Whether or not you believe in Christmas miracles, something remarkable definitely happened between mortal enemies on Christmas Eve, 1914.
How or why it happened is something that no one can truly say for sure. In all honesty, and like most legendary tales from days of yore, it probably comes down to the way you choose to look at it. In terms of reality though, all we can do is rely on the personal accounts and the documentations of those who were there.
Like all great moments in our distant history, all that remains is the ghost of a memory’s memory, and the deeper one ventures into finding the truth among these ghosts, the more one realizes that whether or not the ghosts themselves believed in Christmas miracles has a heck of a lot to do with their points of view regarding the hows and the whys of what actually happened on this particular day.
While some of the ever-circulating details regarding the WWI Christmas Truce are often met with speculation, the following facts paint a clear and accurate portrait of the Western Front:
In short, everything was absolute shit.
After five months of fighting, it was apparent to both the British and the Germans that their enemy was sharing the same misery, and there was no end in sight. A man, no matter how strong or resilient, cannot live in a constant mode of battle, and this was a contributing factor to the evolution of these WWI truces. Yes, that’s truces, because, as warm and fuzzy as it we’d like to think it sounds, the Christmas truce wasn’t some rare, isolated, miraculous occurrence. Don’t be fooled by other accounts: this was not the first cease fire (though it may have been one of the last).
No, there are reports of many other truces, which likely came about because these men lived in such horrible conditions and were in such close proximity to their enemies that, at some point, somebody had to wave a white flag just so they could stretch their damn legs and take a moment to bury their comrades. Actually, I know nothing of them possessing said white flags, but I did read a letter from a soldier that said they used a random board:
“someone sticks a board in the air. As soon as this board goes up all firing ceases…”.
Anyway, the point is, it had happened before. And, more importantly, though it did happen on Christmas, it didn’t happen everywhere. There was plenty of fighting on the Western Front that Christmas- but there was also an incredible moment of peace and brotherhood, albeit a temporary one.
“It was like hell upon earth,” Sergeant W. Blundell (1st Bedfordshire Regiment) wrote in one of his letters.
“We were in the trenches all Christmas week, and the weather was awful. On Christmas Day we had a lot of firing over us, and shells too. All at once it ceased and I looked up and saw the Germans on top of their trenches shouting to us, and asking us to meet them. All our brigade went, and we were talking to them about two hours.”
As night fell on Christmas Eve, the British were caught by surprise due to the sound emitting from German trenches – they were singing Silent Night. (Well, actually, it was Stille Nacht, but you get the picture.)
“You will be very much surprised to hear I had one of the best Christmas Days I have had for years. On Christmas Eve I went to the trenches and the Germans were singing carols to our men and we were singing to them. They then shouted to us ‘A Merry Christmas, British comrades. You English are fine singers.” ~ Rifleman E. E. Meadley of the Queen’s Westminsters
About 100,000 German and British troops engaged in cease fire on the day we’ve come to know as the legendary Christmas Truce. They were apprehensive at first, but eventually began talking, shaking hands, and exchanging gifts- like this brass button that a German soldier removed from his tunic to give to 19-year-old Cpl. Eric Rowden, who wrote in his diary that day:
“I went out and found a German who spoke English a little, and we exchanged buttons and cigarettes. And I had two or three cigars given me, and we laughed and joked together, having forgotten war altogether.”
They held Christmas services, swapped prisoners, and even gave burial ceremonies.
“We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet that it seemed like a dream. We took advantage of the quiet day and brought our dead in.” ~ Rifleman J. Reading
These men, who had been aiming to end each other’s lives, and who would eventually resume their attempts to do so, came together to express the regret they felt for having to fight one another. Countless letters were sent home that all tell the same story: there was indeed an extraordinary truce on Christmas in 1914.
“We had a sort of truce on Christmas Day, and we were out in between the two trenches talking to one another. A German officer gave me two cigars, which were very good, and the men exchanged good wishes and smokes, etc. They told us that they didn’t want to fight us, as they had no grudge against us. They were mostly young fellows, and the officer was only about 21 years of age, and said he had only seen one year’s service. Nearly all the Germans spoke English, and there was one there about 12 years old and also one or two old men with bald heads, and one or two in civilian dress, so you can see they are rather a mixed crowd. It hardly seems credible, does it, but I saw it with my own eyes.” ~ unknown officer from the 8th division
The truce commenced against the wishes of those higher in command. Visiting each other’s lines could be viewed as treason, which was punishable by execution, yet it still happened. Letters made their way back home, and, in turn, the story of these soldiers’ Christmas miracle ended up in newspapers and on the lips of the people in their hometowns – and thus, a grand legend was born.
You’ve likely seen pictures like this one, of happy men frolicking through the field as they call a truce to play soccer.
Do me (and yourself) a favor and don’t buy into that. Nobody frolicked. Perhaps they were playful and energetic, sure, but cheerful? Excited? Merry? Whilst taking a break from war? It’s not an office kickball game we’re talking about (unless you have the sort of boss that would turn around and shank you in the spleen at any given moment while the CEO snipes your teammates from the sidelines). However, multiple accounts claim the British busted out a soccer ball and a few Germans joined them for a quick game; quick being the operative word, because, within an hour or two, this little game (which was probably the only one of its kind, or very rare at the least) was toast.
Now, I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I’m going to. You see, sometimes my rational, realistic nature lends itself to ruining sentiment, so I’ll need to interrupt the warm fuzzies by saying that, as you know, all good things must come to an end. Truces can’t last forever, and the war obviously continued for another four years. As Sergeant Blundell so plainly stated it in his aforementioned letter:
“They asked us not to fire that day and said they would not; and no firing was done until next day and then we were fighting for all we were worth.“
The show must, and will, go on. While there were collective-yet-brief feelings of friendship and harmony in one section of the trenches, the concord of Christmas morning was violently shattered by German snipers who shot and killed two British soldiers just a few miles down the Western Front. While letters detailing the happenings of this incredible day made their way back to Britain, the families of these two fallen young men were experiencing an entirely different version of the story.
It’s a major buzzkill, I know (those puns are in no way intended). It is also not my intention to shred your tinsel, extinguish your Menorah, or tarnish the shiniest ornament on your tree. In this world, horrible things happen to people, because people are human. But a fundamental part of what makes us human is our basic decency and desire to love and be good. That’s the part of humanity we all need in order to flourish and get through the atrocities we impose upon each other, and it’s that same part of humanity that showed its glorious face to the Western Front on Christmas in 1914. Yes, the madness and cruelty of the 1st World War would continue in the coming days, months, and years- but for a brief moment, whether you define it as a miracle, an inevitable happenning, or an inflated bag of legendary hot air, for a brief and beautiful moment, soldiers on both sides of the trenches looked their enemy in the eyes and saw a brother.