We were in the front line; we were about 300 yards from the Germans. And we had, I think on Christmas Eve, we’d been singing carols and this that and the other, and the Germans had been doing the same. And we’d been shouting to each other, sometimes rude remarks more often just joking remarks. Anyway, eventually a German said, ‘Tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot.’ And the morning came and we didn’t shoot and they didn’t shoot.
So then we began to pop our heads over the side and jump down quickly in case they shot but they didn’t shoot. And then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms and we didn’t shoot and so on, and so it gradually grew.
(Private Marmaduke Walkinton)
It was denied. It’s been politicized. It’s been the subject of songs and stories and speeches and books.
The facts can’t be outlined in simple detail, because there were so many different, unique moments across an enormous stretch of land. But there are enough eye witness reports to verify the fact that beginning on Christmas Eve, 1914, the men in the trenches of the First World War developed an unofficial truce.
In some areas, they simply marked the day without shooting, allowing the men across no man’s land to exist for a day. In other places, the men sang carols across the darkness to each other, each in their own language, as Colin Wilson of the Grenadier Guards remembered:
We heard a German singing Holy Night of course in German, naturally. Then after he’d finished singing there were all sorts of Christmas greetings being shouted across no man’s land at us. These Germans shouted out, ‘What about you singing Holy Night?’ Well we had a go but of course we weren’t very good at that.
In still other places, men climbed out of their trenches, chatted with the men they met in no man’s land, traded trinkets and addresses, and playing football. As one British soldier, Peter Jackson, recalled, “And it was a melee. It wasn’t a question of 10 aside, it was a question of 70 Germans against 50 Englishmen.”
When you consider the pomp, circumstance and general enthusiasm with which the war began, it’s not too difficult to image the how it all could have happened. Cold and wet, exhausted and far from home, I can only imagine how many men felt totally alone. Hearing a familiar song in the freezing wind of France must have been a shock. A beautiful, aching reminder of home—or of how far away from home they all really were. In the midst of darkness, the light of the tiny trees some Germans apparently brought into their trenches must have been a haunting sight, and a cold comfort, in every sense of the word.
The events of that day were covered up for years, since it was considered a collapse of discipline. Rumors remained, however, and by the time I was in high school, the story had become part of the First World War story, albeit one was that wasn’t discussed regularly. I first heard of it on the PBS miniseries The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century (if you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough, and not only because it quotes Kenneth Macardle several times). You can see the specific clip below:
It was an April morning when I saw this. It was the first warm day of the spring, and I was itchy in my tights and really cranky that my mother had made me wear them that morning. The TV in our classroom was too small for all of us to see it from our desk, so some of us sat on the floor. My arms ached from propping myself up, and sitting on the floor in a skirt was never my specialty. But when this clip started, I was riveted. Shocked. And utterly, completely heartbroken. When the film ended, I was in tears. Messy crying all over my spring dress. Up until that moment, the First World War was a muddy, mysterious event that took place before the Second World War. A place where tanks were built. Where gas masks were needed. Not a place where people laughed and shook hands. Not a place where people looked back at you with proud smiles on their chapped lips, or sang Christmas carols across the dark morass of a battlefield, bringing humanity to a place that no human mind had imagined until then.
Whenever people ask me why I study the First World War, outside of a really silly story about my mother and her explanation about French road construction (which can be discussed later), this is the answer I give. It’s not something I can elucidate well at all. But the utter humanity of this one event captured my heart and my imagination, and I’ve never looked back since.
So, this Christmas, I pray for that humanity. For that faith, that can reach across the darkness and breach the highest barriers. Even if only for a few moments. Because even in 1914, it couldn’t last forever.
December the 26th: At 8:30, I fired three shots in the air, and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it. The Germans put up a sheet with “Thank You” on it. And the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed, and saluted. He fired two shots in the air. And the war was on again. [From PBS]
But in being remembered, in being shared, in a way it does. And as long as stories like this keep inspiring others, I think there’s still some hope.
If you have a few moments, give a listen to this. It’s the Imperial War Museum’s First Centenary Podcast on the Christmas Truce. The quotes above were taken from there unless otherwise mentioned.