World War One, Christmas 1914 the Christmas Truce
A few years ago during the Christmas Season, Mike Harper told me to read the book Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub. I immediately purchased and read it. It is a book definitely worth reading, especially if you enjoy history and World War I information. It is a book that shows how even in the most horrific circumstances the human spirit will emerge. It is especially moving to see how Christians, even while fighting each other, will look deep inside and take time to remember what they believe it is to be human and the right thing to do.
One of the saddest wars ever fought, World War I, saw the destruction of human beings in mass numbers. When it was over, no one knew why it was ever fought. It caused more than 11 million deaths and brought about the end of four empires. Although the popular memory of World War One is normally one of horrific casualties and wasted life, the conflict does have tales of comradeship and peace. One of the most remarkable, and heavily mythologized, events concerns the “Christmas Truce of 1914,” in which the soldiers of the Western Front laid down their arms on Christmas day and met in “No Man’s Land,” a 500-mile stretch across Belgium.
Deep in war-torn Belgium, the Belgian, British, English, French and German soldiers had carved deep trenches for hundreds of miles. During the weeks proceeding December 24, 1914, both sides had suffered close to one million casualties over just a small, 12-mile stretch. The constant slaughter was so fierce that the dead bodies lay across the field, stretching from the Allied lines all the way to the German lines, and neither side was able to bury its dead.
There are many accounts of the Christmas Truce, which at first was just believed to have taken place between the Belgian, English and German soldiers along this particular 12-mile stretch. Later, it was learned that similar scenes had taken place for hundreds of miles in Belgium on that long-ago Christmas day. One account is that, even during Christmas Eve, the fighting continued all day. Then, at midnight, during the silence of that cold, moonlit night, a church bell in a town not far away began to ring out, heralding the arrival of Christmas day. Suddenly, lights began to appear all along the German trench lines. The English assumed that the Germans were preparing a nighttime attack. The bugles rang out, sounding the alarm, and the English soldiers grabbed their weapons and rushed to the edge of the trenches. “Please God, not today as well,” an English soldier was overheard saying. A still hush fell over the battlefield, when out of the cold night air, the English heard a most beautiful voice coming form the German lines singing a familiar song in German language. The song was soon recognized as “Silent Night, Holy Night.” When the German soldier finished the first verse, one brave English soldier stood and began singing the second. One by one, men rose up from the frozen entrenchments and began to join in, until almost every soldier, German and English, were singing. The lights, they soon learned, were the Germans taking branches and making small Christmas trees, sticking them in the snow-covered trench walls. The words, “No shoot to-night, Jock! Sing to-night,” were repeated many times.
All along a war-torn Europe that day, a small moment of peace was taken in. One by one, soldiers of both sides crept out from their frozen, muddy existence and cautiously walked toward the enemy to shake hands in the center of No Man’s Land. They agreed to let each side bury its dead and pay respects to these men who had lost their lives in the horrific battles from the days before. Prayers were said over both enemy and allied forces. The war-weary men embraced each other and cried. They shared what little food and cigarettes they had and exchanged small tokens, such as cigarette lighters, buttons, pipes and chocolate. Many of these souvenirs survived the war and made it back to the United States as proof of the 1914 Truce. Along the lines, a few men actually had cameras, and pictures were taken of the exchange of goodwill and humanity that day.
Family pictures were shown and admired and cried over. Some of the English men learned of men in the German troops who had been barbers, and these German men gave haircuts and shaves to the allied troops as Christmas gifts. They had become so close over these few hours that they had no fear of being killed by a razor from a German soldier. They sang and laughed and tried to put the war out of their thoughts, if only for a few hours. Someone along the lines had a football of sorts, and a game began. It is said that the Germans beat the English in that rowdy game of primitive football. One German, when asked by an officer of the 6th Battalion whether he was tired of the war, looked up wistfully at his tall questioner and whispered in pathetic English “Home, sweet, home!”
In some instances, the truce only lasted a few hours, when officers threatened punishment for soldiers who refused to end the no-fire zone. For others, the fighting is said to have ceased until over a week later. Officers were sent in, and troops were pulled back and replaced with fresher troops who had not witnessed the exchange of humanity. The troops who were pulled back could not shoot someone who they had just played games with, sang with and prayed with.
During the following years, orders were given to make sure that this act was not repeated. Officers were warned of possible repeats, and threats were made to the men if they were caught in an attempt to cease fire. However, that 1914 Christmas exchange would never be forgotten. Even though the military officials would like for it to never have existed, it did. This event showed that many humans, given the opportunity, would rather have peace and not war. You can be made to fight, but you can’t be made to hate. This was the gift given to many across Europe in 1914.
In November of 2005, the last known survivor of the 1914 “Christmas Truce” died at the age of 109. Alfred Anderson died in his sleep at a nursing home in Newtyle, Scotland. He was the last man to have heard the guns fall silent along the Western Front. He was also reported to be Scotland’s oldest citizen.
Mr. Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier in the Black Watch Regiment when British and Germans troops cautiously emerged from the trenches that Christmas day. “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” Mr. Anderson told London’s Observer newspaper. “All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machine gun fire and distant Germans voices,” said Mr. Anderson, who was billeted in a French farmhouse behind the front lines. “But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted, ‘Merry Christmas,’ even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon, and the killing started again. It was a show of peace in a terrible war.”
As a remembrance, a cross was erected in Ypres in Belgium in 1999 to celebrate the site of the Christmas Truce. The text reads: 1914 / The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce / 1999 / 85 Years / Lest We Forget. If you would like to learn more about the Christmas Truce, I urge you to get a copy of Silent Night. It is a story worth knowing.