Today marks the centenary of my favorite Christmas story. It happened in 1914, only five months after the beginning of World War I.
The British soldiers who huddled in the trenches must have been miserable that clear December evening, as a blanket of damp and darkness enveloped them.
The winter of 1914 had been fierce — but not nearly as fierce as the battles they’d fought along the 466-mile-long Western Front. After five months at war, they’d perhaps grown accustomed to hearing shots and screams in the darkness.
But tonight — Christmas Eve — was different. As the light faded, so did the sound of gunfire. All of the men fell silent. Then a bright, clear voice rose from the German trenches a few hundred yards away. “Stille Nacht,” it sang, “Heilige Nacht.”
William Robinson, an American volunteer in the British Army, recalled that
During the evening the Germans started singing, and I heard some of the most beautiful music I ever listened to in my life. The song might start just opposite us, and it would be taken up all along the line, and soon it would seem as if all the Germans in Belgium were singing. When they had finished we would applaud with all our might, and then we would give them a song in return… [then] someone in the German trenches joined in singing in just as good English as any of us could speak.”
The exchange of song sparked curiosity in the soldiers. Soon the men were poking their heads tentatively above the trenches, only to find their enemies doing the same. At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English and French.
The Allied soldiers were suspicious at first. But when they saw that the Germans were unarmed, they climbed out of their own trenches and walked toward their enemies. The men shook hands, exchanged small presents, and sang carols and songs.
“British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches,” from the Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915 (A. C. Michael – The Guardian/CC)
British corporal Edward Roe recalled that,
They gave us bottles of wine and cigars; we gave them tins of jam, bully [beef], mufflers, tobacco etc. I annexed a tin of raspberry from the sergeant’s dugout and gave it to a stodgy and bespectacled Saxon. In return he gave me a leather case containing five cigars. … The line was all confusion [with] no sentries and no one in possession of arms.”
There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer. Others used the ceasefire for a more somber task: retrieving the bodies of their friends who had fallen in the no-man’s land, between the enemy lines.
In some places the truce continued as late as December 27. But senior officers on both sides were furious when they heard about the unauthorized ceasefire, because they feared it would undermine discipline and morale. The fighting resumed, and millions died as the war raged on for four more years.
Back in the trenches, Edward Roe wrote of his heartbreak at having to continue a fight that neither he nor his enemy wanted:
I, or any of my comrades, as far as I can ascertain, bear no malice or hatred against the German soldier. He has got to do as he is told, and so have we … I’m afraid I’m a damn bad soldier. I’m preaching peace in the spirit of Christmas.”
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was one of the last examples of chivalry between wartime enemies, and has never been repeated. But it served as a heartening reminder — however brief — that even amid the brutality of war, our shared humanity can still triumph.
May this true spirit of Christmas be with you and yours, and may peace one day prevail for all of us.