When World War I erupted in 1914 launching the first great European war of the 20th century, soldiers on both sides were assured they would be home by Christmas to celebrate victory. That prediction proved to be false.
The men on the fronts did not get home for Christmas as the war dragged on for four years. During that time 8.5 million men were killed, with hundreds of thousands more injured. The “war to end all wars” took a horrific human toll and transformed Europe.
However, on Christmas Eve in December 1914 one of the most unusual events in military history took place on the Western front. On the night of Dec. 24 the weather abruptly became cold, freezing the water and slush of the trenches in which the men bunkered. On the German side, soldiers began lighting candles. British sentries reported to commanding officers there seemed to be small lights raised on poles or bayonets.
Although these lanterns clearly illuminated German troops, making them vulnerable to being shot, the British held their fire. Even more amazing, British officers saw through their binoculars that some enemy troops were holding Christmas trees over their heads with lighted candles in their branches. The message was clear: Germans, who celebrated Christmas on the eve of Dec. 24, were extending holiday greetings to their enemies.
Within moments of that sighting, the British began hearing a few German soldiers singing a Christmas carol. It was soon picked up all along the German line as other soldiers joined in harmonizing.
The words heard were these: “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.” British troops immediately recognized the melody as “Silent Night” quickly neutralized all hostilities on both sides. One by one, British and German soldiers began laying down their weapons to venture into no-man’s-land, a small patch of bombed-out earth between the two sides. So many soldiers on both sides ventured out that superior officers were prevented from objecting. There was an undeclared truce and peace had broken out.
Frank Richards was an eyewitness of this unofficial truce. In his wartime diary he wrote: “We stuck up a board with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy stuck up a similar one. Two of our men threw off their equipment and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads as two of the Germans did the same, our two going to meet them.
“They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench and so did the Germans,” Richards said.
Richards also explained that some German soldiers spoke perfect English with one saying how fed up he was with the war and how he would be glad when it was all over. His British counterpart agreed.
That night, former enemy soldiers sat around a common campfire. They exchanged small gifts from their meager belongings – chocolate bars, buttons, badges and small tins of processed beef. Men who only hours earlier had been shooting to kill were now sharing Christmas festivities and showing each other family snapshots.
It’s an affecting story, but not a sentimental one. The backdrop was war, and after the singing was over the war resumed.
The truce ended just as it had begun, by mutual agreement. Captain C.I. Stockwell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers recalled how, after a truly “Silent Night,” he fired three shots into the air at 8:30 a.m. December 26 and then stepped up onto the trench bank. A German officer who had exchanged gifts with Captain Stockwell the previous night also appeared on a trench bank. They bowed, saluted and climbed back into their trenches. A few minutes later, Captain Stockwell heard the German officer fire two shots into the air. The war was on again.
It occurs to me that for Christ also his infancy was also a pause before the miserable fight.