This Christmas marks 100 years since the famous Christmas truce of WWI, in 1914.
British soldiers in their trench heard a familiar melody but the words didn’t match the song they were thinking of. They peered over the top of the trench and saw a German soldier in no-man’s land between the armies. In one hand he carried a white flag of truce and in the other he carried a Christmas tree. As he neared the British soldier recognized the song as Silent Night, stille Nacht in the German language.
That has been stated by some veterans of the war during that stormy Winter as the beginning of a widespread and unofficial truce between the two sides that got bigger and more bold during the week leading up to, and including, Christmas Day.
Soldiers on both sides began to exchange seasonal greetings and to sing songs between their trenches. There were even occasions where soldiers walked over to opposing sides to talk to their counterparts and exchange gifts.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the soldiers put aside their differences for a few hours. Many of them – from both sides – ventured into “no man’s land,” where they met and exchanged food and souvenirs, and sang carols together.
It is said that at the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines calling out “Merry Christmas.” The Allied soldiers were wary at first, thinking it might be a trick, but when they saw the Germans approach them unarmed, they climbed out of their trenches as well, and shook hands with the enemy.
Future nature writer Henry Williamson, then a 19-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day:
“Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”
One of the iconic images of the holiday truce is of a soccer game between the Germans and the Allies. There were reports of quite a few soccer matches between the opposing sides along the front.
It’s hard to estimate how many soldiers took part in the soccer game, or the truce in general. It is said that there were some 100,000 British and German soldiers who took part in the unofficial truce on the Western Front that Christmas. Many letters sent home by soldiers told about the truce and the game.
The Christmas truce was not the only instance of an unofficial truce between the parties, but it did signify a growing attitude of “live and let live.” Soldiers from opposing sides – in close proximity – would occasionally see the humanity of the other side and pause fighting. Sometimes there was fraternization between the sides. Sometimes, it was just a brief pause to recover wounded or dead comrades.
The Christmas truce of 1914 marked a brief and remarkable moment of peace amid one of the most violent and deadly times in history. It showed a glimmer of hope in dark times. Although never repeated on the same level – and attempts at future truces were quashed – it proved faith in humanity and the spirit of the holiday season.