The Power of Christmas
Soldiers playing soccer in No-Man's Land during the Christmas Truce in 1914.
Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images
On Christmas Eve 1914, in the dank, muddy trenches on the Western Front of the first world war, a remarkable thing happened.
It came to be called the Christmas Truce. And it remains one of the most storied and strangest moments of the Great War—or of any war in history.
British machine gunner Bruce Bairnsfather, wrote about it in his memoirs. Like most of his fellow infantrymen of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, he was spending the holiday eve shivering in the muck, trying to keep warm. He had spent the past few months fighting the Germans. And now, in a part of Belgium called Bois de Ploegsteert, he was crouched in a trench that stretched just three feet deep by three feet wide, his days and nights marked by an endless cycle of sleeplessness and fear, stale biscuits and cigarettes too wet to light.
“Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity,” Bairnsfather wrote, “…miles and miles from home. Cold, wet through and covered with mud.” There didn’t “seem the slightest chance of leaving—except in an ambulance.”
Singing Breaks Out in the Trenches on Christmas Eve
At about 10 p.m., Bairnsfather noticed a noise. “I listened,” he recalled. “Away across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices.” He turned to a fellow soldier in his trench and said, “Do you hear the Germans kicking up that racket over there?”
“Yes. They’ve been at it some time!”
The song he heard was "Stille Nacht," Silent Night.
The Germans were singing carols, as it was Christmas Eve. In the darkness, some of the British soldiers began to sing back. “Suddenly,” Bairnsfather recalled, “we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again.” The voice was from an enemy soldier, speaking in English with a strong German accent. He was saying, “Come over here.”
One of the British sergeants answered: “You come half-way. I come half-way.”
What happened next would stun the world and make history. Enemy soldiers began to climb nervously out of their trenches, and to meet in the barbed-wire-filled “No Man’s Land” that separated the armies. Normally, the British and Germans communicated across No Man’s Land with streaking bullets, with only occasional allowances to collect the dead. But now, there were handshakes and words of kindness. The soldiers traded songs, tobacco and wine, joining in a spontaneous holiday party in the cold night.
Bairnsfather could not believe his eyes. “Here they were—the actual, soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side.”
And it wasn’t confined to that one battlefield. Starting on Christmas Eve, small pockets of French, German, Belgian and British troops held impromptu cease-fires across the Western Front, with reports of some on the Eastern Front as well. Some accounts suggest a few of these unofficial truces remained in effect for days.
Firsthand Accounts of the Christmas Truce
Descriptions of the Christmas Truce appear in numerous diaries and letters of the time. One British soldier, a rifleman named J. Reading, wrote a letter home to his wife describing his experience: “My company happened to be in the firing line on Christmas eve, and it was my turn…to go into a ruined house and remain there until 6:30 on Christmas morning. During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: ‘Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.’”
“Later on in the day they came towards us,” Reading described. “And our chaps went out to meet them…I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet it seemed like a dream.”
Other diaries and letters describe German soldiers using candles to light Christmas trees around their trenches. Other accounts describe vivid scenes of men helping enemy soldiers collect their dead, of which there was plenty.
In one account, a German scolded his fellow soldiers during the Christmas Truce: “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor left?” That 25-year old soldier’s name was Adolf Hitler.
Just how many soldiers participated in these informal holiday gatherings has been debated; there is no way to know for sure since the ceasefires were small-scale, haphazard and entirely unauthorized. A Time magazine story on the 100 anniversary claimed that as many as 100,000 people took part.
An impromptu game of soccer
One British fighter named Ernie Williams later described in an interview his recollection of some makeshift soccer play on what turned out to be an icy pitch: "The ball appeared from somewhere, I don't know where... They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kick-about. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part.”
German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of the 134 Saxons Infantry, a schoolteacher who spoke both English and German, also described a pick-up soccer game in his diary, which was discovered in an attic near Leipzig in 1999, written in an archaic German form of shorthand. “Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued,” he wrote. “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”
Excerpted from “WWI's Christmas Truce: When Fighting Paused for the Holiday,” by A.J. BAIME & VOLKER JANSSEN
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