For most of us, the most vivid images of World War I are the trenches on the Western front. Men dug into positions on either side of a no-man’s land of craters and burned out buildings. Barbed wire and sandbags provided little protection from enemy shelling or snipers; they provided no protection from rats, lice, flooding, or the dreaded “trench foot”. The battlefields were noxious with the smell of rotting corpses, overflowing latrines and poison gas fumes.
Trench warfare was hell. It also made possible one of the most extraordinary events of the war: the unofficial Christmas armistice of 1914. The truce began when some German troops decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees and sang carols. British troops responded with carols of their own. On Christmas Day, some groups ventured into “no-man’s land” to share food, sing carols, hold joint services for their dead and play soccer matches.
One German soldier, Josef Wenzel, described the scene in a letter to his parents:
One Englishman was playing on the harmonica of a German lad, some were dancing, while others were proud as peacocks to wear German helmets on their heads. The British burst into a song with a carol, to which we replied with “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. It was a very moving moment–hated and embittered enemies were singing carols around the Christmas tree. All my life I will never forget that sight.
It is estimated that 100,000 men took part in the Christmas truce. In some places, the truce lasted only through Christmas day. In others, it lasted until New Year’s Day. In some sectors, the war continued unabated.
The Christmas truce did not recur in 1915. Both the British and the German high commands were appalled at the blatant fraternization with the enemy and gave strict orders against future incidents. After all, how do you fight a war if the men at the front decide not to fight?
Peace on earth, good will to men.
My friend Nancy Friesen brought this lovely version of the story to my attention: