In 1914, on Christmas Day,
On the Western Front the guns all died away
And lying in the mud on bags of sand,
We heard a German sing from no man’s land
He had a tenor voice so pure and true. The words were strange, but every note we
Soaring o’er the living, dead and damned, a German sang of peace from no
man’s land. ~ Cormac MacConnell
On a cold, windy Christmas Eve in 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, all along the western front thousands of soldiers, British, Belgian, French, and German put down their rifles, left their trenches, and merged as brothers, if only temporarily.
This is an event that is seldom mentioned in history books, European or American, and in the 100+ years since the event it is still discussed and debated by psychologists and historians, as well as military leaders. Eventually, World War I would claim somewhere between 15 and 20 million lives, nevertheless, for this Christmas Eve and Christmas day in 1914, brotherhood prevailed….at least for some.
There are of course a range of differing opinions and varying accounts of what transpired during that two-day truce. Historians even today cannot agree on how it started, why it spread, or how such a vast number of troops from different armies, speaking different languages, would lay down their arms simultaneously. And while military historians will point out that a large number of soldiers did not participate, what is known from first-hand accounts is that somewhere around 100,000 people took part in the Christmas truce of 1914.
Many first-hand accounts claim that what initiated the truce was a Christmas Carol heard from the German crunches on Christmas Eve. The New York Times quotes PVT. Albert Moren, that the Germans would sing a chorus of a Christmas Carol, and the Americans or the French would sing a verse in their language. Regardless of who started, it must’ve seemed significant that although the words were strange, the music was familiar. When an American soldier started singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” German soldiers immediately joined the singing, with the Latin words to Adeste Fidelis. It was apparently not lost on these fine young men, the greatest of their nations youth, that they all were singing the same songs that they had grown up listening to, albeit with different words.
So the story goes, at sunrise the next morning, in several areas along the Western front, German soldiers emerged from the trenches calling out in English, “Merry Christmas.” Seeing their enemies emerging unarmed, the Allied soldiers did the same and consciously came out to greet them. Over the course of the day, the soldiers on both sides exchange gifts including food, clothing, and cigarettes, and a few containers of wine. The truce allowed both sides to finally bury their comrades who had been lying in no man’s land.
The Christmas truce was widespread, yet in other parts of the Western front soldiers on both sides continued firing, and a temporary truce is not peace. By nightfall, the hostilities returned in most places, yet in others, not until New Years Day. And while the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 may be understood as the response to a large collection of exhausted, hungry, and frightened soldiers, there may be another way of understanding the event.
Many View the Christmas truce as the result of men on the ground realizing that they were not fighting for the same reasons as their leaders. In some places, the distance between opposing troop trenches was no more than 30 meters. Close enough to hear the other side’s conversations and close enough to appreciate the fear that was universal. The commander of the British forces believed that proximity to the enemy was a significant danger to the morale of his fighting force, as they may come to have friendly conversations with the enemy. The fear was of course that the troops in the trenches might come to a “live and let live” philosophy, and refuse to continue fighting. One British soldier, speaking in the times of London 20 years later remarked, “Had we been left to ourselves, not other shot would’ve been fired.”
In 2014, Prince William unveiled a memorial to the Christmas truce, a metal frame of a soccer ball with two hands clasped inside it.
As we once again approach the Christmas season, 103 years after the Christmas truce, we should remember the event as a statement of hope, and a beacon of light in what was then a truly dark time in world history. And as some of our leaders clamor for yet more war and bloodshed today, we should try to remember the Christmas truce of 1914, not as a rare and fleeting event, but as a symbol for the human desire for peace, regardless of how difficult it may be to attain.
Dr. W Sumner Davis