Shortly after dawn on Dec. 25, 1914, the first Christmas Day of the First World War, hundreds of British and German troops spontaneously climbed out of their trench fortifications and crossed the usually deadly No Man's Land between to shake hands with their enemies, exchange gifts, and sing carols together. Considering they had been fighting each other for almost five deadly months, costing the lives of half a million men already, this brief unofficial truce still remains one of the most astonishing but heart-warming Christmas stories of peace during war.
In the 96 years since, the world's attitude toward warfare has changed immensely. If the very idea of millions of civilized volunteer soldiers killing each other is incomprehensible to most people now, the fact that thousands of them called a temporary truce in 1914 and greeted each other with brotherly love does have an appeal to modem-day pacifism. Considering that between August and December, 1914, the small British Expeditionary Force had lost 89,964 trained soldiers and Germans suffered similar heavy casualties, it is all the more surprising their survivors took part in this legendary Christmas Truce.
When repeated attacks proved unable to force either side to retreat, the Western Front battlefield became deadlocked into a line of opposing trenches that stretched from the Swiss border to the Belgian coast. Crouching in these muddy ditches, often knee-deep in freezing water, the hapless soldiers endured continual shellfire and counterattacks day and night without any let-up.
It was bitterly cold that frosty Christmas Eve along the British sector between Messines and Neuve Chappele in Flanders, with crystal-clear moonlight illuminating the enemy trenches opposite. Both foes had often shouted insults or even jokes across the mere 90 metres that separated them at some points, but this time the Germans began to sing Christmas hymns instead. They harmonized Stile Nacht, Heilige Nacht, in reply to which, British choirs raised their voices in Silent Night. One Scotsman later recalled ruefully, "I don't think we were as harmonious as the Jerries,"
All gunfire stopped and a suddenly friendly atmosphere grew at nightfall when candle-lit Christmas trees and paper lanterns began to appear on the German parapets, accompanied by harmonious singing of Oh, Tannenbaurn. Then came Teutonic calls of, "How are you tonight, Tommy?" British soldiers shouted back their own goodwill, "Nice singing, Fritz! Merry Christmas!"
The overtures were not a complete surprise, though, as rumours had been circulating since the night before that an unauthorized live-and-let-live period might honour the Holy Day. It seems to have been initiated by a few German junior officers. They carried lanterns while they came across to British lines the previous night to propose a temporary ceasefire period during the Christmas Season.
British front line commanders agreed, at first seeing it mostly as an opportunity to safely recover the bodies of their men who still lay in No Man's Land. They sent out burial parties who worked peaceably alongside Germans who were recovering their own dead.
Senior British officers who caught wind of the arrangement had a somewhat less sentimental attitude. On Dec. 24, Field Marshal Sir John French had sent a message to all British units. "It is thought that the enemy may be contemplating an attack during Christmas or New Year. Therefore, special vigilance will be maintained during these periods." As the commander-in-chief was ensconced in safe comfort well to the rear, front-line officers turned a blind eye to their men's respite from combat by fraternizing on Christmas morning.
For hours, enemy soldiers - Saxons and Scots, Bavarians and Englishmen - patted each other on the back, exchanged buttons off their uniforms as souvenirs, sang carols together, gave gifts of British cigarettes or Berlin cigars, admired family photos, and laughed heartily at the latest London music-hall jokes. A surprising number of the German soldiers had been working in England just a few weeks before, and spoke nostalgically of happier times. The few who did boast they would be marching victoriously through London within a month were only laughed down by Tommies. Several soccer games between national teams were arranged, with hardened troops kicking improvised footballs in the snow like carefree schoolboys.
A British soldier later wrote home, "Just think, while you were eating your turkey, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding!" One German participant commented, "It was a day of peace in war. It is only a pity that it was not decisive peace."
Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather, who became a hugely popular cartoonist, recalled, "This was my first real sight of them at close quarters - actual soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate shown on either side that day. Yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match."
A certain young Austrian soldier named Adolf Hitler in a reserve trench was furious when his comrades went forward to join the truce. He shouted after them, "Such a thing should never happen in wartime! Have you no sense of German honour at all?"
Henry Williamson, later a prolific novelist and wildlife conservationist, recalled, "I took the addresses of two German soldiers, promising to write to them after the war. I had a childlike idea that if all those in Germany could know what the soldiers had to suffer, it might spread, this truce of Christ on the battlefield, to the minds of all."
Despite such congeniality, few participants forgot the grim realities for long. One veteran sergeant of the Norfolk Regiment warned his platoon, "Remember lads, we're still at war, so keep a sharp lookout." He noticed that among the smiling Germans were a few quietly watchful men wearing mud-caked uniforms that bore the green shoulder-lanyards denoting trained snipers. He warned off one who was obviously taking stock of British defence positions, "That's close enough, Fritz. Now hop it!"
British officers also took advantage of the opportunity to observe details behind enemy lines. Capt. Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards disguised his rank with a stocking cap and corporal's overcoat to escort some visiting Germans back to their barbed-wire line. "Having a jolly good look around all the time, picking up various little bits of information. We parted after an exchange of cigarettes, and I went straight to HQ to report what I had seen.”
By nightfall of Christmas Day, infuriated senior commanders on both sides sent firm orders that such unauthorized peacefulness must end. "Hostilities to re-commence immediately." German and British officers arranged to start fighting again around midnight on Boxing Day. They symbolically fired their revolvers into the air, saluted and wished each other good luck.
The First World War was to grind on mercilessly for another four years without pause, that single early Christmas Truce forgotten. Eventually, the war cost the lives of almost a million British Commonwealth troops and many more French and Germans before the final Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.
Victoria historian Sidney Allinson is
author of "The Bantams; The Untold
Story of World War One."