It was a bitter cold Christmas-Eve in France, 1914 with men huddled deep in the soggy trenches of the Western Front. The war should’ve been over by now with the troops home around the table with their loved ones. But, instead of enjoying Holiday hams and ales, they were in the trenches. The previous five months were the start of what would wind up being one of the most brutal wars in history. Only a few weeks earlier was the Winter Operations, which ended in massive British casualties and a swift realization that this war was nowhere near finished. Morale was low with the scab of combat still wet and new. To the British, The Great War waited for no one. It took who it wanted when it wanted and usually in waves of the ten-thousands.
Meanwhile, select lieutenants and commanders on both sides decided to make the situation as “merry and bright” as possible and bring Christmas to the trenches. Thousands of presents came in from Germany and Britain, including cigar assortments from the Kizer and personalized cigarette sets from Queen Mary. Family members on both sides also had the opportunity to send gifts and very quickly the Brits were overwhelmed with plum puddings, cigars, whiskies and Christmas cakes. Of course, Germans and Austrians received a plethora of gifts, too. Cognac, bratwurst, cigarettes and chocolate of every kind reminded them of home as they continued to wait out what they hoped was the end of the war and ultimately, their victory.
The sun was slowly slipping beneath the horizon when the rain, which had drug on for weeks, suddenly stopped. A Scots Guard watchman was eyeing enemy lines when he spotted something funny. Through the thick fog were a row of lights dotting the enemy trenches. Suspecting an attack, they armed themselves to the teeth and prepared for a strike. Then, there was a sound.
“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht…”
The Brits looked around at each other with worried looks on their faces. Were the Germans…singing? Was that…the tune of…Silent Night? And it was. What they heard was the original Austrian version, Sille Nacht and the lights they saw were candles on makeshift Christmas trees. A confused Leutinate Sir Edward Hulse ordered the troops to drown them out with their own carols.
“Sille Nacht, Heilige Nacht…”
“All is calm, all is bright…”
“Nur das traute hochheilige Paar…”
“Holy infant so tender and mild…”
“Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh…”
“Sleep in heavenly peace…”
In a matter of minutes, the Godless battlefields filled with song, and for a moment, they smiled hopeful grins amid war.
“Happy Christmas!” and “Frohe Weihnachten!” was shouted across the field, followed by big laughs. As if from a movie, this carolling carried on most of through much of the Front which consisted of roughly 100,000 (mainly) British, Scottish and German troops. From Saint-Yves, Somme, Ypres, Verdun and more, despite the fuss of more than a few captains.
Later in the night, Germans began to shout across enemy lines, “English! Tomorrow if you no shoot, we no shoot!” This proposal of amnesty worked its way down the rest of the battlefront and while there were some who flat out refused to take part, most obliged. For instance, British Indian troops, unfamiliar with Christmas and the whole excitement over candle-lit trees and singing Germans, were …less enthused. Soon after, though, the lights on the trees reminded them of their special holiday, Diwali which celebrates the triumph of good over evil. And in no time, the Indians were in on the Christmas spirit.
That Christmas Eve, after months of sleeping sitting up in the rain, ready to fight at any moment, thousands of men slept peacefully. Then, Christmas Day came.
The Brits woke up to find there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The morning was crisp and sunny with birds chirping and a light blanket of snow, how could it be? It had been raining for weeks on end. A few brave souls peeked over the edge of their trenches to look across the battlefield. What they saw were Saxons with a death wish. Were they…standing? Strolling along their parapets the Germans were officially “over the top” and free to be shot at any moment. Such a thing was deadly in those times, especially during the day. This was not a provocation, but an enormous gesture of trust. This olive branch slowly lured a few of the British out of their trenches and into the morning sun.
Free from the dark, muddy confines of the ditches that had become home, walking on solid ground felt like heaven. More men from both sides cautiously made their way out of their pits. Now, both forces were in no man’s land, and one thing was impossible to avoid — the bodies. Dotted across the peaceful morning field were the bloody, decaying corpses of fellow countrymen, some dead for weeks. The haunted and vacant stares of their comrades was a stark contrast to the hopeful soldiers who surrounded them. Without saying much, both sides allowed the opposition to gather their dead. The two adversaries gathered the corpses, buried them in common graves and grieved side by side as they remembered the fallen. Not far off in the distance, were the sounds of gunshots from other sectors. In truth, not everyone was willing to have a truce and hold hands, even if it was just for Christmas Day. The French and Belgians currently had their countries occupied by Germans directly affecting their families, how could they let bygones be bygones? It was wartime in the truest sense. For many though, this dose of reality reminded them that uniforms and language aside, the Hell they’d been enduring was a shared experience.
In no time at all, what had once been a gory battlefield of last screams and artillery shells were now, Christmas. Men from either side of every rank greeted one another, speaking in broken English and German with their sworn enemies. As the nervous mingling continued, many exchanged gifts. They swapped chocolate cakes for German sausages and handmade quilts for winter coats. As the morning went on, they lit cigarettes and puffed on about their loved ones. Stories of gorgeous women waiting back home and memories of past Christmases filled the grounds as they passed around their faded pocket photos and flasks to ease the pain. Slowly, they began to realize further how much they had in common. It turned out, they were both equally sick of conflict and missed home, too. In many respects, they were the same.
Later on, Lt. Sir Edward Hulse was chatting with Lieutenant and German flying ace, Erich Thomas of the Westphalians. As the conversation continued, Erich reached in his pocket and pulled out a stack of letters and a medal. The letters were found with an English soldier who died in a German trench during the last attack. The medal, was his Victorian Cross, one of the British Army’s most prestigious awards give for “valour in the presence of the enemy”.
Erich hoped that Edward would be able to deliver the letters to the nameless soldier’s loved ones. Touched, he paused and reflected on this gesture then reached for his neck. He removed his blue silk scarf, a gift from home and presented it in a silent thanks. Sir Edward and Erich are just one of the many examples of chivalry between enemies and a deeper understanding of loss that took place that day
Over on the rest of the field, the fun continued. As men were exchanging gifts from home, someone brought out a European football. Soon, matches ensued across the icy ground of empty shells. Where only days earlier there were patriots blown into oblivion, and last
prayers said, there was now sport. Later, a team of Sutherland Highlanders even challenged a small Saxon regiment and won, 4-1. The Germans continued to refer to them as English, which they took much pleasure in correcting them! It seemed that the world of combat and warfare really had stopped turning for just a moment.
Years later Lieutenant Johannes Niemann who served with the Saxons recalled:
Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts—and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of one posterior belonging to one of “yesterday’s enemies.” But after an hour’s play, when our Commanding Officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it. A little later we drifted back to our trenches and the fraternization ended.
19-year-old Corporal Eric Rowden, 6th Battalion of the London Regiment wrote in his diary that evening,
“I went out and found a German who spoke English a little, and we exchanged buttons and cigarettes. And I had two or three cigars given to me, and we laughed and joked together, having forgotten war altogether.”
The afternoon was spent enjoying each others company and setting aside differences in the most gentleman of ways. Inevitably, it had to come to an end. In many sectors, the truce lasted only Christmas Day before it was back to the slaughter. In a select few, though, they resisted for several days. In some areas, the truce came to an orderly close with officers saluting each other from their sides before firing a revolver. In others, it wasn’t as clean an ending; thanks to many very angry Generals who got word of the armistice, German snipers were ordered to fire shots to scare the British back to their trenches and vice versa. Artillery barrages came and went to signal that this fun was over. Germans were warned that if they staged another truce, they would be shot. British soldiers were threatened with court-martial. And just like that, the war was back, and it was only getting started.
Nobody could have known just how young this war was on Christmas morning 1914. Sadly, it was only a matter of time before the friendships made that day would be lost to the horrors that would come. After all, these hopeful men were five months into a war that would go on to last a miserable four years, three months and seven days. In a matter of weeks, they’d be replaced, relocated or dead. There would be no chance of another Christmas truce because, by the next Christmas, these men will have hardened by the unforgiving consequences of wartime. Before long, Zeppelins would rain over London hitting the Brits where it hurt, and the Battle of Verdun would take over 750,000 German lives. It was only the beginning.
Few things convey the horrors and bloodshed of what would later be known as the First World War. A staggering 57% of all combatants would be casualties at a total of 37.5 million lives lost. Germany, who at this point was winning, would go on to have the most deaths at over 2 million and lose the war. Over 7 million would remain maimed for life, roughly 80,000 British soldiers would endure Shell Shock, and 11% of the total French population killed.
However brief and short-lived, the Christmas Truce of 1914 was an extraordinary act of honor and a shared pain among men. It was a time where men laid down weapons to carve a few hours of peace out of a senseless and bloody war. It proved that no matter how big the war was, and would be, it didn’t destroy Christmas spirit of 1914.
British officers meet their German counterparts in no man’s land of the Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector of the Western Front