It came and then was gone, but for a while, death held no dominion on the battlefields of France. Soldiers on both sides were entrenched, following killing orders from generals and cousin kings. “You no shoot, we no shoot,” the signs Germans troops held up supposedly read. So, the British did not shoot. Instead, they all met in the middle—a muddy No Man’s Land. They decorated tiny Yule trees and exchanged cigarettes, cigars, tinned foods, and even helmets. They buried their dead; they sang carols and played football, too.
According to historian Gerard DeGroot, a professor at the Unversity of St. Andrews, “The truce was, first and foremost, an act of rebellion against authority. In the trenches, though peace on earth seemed a ridiculous fantasy, impromptu ceasefires had been occurring as early as December 18. The British High Command, alarmed that the holiday might inspire goodwill, issued a stern order against fraternization. Officers were warned that yuletide benevolence might ‘destroy the offensive spirit in all ranks’. Christmas, in other words, was to be a killing time.
“The Germans, however, were stubbornly festive. In an effort to bolster morale, truckloads of Christmas trees were sent to the Kaiser’s forces. All along the line, Germans were acting in a bizarrely peaceful fashion. Guns fell silent. Candles and lanterns taunted British snipers. Late on Christmas Eve, Germans singing ‘Stille Nacht’ [‘Silent Night’] echoed across no man’s land. The British, initially perplexed, soon joined in.”
In a letter home, Frederick James Davies, a private in the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, wrote of 25 December, “We had a good chat with the Germans on Xmas Day. They were only fifty yards away from us in the trenches. They came out and we went to meet them. We shook hands with them. We gave them cigs, jam, and corn beef. They also gave us cigars but they didn’t have much food. I think they are hard up for it. They were fed up with the war.”
Captain Bruce Bairnsfather recalled, “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything…. I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons…. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange…. The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
Henry Williamson, 5th Battalion, The London Rifle Brigade, City of London Regiment, Territorial Forces, wrote to his mother on 26 December, “It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, 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. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?…. Our men are speaking to them now. They are landsturmers or landwehr, I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking. I have some cigarettes which I shall keep, & a cigar I have smoked.”
Another member of Williamson’s unit, Rifleman Graham Williams, recollected, “Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the frosty air! First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles.’ And I thought, well, this is a most extraordinary thing—two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
Wrote a German soldier, Josef Wenzl, “What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes. One Englishman, who was joined soon by another, came towards us until he was more than halfway towards our trenches—by which point some of our people had already approached them. And so Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items. A single star stood still in the sky directly above them, and was interpreted by many as a special sign. More and more joined, and the entire line greeted each other.”
And then there was the footie—a match between the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment against Scottish troops. The 133rd’s War History, says that someone produced a ball and that this “developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Then we organized each side into teams, lining up in motley rows, the football in the center. The game ended 3-2 for Fritz.”
Why do we remember this blessed peaceful night? It was a beacon of light in a useless apocalypse that killed 18 million people and wounded 23 million more. British soldier Alfred Anderson recalled at the end of his life, “It was then we discovered that those on the ‘other’ side were not the savage barbarians we’d been told. They were like us. Why were we led to believe otherwise?” Ω
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John McDermott has a song Christmas in Trenches about this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5kugT7SvTE