100 years ago, in December 1914, World War I was about 5 months old. In August, the Germans had initially moved rapidly through Luxembourg and Belgium on their way to France. Allied defenses held them at a battle line called The Western Front. By December casualties were high and all both sides could do was hold the line until reinforcements came. They dug trenches and placed barbed wire fences all along the line. The space between them was called “No Man’s Land” and in some places they were only separated by a few yards, close enough to be able to hear the enemy in their trenches.
It was wet and cold and miserable and boring. A British paper said “The bravery of our men, and they are splendidly brave, consists of sitting, often for days and nights, in sodden trenches, with the terrifying and earth-shaking concussions of shells.”
[One soldier wrote:] “You don’t see anything, although the wicked enemy is only 3-400m away , but you hear plenty.” . . .
“Each side could hear each other’s coming and goings, their songs and stresses, a good deal of the time. They got used to it. Here is Second Lieutenant Denis Barnett, serving with the Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment, writing a letter home in March the following year: “I had a conversation with a German the other morning. It began just at dawn: ‘Guten morgen, Allyman’, and we soon got going. I told him about the Kaiser, and he said we were all sorts of things I didn’t know.”
As early as December 11, near Armentieres, the Germans threw a big chocolate cake over into the British trench. On it was a note that said, “We propose having a concert tonight as it is our captain’s birthday, and we cordially invite you to attend. Provided you will give us your word of honor as guests and you agree to cease all hostilities between 7:30 and 8:30.” The British thought it was a trap, but they listened to the concert and clapped after each song. One of the Germans yelled over, “Please come mit us into the chorus.” A British soldier replied, “We’d rather die than sing German” and a German quickly replied, “It would kill us if you did.”
The night of December 21 was particularly cold. Sleet fell and the next night was even colder.
Lieutenant Geoffrey Heinekey of the 2nd Queen’s Westminster Rifles was writing to his mother about the recent flurry of activity in the trenches: “A most extraordinary thing happened … some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of their wounded, and so we ourselves immediately came out of our trenches and began bringing in our wounded also. The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us bury our dead. This lasted the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men.”
Another British soldier wrote: “Without a doubt, on the British and German sides of the barbed wire, there are educated men; men who fear God; men who try to live up to the doctrines of their religion , faith, hope and charity.”
As the weather deteriorated, there was a sense that both sides were fighting a common enemy in the weather.
On Christmas Eve, the Germans put up small Christmas trees on the walls of their trenches, lit with candles.
Once darkness had fallen on Christmas Eve, the singing began. At first each side sang their own patriotic songs, trying to drown out the other side with loud singing. Then a group of Germans sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” which was practically a national anthem for the Allies.
“Just a line from the trenches on Christmas Eve,” wrote Major Arthur Bates from the London Rifle Brigade in a pencil scrawl to his wife. “A topping night with not much firing going on & both sides singing – it will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow. My orders to the company are not to start firing unless the Germans do.”
In another area, The Germans sang ‘Stille Nacht’. The London Rifles replied with ‘The First Noel’. The Germans clapped. When the British started ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, the German side joined in with the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles’.
At 5am Christmas morning, a rumor started circulating that some of the allies were in No Man’s Land speaking with the Germans. “Impossible, whose leg are you pulling?” said Edward Roe. “If you don’t believe me, go and see for yourself.” “And there they were, sure enough,” wrote Roe later. “British and German warriors in No Man’s Land, talking to each other and exchanging souvenirs. There is a Christ after all.”
Each side took the opportunity to bury their dead, some of whom had been inaccessible since October. They met in the middle and agreed to terms of an unofficial truce, which included things like:
- Any action taken by the Artillery of either Army did not break our truce as we had no control over Artillery
- If either side received an order to fire, they would fire the first three rounds high in the air so as to give the other side time to get under cover.
- If either side fired a shot with intent to kill, the truce was declared off.
Up and down this section of the Western Front, similar scenes played out. One British soldier helped a German who had lived in England before the war write a postcard to his girlfriend.
A British soldier named Esslemont Adams went across No Man’s Land with the intent of arranging a burial service. As he started to cross, a rabbit ran across No Man’s Land and soldiers from both side chased it. “The Germans caught it, and Adams agreed to a joint funeral service which opened with Psalm 23 – “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” – and a joint prayer. After the service, a German colonel took out his cigar case and offered him one. It was an awkward moment for Adams, who was a Presbyterian and didn’t approve of smoking. “May I be allowed not to smoke but to keep this as a souvenir of Christmas here and of meeting you on Christmas Day?” he asked. “Oh yes,” said the German, with a laugh. “But can you give me a souvenir?” Adams took off his cap, dug into the lining to find the copy of the Soldier’s Prayer he always carried (“ Oh God, wash me from all my sins in my Saviour’s Blood, and I shall be whiter than snow”). The colonel put it in his own hat. “I value this because I believe what it says, ” he said. “And when the war is over, I shall take it out and give it as a keepsake to my youngest child.”
Men exchanged gifts. They played football, in some areas with a real ball and in others with whatever they could find. One man ran into a German who had been his barber in England and got a haircut from the enemy in No Man’s Land.
This is Private Ernie Williams of the Cheshire Regiment: “A ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side … They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19, everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us … There was no referee, no score, no tally at all.”
In another area a soldier recorded: “A German looked over the trench – no shots – our men did the same, and then a few of our men went out and brought the dead in (69) and buried them and the next thing happened a football kicked out of our trenches and Germans and English played football. Night came and still no shots.”
“It was a peculiar mixture of dreamlike exhilaration and celebration. “In the afternoon, I went out and had a chat with ‘our friends the enemy’, ” wrote Sergeant Bernard Brookes of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles in the Frelinghien-Houplines sector.
“Even as I write (dusk),” wrote Sergeant Bob Lobell, “I can scarcely credit what I have seen and done. It has been a wonderful day.”
One soldier summed it up in a letter home: “So there you are; all this talk of hate, all this firing at each other that has raged since the beginning of the war quelled and stayed by the magic of Christmas. Indeed one German said ‘But you are of the same religion as us and today is the day of peace!’ It is really a great triumph for the church. It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.” – http://www.christmastruce.co.uk/article.html
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
All quotes are from Boyle, David: Peace on Earth: The Christmas Truce of 1914 and www.christmastruce.co.uk