|German soldiers (left) and British soldier (right) during the Christmas truce, 1914.|
Carol Nelson writes that “Christmas is a time when you get homesick even when you’re at home”, describing how at Christmas you appreciate the people surrounding you more; although you are with them, you wish to be even closer to them. If being surrounded by your loved ones at Christmas can make you feel homesick, the British, German, French and Belgian soldiers in the trenches during the First World War, who knew that they might never return home again, must have been feeling particularly alone. This makes the events I am about to recount even more astonishing and should people belief that at Christmas-time anything is possible.
The story starts at 8.45 on Christmas Eve, 1914, in Ypres Salient. It could be seen from the British trenches that the Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches; they could be heard singing “Stille nacht, heilige nacht”, translated by the few German speaking in the British trench as “Silent night, holy night”. The British impulsively applauded and replied with a chorus of “The First Noel,” which was, in turn, met with applause by the Germans. Christmas carols continued, with the Germans singing followed by a British reply.
German soldiers then motioned the English over, gesturing “if you don’t shoot us, then we won’t shoot you.” It became clear that they were trying to signal a truce. British officers, fearing treachery, ordered their men to be silent and to reply no more to the Germans. However, military commands could not contain the Christmas spirit. Ignoring their officers, British soldiers called back, asking the Germans to walk across No Man’s Land unarmed as a gesture of trust. Amazingly, a German officer began to walk out alone and without a weapon; he was met half way across No Man’s Land by an English captain.
The captain returned, smoking a German cigar; he announced that there was to be no more fighting until December 26th, an order echoed by his German counterpart. As soon as the order was issued, groups of Germans were swiftly climbing out of their trenches into No Man’s Land to be greeted by British soldiers, shaking hands and wishing each other “Merry Christmas”. Germans who had family in Britain, France or Belgium were passing on letters for their relatives to “enemy soldiers” from those countries. Inspired by a Christmas spirit of generosity, men were soon exchanging badges, buttons, souvenirs, and food as gifts.
Later that night, a bonfire was lit and more Christmas songs were sung around the fire. Promises were made to meet again tomorrow. During the night the British worked on a football and challenged the Germans to a game on Christmas Day. Several games were played along No Man’s Land that day, with apparently hundreds from each side joining in. For the most part, the truce ended at midnight on Christmas Day. However, in certain locations it lasted up until New Year’s Day. In the places where the truce took place, nearly every soldier from each side, determined to preserve peace for as long as possible, remained out of the trench and up in No Man’s Land until finally summoned back by officers.
On December 26th, although fighting began again in most places, there remained a legacy of mutual respect, Christmas having reminded the soldiers from both sides that their “enemies” were just men like themselves, with homes, families, hopes, dreams and fears. Even after the truce was over, flags with the message “Merry Christmas” remained raised on parapets by both sides in several places along the Ypres sector, as if to acknowledge that many of the soldiers did not want to do what they had to and that they realised that the men in the opposite trench were not the disgraceful savages portrayed by the newspapers back home.
The Pope himself pleaded for an official truce between the opposing governments (Britain, France and Russia on one side, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the other): “the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” However, this was instantly rejected by all of the governments involved. What remains most amazing about this truce, even 99 years on, was that it didn’t grow out of any single initiative but independently and spontaneously. And could only have happened at Christmas time.
This event should renew people’s belief in Christmas: a time when anything is possible and when man’s spirit can triumph over adversity.
This article was originally published in the Belief issue of Portsmouth Point magazine, in December 2013.