War Takes a Holiday: World War I’s Christmas Truce

COMMENTARY

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On Christmas Eve 1914, Belgium’s cold was even colder in the wet and the mud of the trenches along the Flanders front. Capt. Charles Stockwell of the Fifth Welsh Fusiliers was pulling his coat tighter around him in a futile effort to get warm when he heard, floating across “No Man’s Land,” the Christmas carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night). Cautiously, he peered over the parapet of the trench, and he saw, about 100 yards away, the German trenches lit up with the soft glow of candlelight.

The British were transfixed, and when the Germans had finished the carol, the Brits responded with Joy to the World. When they had finished, a German soldier shouted, “Don’t shoot! We will send beer.”

Moments later, the astonished British saw Germans, members of the Sixth Westphalian Regiment, hauling themselves out of their trenches, with arms over their heads to show they had no weapons. They walked slowly to the midpoint of No Man’s Land, shouting in English, “Merry Christmas!”

Then the English scrambled out of their trenches, and the ones who knew a little German returned the greeting, “Frohliche Weihnachten!” When they met, they shook hands and traded candy, cigars and cigarettes. Then they began to sing together Christmas carols both sides knew — the Germans singing in German, the British harmonizing in English. Eventually, both sides returned to their trenches, but the caroling went on almost until dawn.

Somehow this truce spread up and down the British line. Yet, for some reason, only in a few places did the French participate. At one spot where the French and Germans did mingle, an outraged French officer issued an order: If his men would not go back into the trenches, Frenchmen who were not observing the truce should fire over their comrades’ heads.

It’s strange to consider that, just hours before the truce, the Germans and British had been trying to kill each other. For the past three months, along the 30-mile-long Flanders front, the machine guns, the shells and the landmines had killed or inflicted horrific wounds on thousands of men. Yet on this Christmas Eve, and into the early morning hours of Christmas Day, enemy troops came together to celebrate the birth of the Infant Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

The late narrative historian Edwin Kiester described this poignant scene in his Incomplete History of World War I.

World War I is notorious as one of the most vicious wars in human history. It took the lives of more than 38 million troops and civilians, not to mention more than 20 million wounded.

Nothing can diminish those numbers,  the anguish it caused among countless families, or the impact it had on the course of history over the following decades. The war gave birth to the Soviet Union, which spread unimaginable misery across the globe for decades. In World War I lie the roots of World War II, a conflict even more horrible than its predecessor, 21 years earlier.

Nonetheless, in spite of the policy of governments and the commands of officers, the men in the trenches developed their own private code.

Deadly fire ceased during the dinner hour, when both sides were having tea. To give the impression that fighting was still going on, the troops would fire into the air, only shooting — and aiming badly — at the opposing trenches if an officer showed up. Both sides respected the white flag so each side could collect their wounded and the bodies of their dead. There were occasions when men from both sides helped one another bury their dead.

Outside Ypres, the trenches were only about 65 yards away from each other. The soldiers took this opportunity to tie to rocks ration tins, packets of cigarettes, and even newspapers, and lob them into the trenches on the other side of No Man’s Land. Once a German boot came flying across the field and landed in a British trench. The Brits ducked, thinking it was a bomb. It wasn’t — it was a goodwill gesture, stuffed with German sausages and German chocolates.

In 1914, as the first Christmas of the war approached, German Crown Prince Wilhelm sent thousands of little Christmas trees, complete with candles, to his men at the front. The Christmas tree was an old German custom that Albert, the German-born prince consort of Queen Victoria, brought to England. From there, it spread to America.

As beloved as this custom had become among the British, it was even more cherished by the Germans. Even in the trenches, Christmas without a Christmas tree was unthinkable — hence Prince Wilhelm’s thoughtful gift to his troops. On this subject, one German officer, Lt. Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons, understood the mood of his men perfectly.

“A tannenbaum [Christmas tree],” he said, “is more important than a war.” Up and down the line, as German and Allied troops met to celebrate together, it wasn’t unusual that, among the other gifts the Germans brought, was one of the tiny trees Prince Wilhelm had sent them.

During the hours before midnight, in a part of French-speaking southern Belgium, both sides performed an impromptu concert, with the more musical soldiers playing violin, cornet and even harmonica solos. At midnight, the bell of a nearby village church began to chime — midnight Mass had begun.

Troops who spoke French sang the French carol Cantique de Noel, what we call O, Holy Night. Some of the troops, such as Lt. Zehmisch, went back to their trenches to get some sleep, but the men who stayed up sang more carols, mixed in with popular songs such as It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and even raucous beer hall songs.

On Christmas morning, the truce was still in full swing, with Germans and British chatting over morning tea and showing each other photos of wives, children and sweethearts. Sometimes there was a somber moment, as when a German officer sought out a British officer and gave him letters and a Victoria Cross that he had saved from a British soldier who had been shot and tumbled into a German trench, dead.

And they prayed together. Near Lille, a Scottish chaplain gathered men from both sides for a service. The British recited the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord Is My Shepherd.” The Germans recited, Unser Vater, bist Du im Himmel — the opening phrase, in German, of the Our Father.

The truce extended through all of Christmas Day, and in many places, it was extended to the day after Christmas, the traditional post-Christmas holiday known in England as Boxing Day.

And there were even spots where the truce was kept until New Year’s Day.

Of course, not everyone was delighted by this holiday armistice.

In Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914, historian Stanley Weintraub recounts how this cessation of hostilities outraged some of the British commanders. Gen. Horace Smith-Dorrien of the British Expeditionary Force, II Corps, issued an order: “Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.”

The British commander in chief, Gen. Sir John French, tried to frighten his troops into discipline by publishing a warning that “the enemy may be contemplating an attack during Christmas or New Year’s.”

Of course, some ordinary troops agreed with their officers. One German soldier griped, “Such a thing should not happen in wartime! Have you no sense of German honor left at all?”

In spite of official condemnation, the truce went on. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, the Third London Rifles challenged a Saxon regiment to a soccer game. The Saxons won, 3-2.

We remember the Christmas Truce of 1914 because it is so completely unexpected. In war, enemies hate and try to kill one another — that is a given. But in 1914, German and British, and to a lesser degree French troops, laid down their arms for a few hours, or a few days, to mark Christmas.

But it was more than that: They were recognizing their common humanity. In terms of scale, during the wars that followed, there has not been a repetition of the Christmas Truce. Perhaps because trench warfare, which put the combatants in close proximity to each other for months at a time, died out as a tactic after World War I. But no doubt, over the 102 years since the truce, it stands to reason that there were moments when one combatant performed some kind gesture for his enemy. I wish I could cite some examples, but it appears that these moments of peace amidst terrible violence are private, reserved to the soldiers involved and perhaps their immediate circle of comrades. No one can say how or why these things happen. All we know is that the workings of grace are always mysterious.

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of

This Saint Will Change Your Life

and Saints Behaving Badly.