Over a century ago across the 400-mile battle line of Europe, World War I had claimed almost a million lives over the previous 5 months of battle. The Great War, “the war to end all wars” was about to experience something almost unheard of in two thousand years of warfare: a temporary though unofficial truce. As Christmas Eve fell in the trenches of Flanders Field, German soldiers had erected Christmas Trees with lighted candles.
At about 8:30 pm as the firing of guns began to subside the Germans began to sing “Stille Nacht.” The song was originally written in German, but the British soldiers knew the English words to “Silent Night.” Soldiers wrote in diaries during this time to tell of local armistices established between both sides, occurring across dozens of other locations along the battle line as well. German and British soldiers left their trenches. They crossed “No Man’s Land” to meet and exchanged gifts they’d received from home: chocolate, tobacco, alcohol, articles of clothing, buttons, badges, and hats. The British soldiers bartered tins of plum pudding and tobacco sent to them by King George. The Germans had pipes with a picture of the Crown Prince.
Christmas Day brought impromptu football (soccer) matches between the soldiers. This time also afforded the opportunity to bury the dead, and exchange prisoners. The first documented truce was recorded in the War Diary of the 2nd Essex Regiment on December 11, the last one ended at New Year, but it was all unofficial. Perhaps as many as 100,000 soldiers were involved in this truce. Robert Graves, the British writer — known for the novel I, Claudius and the authoritative translation from the Latin of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars — later recounted the football match, parts of which were fictional, with a score of 3–2 for the Germans. No reports were published of the truce for a week, until the New York Times broke the story, in the still-neutral at that time United States.
How unusual was this?
A century and a half earlier, in America during the Revolutionary War German mercenary soldiers from Hesse, hired to fight for the British, were making merry during Christmas. The American soldiers under General George Washington took advantage of this to cross the Deleware River on Christmas night and surprise attack them on December 26, 1776, at the Battle of Trenton.
While this temporary Christmas Truce of WWI was attempted a year later at Neuve Chapelle among other places, the armistice was not repeated. Instead, threats of court-martial and shooting of deserters were ordered by superior officers. Indeed, Ian Calhoun, the Scottish Commanding Officer of the British forces was subsequently court-marshaled for “consorting with the enemy” and sentenced to death. Only King George V of England spared him from that fate. Ironically, George V — known in modern times from the Academy Award-winning movie The King’s Speech (reviewed here) as the father of “Bertie” — was the first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and was the first monarch of the House of Windsor, having changed his name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a politically incorrect German name during World War I.
The War would continue for four years after the truce and claimed 10 million lives, until the armistice in November of 1918. In 2005, a slightly fictionalized version of the story was made into the movie called “Joyeux Noel.”
Recently the Sainsbury supermarket chain in the UK, in partnership with The Royal British Legion produced the following ad. Worth watching here.
Do you recognize the music played at the end of this ad?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian