Soldiers hunkered down in trenches a football field or two apart from each other. Between them was open ground where men were chopped to bits by machine guns, repeating rifles, and mortars.
Not that life was much better---or safer---by staying in the trenches. Most of them had been hastily built, with no allowance for drainage or the elements. The soldiers on both sides stood ankle-deep in muck and beat their arms for warmth. It was cold, with winter coming on. Dysentery ran rampant, and a man stood a good chance of dying from typhus or cholera. That is, unless he happened to raise his head a bit too high and catch a sniper’s bullet first.
Most of the ones doing the actual fighting couldn’t even tell you why they were shooting at each other. It had something to do with an archduke who’d been assassinated the past summer in Sarajevo. The next thing they knew, the soldiers from a group of countries calling themselves the Central Powers were sent out to kill the soldiers from another group of countries calling themselves the Allied Powers.
In due time, it would become known as “the War to End All Wars”. Man was more optimistic, then.
The Great War---which is what we called World War One before a second one forced us to start numbering them---began in earnest in August, 1914, when the German Army invaded Belgium. Belgian defences were not up to the task of repelling the hard-trained, well-supplied Germans, and the country fell quickly. This was a triumph for the Kaiser only in the short term; a mutual-aid treaty between Belgium and the United Kingdom forced the British Empire to enter the war. Now, there was one more country’s army Germany had to beat.
It was a lesson hammered home in the second week of September. Using Belgium as a conduit to France, the Germans had come within forty miles of Paris when newly arriving British troops joined the French forces in repelling the invaders, in the First Battle of the Marne. The German Army retreated past the Aisne River and entrenched. To protect their hard-won ground, the French and the Belgians and the Brits also dug in. Both sides quickly extended their fortifications from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, thus establishing the misery known as the Western Front.
For three months now, both groups were cold, wet, muddy, hungry, and sick---and ordered to do their damndest to kill those on the other side of the field. Every soldier---Allied and German---dreaded the possibility that it would be his regiment’s turn to dash across No Man’s Land in an effort to gain a few precious feet of ground. And yet, for many, sudden death from a bullet or bomb seemed almost preferable to the sense-numbing existence in the trenches.
But, while a man might be easy to kill, the spirit of man is not.
Christmas Eve, 1914, dawned with a good omen. The rain of the last several days had given way to clear skies. The soldiers on both sides busied themselves with the drudgery of life in a combat theatre. They cleaned their rifles and washed their clothes and checked their supplies. Occasionally would come the whine of a bullet or the thud of a mortar shell. They were used to that by now.
That afternoon, along the battle lines near the Belgian village of Ypres, the British soldiers received a note from their enemies across the field. The note was a request for a truce that evening, to allow the Germans to celebrate Christmas Eve, which happened to be their captain’s birthday. There was nothing unusual in the request. The opposing sides often agreed to temporary ceasefires to permit the recovery of the dead, provide the troops with an uninterrupted mealtime, or other things of mutual benefit.
What was unusual about this request was that it was attached to a parcel containing a small chocolate cake from one of the “Care packages” sent by the German government to their soldiers in the field.
That evening, at the appointed time, voices joined in song rose from the German trenches. The words were in German, of course, but the gentle melody was so universal that the Brits had no difficulty following along . Stille Nacht . . . Silent Night.
The British soldiers peered across the night-shrouded field and saw an amber glow stringing along the enemy lines. A tiny pine tree adorned with flickering candles decorated each German encampment. When the Germans concluded with the last strains of the hymn, the Brits responded with a chorus of Good King Wenceslaus. For quite some time, the two groups exchanged songs, before finally settling down.
The spark was lit.
Christmas Day awoke to crisp, clear skies, again. For Captain Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards, it was the start of only his third day on the front lines. He was moving along the trenches, encouraging his men and checking troop placements. It was a quiet morning---no shooting had come from the German side---so Captain Hulse risked a look over the parapet. What he saw was something quite remarkable.
Four German soldiers, unarmed, walking calmly across the open ground between the two armies, toward the British lines. It was such an unexpected thing that the four Germans were halfway across the field before Hulse roused himself. He grabbed a couple of riflemen and went out to confront them.
“What orders do you have from your officers?” demanded Hulse.
The lead German, their spokesman, shook his head. In thick, guttural English, he told Hulse that their purpose was to wish their British counterparts a happy Christmas. As a gesture of good will, the Germans had no intention of firing upon them this day.
After a brief discussion, Captain Hulse and his two men escorted the Germans back to their lines. Once safely retreated to his own side of the battleground, Hulse raced off to report the encounter to the field headquarters. When he returned two hours later, he was met by quite a sight.
Up and down the length of No Man’s Land, six or seven groups of British and German soldiers---perhaps one-hundred-fifty men from each side---were chatting and having a smoke! Men who had been locked in combat only days before were warmly exchanging Christmas wishes.
It had started mainly from curiosity.
Then, as ever, propaganda was used to keep the troops motivated. British posters depicted German soldiers marching through Belgium with babies skewered on their bayonets. Berlin newspapers reported that the British were gouging out the eyes of German prisoners-of-war. The soldiers on both sides wanted to see the monsters they were fighting up close.
Cautiously at first, men set their rifles down and emerged from the safety of their trenches. A few hesitant greetings were exchanged. It didn’t take long for them to discover that those on the other side weren’t monsters, at all. Just sons---husbands---fathers, like themselves, who were only doing what their country had asked them to and whose deepest wish was to return to their faraway homes.
With smiles, gestures, and a few words stolen from the other’s language, the soldiers swapped uniform buttons and belt buckles. British cigarettes were exchanged for German cigars. Coffee for beer. And as all family men have done since the invention of photography, wallets came out and snapshots of wives and children were shown to approving nods.
It doesn’t take long for something like this to get going. By Christmas noon, the good will had spread up and down the twenty-seven-mile advance line running south of Ypres. German tailors repaired British uniforms. British barbers gave German soldiers haircuts. Corpsmen pooled their medical supplies and treated injuries on both sides.
Chaplains held joint services in both languages. And being a holiday, sports are never far away. When something round enough and kickable enough could be found, small pick-up games of football---soccer, to us Americans---broke out.
“It was absolutely astounding,” Captain Hulse would later write in a letter home, “and if I had seen it on film, I should have sworn it was faked!”
It wasn’t like that everywhere, of course. In some areas, the only interaction between the Allies and the Germans were solemn grunts made while retrieving their dead. For others, the Christmas truce simply meant a day of quiet in their respective trenches, and that was enough.
As you might imagine, when word of what was going on reached the British and German generals in charge, they took a dim view of all this consorting with the enemy. They sent down word, banning such fraternisation under the threat of court-martial.
But the generals were ensconced well away from the thick of things. To the commanders in the field, the truce had military value. It gave them time to refortify their positions, clean out the trenches, and bury their dead. So the orders from the high commands were pretty much ignored. Besides, it’s hard to shoot a man who’s handing you his last pair of warm gloves and wishing you “Merry Christmas”, no matter what tongue he says it in.
As the day dwindled, British and Prussians, Scots and Saxons, Irish and Austrians stood shoulder to shoulder around makeshift Christmas trees decorated with candles and trinkets and sang Auld Lang Syne.
And then it was over.
Not everywhere. At the more remote sections of the Western Front, where the fighting had never been very hard to begin with, the truce would go on, in some cases, until New Year's Day. But for most of the combatants, nightfall marked the end. At some points along the front, the truce was ended ceremoniously, with the field commanders on both sides offering final holiday wishes and exchanging salutes, before firing two shots into the air, to signify the end of the ceasefire.
But in most cases, including Ypres, where it all began, the truce was dissolved by a simple handwritten message.
And with that, the world was once again at war.
As I’ve said before, the Christmas spirit reflects more than simply the Christian faith. It reflects the best of all faiths. And of all of us. Every Yuletide, Will Eisner, a Jew, turned the adventures of his masked hero over to the Christmas Spirit, in tales that found generosity and redemption in the most unlikely places. Eisner recognised the power of the season. It inspires joy and charity and kinship for others with a force that is almost electric.
Often---too often---this world can be a pretty rotten place. But if you ever despair over the course mankind is taking, think back to how, on this day, exactly one hundred years ago, the spirit of Christmas filled the hearts of hundreds of men who had been sent to kill each other. And how on that day of days, a war stopped.
We'll make it, yet.
From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Merry Christmas, and many more of them!
Merry Christmas, sir.
May we all find peace in these troubled times.
Merry Christmas, Commander to you and yours and to us all!
NPR beat you to it this year, Commander! Still a lovely piece, as always. Merry Christmas to you.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, Commander.
Merry Christmas, to you, your family, and everyone else here, Commander!
Merry Christmas to all of y'all.
The film Joyous Noel (it's French so I think it's more like Joyeus Noelle) uses the truce as the base of its story.
Happy holidays to everybody in C.C. Land, whatever your preference of faith - and to those of you who do not follow any organized religion. Regardless of diety (-ies), "Peace on Earth and good will toward Man" is a message and intent that is still urgently important. If you look around, you can see it advancing - oh-so-slowly, but surely, we're maturing a little. Our holidays help push that a little bit. My best wishes to you and yours to keep that spirit going.