It was 100 years ago this very night that something miraculous happened along the Western Front. After months of bitter fighting, soldiers on both sides gathered in no-man’s-land in a spontaneous show of peace and goodwill. Here’s what happened on that historic day — and why it marked the end of an era.
Image by Jim Cooke
In December 1914, the war was entering into a new phase: an extended siege fought along static trenches stretching along a 750 km (466 mile) front. During the previous four months, soldiers were killed at a horrendous pace, and with no end of the war in sight. But during Christmas, things suddenly became quiet — at least for a little while.
‘We No Shoot!’
The night before Christmas, a British captain serving at Rue du Bois heard a foreign accent from across the divide saying, “Do not shoot after 12 o’clock and we will not do so either,” and then: “If you English come out and talk to us, we won’t fire.”
Commonwealth troops fighting in Belgium and France started to hear odd sounds drifting from across no-man’s land; German soldiers were singing Christmas carols like “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). Allied troops applauded and cheered, shouting out for more. Soldiers on both sides began to sing in unison, trading verses in alternating languages.
Writing in his diary at the time, Regimental Sergeant Major George Beck made this note:
Germans shout over to us and ask us to play them at football, and also not to fire and they would do likewise. At 2am (25th) a German Band went along their trenches playing “Home Sweet Home” and “God Save the King” which sounded grand and made everyone think of home.
The next day, some soldiers dared to poke their heads up to look across no-man’s land. Bits of evergreen could be seen in observance of the occasion. Some Germans, in an effort to prompt a temporary peace, hoisted lanterns above the trenches while calling out to the British. If no shots were fired, it was taken as a sign of truce. At one point, a German was heard calling out, “We good. We no shoot.”
The Troglodytes Come Out
Then, very cautiously and with great courage, unarmed German and Allied soldiers climbed out of their trenches to stand atop their defenses. Near Neuve Chapelle, an Irish soldier brazenly walked across no-man’s-land where he was greeted not with machine gun fire, but a cigar. His act of bravery inspired others in his troop to do the same. Similar scenes began to repeat elsewhere as soldiers walked towards each other’s trench, or to simply meet half-way.
And when they met, the servicemen exchanged Christmas greetings as best they could. They began to give each other gifts in the form of mementos, cigarettes, and foodstuffs like bully beef, wine, cognac, black bread, biscuits, ham, and even barrels of beer. They showed each other photographs of family and loved ones back home. Some soldiers even started to play soccer with makeshift soccer balls.[youtube]http://youtu.be/NWF2JBb1bvM[/youtube]
A reenactment of the 1914 Christmas Truce produced by Sainsbury in partnership with the Royal British Legion.
Remarkably, similar scenes occurred at dozens of distinct points from the North Sea to the Swiss border.
Colonel George Laurie’s brigade headquarters, after learning what was going on, sent him a cable. Peter Murtagh from Irish Times writes:
Brigade HQ cabled him: “It is thought possible that enemy may be contemplating an attack during Xmas or New Year. Special vigilance will be maintained during this period.”
Nonetheless, Col Laurie…gave orders not to fire on the enemy the following day, unless they fired first. At 8.30pm on Christmas Eve, he signalled brigade HQ: “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and are wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” No shots had been fired since 8pm, he added.
Col Laurie went on to describe how soldiers from both sides were mingling. The Germans, he wrote, were “fine men, clean and well clothed. They gave us a cap and helmet badge and a box of cigars. One of them states the war would be over in three weeks as they had defeated Russia!”
Brigade HQ replied at 12.35am – Christmas Day – saying: “No communication of any sort is to be held with the enemy, nor is he to be allowed to approach our trenches under penalty of fire being opened.”
Colonel Laurie later reminisced, “You have no idea how pleasant everything seems with no rifle bullets or shells flying about.” And writing in his diary, Lt. Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxony regiment wrote that, “Not a shot was fired.”
“British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches,” taken from from the Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915 (A. C. Michael – The Guardian/CC)
After the event, soldiers were eager to share their accounts with loved ones back home. As Rob Hughes of the New York Times writes:
Henry Williamson, then a 19-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade who survived the war to become an author, sent a letter from the front to his mother. “In my mouth,” he wrote, “is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is German tobacco. Ha ha, 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. Marvelous, isn’t it?”
The truce also allowed the troops from both sides to collect and bury their dead, which was no small matter. Fewer things were more jarring to a serviceman than knowing that the remains of fallen comrades were still out in the open.
Pockets of Resistance
But the truce was not honored everywhere.
In an incident that only recently came to light, three soldiers — two British and one German — were killed despite the temporary peace. Contrary to most accounts, it was not quiet and calm in all sectors along the front line separating Allied troops from the Germans. At least 250 servicemen died on Christmas Day, including 149 Commonwealth soldiers, though the majority of them succumbed to previously-inflicted wounds.
In the case of the three dead soldiers, it all started at dawn when servicemen in the professional British Guards Brigade shot a German lantern as it was being hoisted — a statement of refusal to recognize the proposed truce. As quoted in The Telegraph, Corporal Clifford Lane of H Company Hertfordshire regiment recalled the incident: