Miracle in World War I - the Christmas Truce of 1914
Music unites the hearts of people all over the world, even in wartime. Soldiers in trenches of Europe in World War I sang special Christmas messages to each other across “No Man’s Land.”
Trench Warfare Skilled diplomacy did not prevent World War I. From 1914-1918, the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies fought the countries of the Triple Entente-Great Britain, France, and Russia and later the United States. The German army advanced through France, coming within about 43 miles of Paris. Then at the First Battle of the Marne from September 6-12, 1914, French and British soldiers forced the Germans to retreat from their advance into France. The German Army fell back north of the Aisne River and dug a series of trenches there, establishing a static western front that would last for the next three years. The Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance armies raced each other to the sea and extended their trench systems from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.
Life and death were intertwined for ordinary soldiers in the trenches. Life presented daily and hourly challenges from rats, lice, trench foot, frogs, and fever. Death walked alongside soldiers in the form of snipers, shell bursts, diseases and being naïve or foolhardy enough to peer over the parapet of the trench into No Man’s Land. Historians estimate that more than one third of the Allied casualties on the Western Front occurred in the trenches Christmas Eve, 1914
The Christmas Truce of 1914 occurred when men on both sides of the trenches stopped fighting and held spontaneous Christmas celebrations. Men on both sides of the trenches astonished their commanding officers and themselves as well. No official truce was declared, but more than 100,000 British and Germans troops participated in the unofficial truce along the length of the Western Front. The Truce began with Christmas carols. German troops around Ypres, Belgium, put candlelit Christmas trees on the trench parapets and sang Stille Nacht – Silent Night. In the trenches near Ploegstreert Wood at 11:00 p.m., which was midnight in Berlin, Germany, a booming baritone voice began singing Stille Nacht. The British and French soldiers listened and then responded with carols of their own. Then they shouted Christmas greetings to each other.
Gradually men on both sides of the trenches put down their arms and created spontaneous Christmas celebrations. Their officers ordered the men to keep shooting, but the truce spread all up and down the front lines. Men climbed from the trenches to shake hands in “No Man’s Land.” They shared food packages from home, traded gifts and souvenirs such as buttons and hats, ate and drank together, and played soccer. They talked to each other about everyday things like food and home and family. Christmas Day, 1914 On Christmas morning soldiers sang Christmas carols and sign boards dotted the trenches. Since more German soldiers spoke English than English soldiers spoke German, the sign boards were written mostly in English. Sometimes the English was simple, like “You no fight, we no fight.” Men exchanged cigarettes, chocolates, cakes, sausages and the Germans in one sector even rolled out a barrel of beer into the middle of No-Man’s land to share with the British and French.
The truce also allowed burial parties to safely retrieve recently fallen soldiers and bring them back behind their lines. Soldiers from both sides held joint services for their fallen comrades and soldiers from both sides wiped tears from their eyes and tried to grasp the enormity of it all. Bruce Bairnsfather, who fought throughout the war, recalled one of his last memories of the day....” 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.” In many sectors the Christmas 1914 Truce lasted through Christmas night and in others it lasted until New Year’s Day. Although many soldiers observed the truce, it turned out to be fatal decision for some as some soldiers still shot each other.
At Frelinghien, a village on the border of France and Belgium, “A” Company of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, and the MG Company of Jager-Battalion Nr 6, a detachment of Infanterie-RegimentNr.134 played a game of football on Christmas Day, 1914. Ninety-four years later, on November 11, 2008, the regimental descendants of the original players, the men from the 1st Battalion, The royal Welsh Fusiliers, played a return football match with the German Panzergrenadier Battalion 371 after a ceremony dedicating a memorial to the Christmas Truce of 1914. The Germans won, 2-1.
Legacy of the Christmas 1914 Truce
The Legacy of the Christmas Truce 1914 in what was then the costliest war in human history has continued in the memories of the soldiers who lived it and in books, movies, songs and plays. British, German, French and American authors have written books about that Christmas. Christian Carion wrote and directed a 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, Merry Christmas, about Christmas Truce 1914. American country music singer Garth Brooks tells the story in his video called Belleau Wood and Paul McCartney’s song Pipes of Peace reenacts the Christmas truce.
It is for the next generations of people singing Stille Nacht/Silent Night to continue the tradition of “Sleep in Heavenly Peace.”
Brown, Malcolm and Seaton, Shirley. Christmas Truce: The Western Front, 1914.Pan Books, 1999
Ferro, Mark and Brown, Malcolm, Cazals, Remy, and Mueller, Olaf. Meetings in No Man’s Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in the Great War. London: Constable, 2007
Martel, Gordon. Origins of the First World War. Longman, 3rd Edition, 2008 Palmer, Svetlana, and Wallis, Sarah. Intimate Voices From the First World War. Harper Paperbacks, 2005. Strachan, Hew. The First World War. Viking Adult, 2004. Weintraub, Stanley. Silent Night. Free, Press, 2001.