Spontaneous peace and goodwill between soldiers in opposing armies occur in all wars. At least since Troy, chronicles have recorded a pause in fighting to bury the dead, pray, negotiate peace, or to give a moment for soldiers to show respect to their enemies. However none had occurred with the scale or duration, or with the potential to change things, as that of the Christmas Truce of World War I.
Since Germany's declaration of war on August 1, 1914, hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost. An appeal for a ceasefire from Pope Benedict XV only weeks after the war had broken out was immediately rejected by leadership on both sides as "impossible." The war slogged on with soldiers dying endlessly in brutal trench warfare.
Both sides thought that the war would be over quickly. But Christmas was fast approaching with no conceivable end to the conflict in sight. Christmas was a festive time with traditions shared by all who fought in the war. Many of the most resonant symbols of the Christmas season were claimed by Germany. Gift giving, the Tannenbaum of carols sung in many languages, Santa Claus, and most of all the Christmas tree, were attributed to German custom but long celebrated by both sides. It was with despair that they realized they would probably not be home with their families by Christmas day. There was to be no Christmas for the soldiers of World War I, only continual war.
Until on the night of Christmas Eve of 1914, when an English soldier named Henry Williamson led a group of men out into no man's land to drive fence posts and lay down barb wire to advance their front a few yards forward. The moon moved slowly across the sky giving them just enough light to make their way. As they worked they noticed a strange light off in the distance towards the German front line. They began to hear cheerful voices coming from the area of the light. They crouched suddenly, ready to lay themselves flat, but no shots came.
They began to see silhouettes, and around them more lights being put up. Maddison then realized that it was a Christmas tree, and around it Germans laughing and talking together. Glancing at their watches they said to each other, "It's eleven o'clock. By Berlin time, it is midnight. A merry Christmas to everyone!" They then began to hear from the German line a rich voice singing "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht." Maddison felt at ease. The men finished their work and returned to the trenches to fall asleep. The complete lack of any of the usual sounds of war that night made the entire experience feel like a dream.
Photograph by H. B. Robson
photo credit: Imperial War Museum
The daylight came soon. When they looked across no man's land that Christmas morning they saw signs erected by the Germans in broken English that mostly read "You no fight, we no fight." Some British improvised signs that read "Merry Christmas." The Germans responded with a sign reading "Happy Christmas" over their trenchs. After observing heads popping up to read the signs, the Germans emerged, visibly unarmed. Advancing forward and shouting "Comrades!" Momentarily forgetting their hatred towards the enemy, rifles were set down.
Up and down no man's land, the two sides were coming together. Soldiers would cautiously advance towards their enemy's lines unarmed and smiling, often singing. In such simple ways, localized truces began. At Foucaucourt, on the Somme River, where the 99th regiment faced the Bavarians, three hundred of the enemy, led by a junior officer, emerged from their trenches and advanced halfway towards the French line. For days thereafter a joyous exchange of bread, drinks, postcards, and newspapers took place.
There were areas where the truce would come harder. Soldiers would carry Christmas trees across the wasteland, sometimes through gunfire, and into the enemy's trenches where they were lit together. As the glow of the lit tree fell everywhere, all shooting ceased. Profoundly moved by such gestures, soldiers on both sides gathered together to celebrate Christmas, while the Germans sang "Stille Nacht."
Published by The London Daily Mirror
The power of Christmas grew, and they no longer saw enemies anywhere before them. They gathered together to exchange food, addresses, and deep admiration for each other. Even spontaneous games of soccer were reported. When angry superiors ordered them to resume fighting, many men aimed harmlessly high into the air. The truce would go on for days. But eventually the grim business at hand was resumed.
A Respectful End
The truce would eventually end by order of top generals on both sides. Even then things were cordial. One account from the 2nd Welch Fusiliers tells of three shots being fired into the air at 8:30 AM, then posting a sign reading "Merry Christmas" above a forward trench. The Germans quickly responded with a "Thank You," and their company commander stood proudly next to his sign. The two officers bowed, saluted each other, then descended into their trenches. The German captain then fired two shots into the air. The war then recommenced.
Sometimes great beauty emerges from horrible tragedy. The Christmas truce is one of history's most inspiring moments. The men who fought and died in the war were, as usual, proxies for governments that had little to do with their everyday lives.
Although dismissed in official records as an aberration of little consequence, to many, the Christmas Truce was seen as the only meaningful event in the apocalypse that was World War I. The Great War would go on to have a profound effect on the future of Western Civilization.
photo credit: danigartzia
In December of 1999, a group of nine "Khaki Chums" crossed the English Chanel to Flanders with the goal of commemorating the Christmas Truce where it might have begun, near Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium. Working in the rain and snow, and wearing makeshift uniforms, they dug trenches reinforced with sandbags and planks which "literally disappeared into the bottomless mud." For several days they recreated the experience of the trenches of World War I, cooking rations and sleeping on the ground soaking wet. They planted a large wooden cross into the quagmire as a mark of respect to the wartime dead, then filled in their trenches and returned home to England.
They were astonished to learn that after they had left, the local villagers had treated their cross with a wood preservative and set it into a concrete base. Countless monuments exist today in town squares and cemeteries across the world commemorating the Great War. However the wooden cross left by the "Khaki Chums" in the mud of Flanders is the only memorial to the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub