those to be commended to God.
(Source: Harvard Memorial Church)
Sometimes in history, we are surprised by a quantum change. The song Silent Night stopped World War One in parts of Western Europe 102 years ago this month. And once again this year, the Harvard annual service of carols will include the song Silent Night, sung in both German and English, to honor its own, and the greater Christmas Truce of 1914.
This Christmas, and in all Christmases to come, we are ennobled by the acts of great courage of these nameless front-line soldiers who had the courage to sing when they could have been shot. They went above ground when they could have been court-martialed. They took the opportunity to inject love into the veins of civilization when not much love was to be found. And when we celebrate the Christmas Truce, we take part in their gift of a surprisingly, vivid, lasting, benevolent moral imagination.
Allegra Jordan is the author of The End of Innocence (Sourcebooks, 2014). Her articles, cases and book reviews have appeared in USA Today, TEDx, and in publications by Duke, Harvard and UT-Austin. She curates a top-ranked reconciliation poetry website and serves on the board of the Rick Herrema Foundation, an organization that provides support for U.S. military families. A graduate with honours of Harvard Business School, she has been named a top executive under 40 in Austin, Texas and Birmingham, Alabama.