CHARLOTTE, N.C., December 23, 2015 — In the early 20th century, when wars were more “civilized” than they are today, a series of remarkable, spontaneous events took place that were unparalleled in warfare before or since.
These exceptional moments occurred as World War I still raged across Europe during the winter of 1914. Taken together, these incidents became known collectively as the “Christmas Truce,” though in reality, there were multiple unofficial truces that occurred along the Western Front in the week leading up to the Christmas holiday season.
In a conflict famous for its intense and bloody trench warfare, German, British and French soldiers spontaneously left their foxholes in many battlefields to venture into “no man’s land“ to talk with the enemy, exchange food and souvenirs and, in some cases, sing Christmas carols. One report said that some of the soldiers even played football (soccer) games. But most historians dispute that these competitions actually happened.
Some accounts say it was the close proximity of the trench lines that allowed soldiers to shout greetings to each other, which may have been the reason the informal truces could be negotiated.
For the most part, the truces occurred between British and German units, in part due to the fact that many Germans had lived and studied in England, especially London, prior to the war. The resulting linguistic and cultural familiarity led to inquiries about news as well as recent results from the soccer leagues.
Though relations between the Germans and the French were more tense and less common, the same phenomenon emerged among the combatants of those countries as the holidays drew closer.
During the first five months of World War I, the primary German line of attack had moved through Belgium into France before the Germans were eventually pushed back by French and British troops outside Paris. The Battle of the Marne took place in early September 1914, and, as the Germans fell back into defensive positions, the allied forces were unable to penetrate the German line.
Before long, the fighting bogged down in a stalemate with neither side willing to give ground. Both armies began building fortified trenches as a means of digging in against the enemy.
Though “fraternization,“ as it was called, did not occur in every battle zone, it did become a serendipitous feature in most of the quieter sectors on the Western Front.
What made the resulting Christmas truces so significant was the number of men involved and the magnitude of their participation. In some areas, dozens of soldiers even openly congregated in broad daylight. Historians still write that such encounters were seen as symbolic vignettes of peace and humanity amid one of the most violent wars in history.
Estimates say that roughly 100,000 troops ceased hostilities on Christmas Eve 1914, when German soldiers decorated their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium.
Among the most unusual aspects of the truces was the sharing of music. It was not uncommon for units in the more peaceful sectors to sing in the evenings as a form of entertainment and reflection. Among the most popular songs was “Silent Night,“ because the words and tune were familiar to all the participants.
Lining their trenches and Christmas trees with candles, the Germans began singing Christmas carols and the British quickly responded. Soon, both sides were shouting holiday greetings to each other from across the trenches.
Henry Williamson, a 19-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade who later became a nature writer, wrote the following message to his mother:
Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen everywhere. In my mouth is a pipe. In the pipe is tobacco. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?
The Christmas truces were not reported by the media until the New York Times broke an unofficial press embargo on New Year’s Eve. During the following week, photographs of British and German troops mingling were published in England, but coverage was censored in Germany with many papers issuing strong statements of criticism against the truces.
As the war progressed and hostilities intensified, similar truces were smaller in number and far shorter. Allied commanders issued explicit orders prohibiting future Christmas truces in 1915.
By December of 1916 and 1917 overtures for truces were made, but none were successful.
Even so, we know today that for one brief period during the winter of 1914, the horrors of war were interrupted here and there by the music and stillness of “Silent Nights” quietly sung across the European theater of battle.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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