A Story of Peace and Hope and the Power of Christmas

Tim Breen, Head of School
A German soldier wrote, “I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we would make a Christmas truce.”
Holiday Celebration Remarks
Delivered on December 16, 2011 to the WMS Community
Tim Breen, Head of School
 
 
In the fall of 1914, Europe descended into what would come to be called World War I. Along the Western Front in Europe, the German army settled in against the French and British armies for the nightmare of trench warfare.
As Christmas approached, the German government, in an effort to boost morale, sent thousands of small Christmas trees to the soldiers at the front, along with candles to light the trees. The British government shipped 350,000 brass boxes embossed with the profile of Princess Mary, containing a pipe and tobacco products. Neither government anticipated how these gifts would be used in the next few days.
I will tell much of this story through letters that the soldiers sent back to their families in England, Scotland, and Germany.
A British soldier wrote:

The night closed in early – the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches two hundred yards away. … The soldiers’ Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.
With overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost, I leaned against the side of the trench, and, looking through my loophole, fixed weary eyes on the German trenches.

Still looking and dreaming, my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. A light in the enemy’s trenches was so rare at that hour that I passed a message down the line. I had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice. There was no mistaking that voice with its guttural ring. With ears strained, I listened, and then, all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”
 
This is how the Christmas Truce began. In various locations all along the trenches, peace broke out. It was widespread – some estimates say that over half of the soldiers in the trenches participated. This was a truce born of the human desire for peace, at this time of year that asks us to keep love and peace in our hearts.
Another soldier wrote about Christmas Eve:

It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; at about 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights -I don’t know what they were. And then they sang “Stille Nacht.” (“Silent Night”) – I shall never forget it; it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.
 
From another place on the lines, a soldier wrote:

Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently small Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air! … First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O Come, All Ye Faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words “Adeste Fideles.” And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.
A German soldier wrote:

I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we would make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted, “No shooting!” Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands – a bit cautiously!
A Scottish soldier:

We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans – Fritz and I in the center talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. … Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs.
 
On Christmas day, some Germans and British held a joint service to bury their dead. A Scottish soldier wrote:

Our Padre … arranged the prayers and psalms, etc., and an interpreter wrote them out in German. They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. I think it was a sight one will never see again.
There were lighthearted moments as well. A British soldier wrote:

A hundred yards or so in the rear of our trenches there were houses that had been shelled. These were explored with some of the regulars and we found old bicycles, top-hats, straw hats, umbrellas etc. We dressed ourselves up in these and went over to the Germans. It seemed so comical to see fellows walking about in top-hats and with umbrellas up. Some rode the bicycles backwards. We had some fine sport and made the Germans laugh.
It seems that the soldiers began playing football (soccer) with each other:

The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side … They made up some goals and it was just a general kickabout. …. There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all. …The boots we wore were a menace – those great big boots we had on.
And another soldier wrote:

We marked the goals with our caps. Teams were quickly established for a match on the frozen mud, and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3-2
 
In one area, the trenches were near a brewery:

On our left was a brewery occupied by the Germans and to our surprise we saw a German come out and hold his hand up, behind him were two rolling a barrel of beer. They came halfway across and signed to us to come for it. Three of us went out, shook hands with them, wished them a merry Christmas, and rolled the barrel to our own trenches amid the cheers of both British and Germans! We both got out of our trenches and met in the middle of the field, wished each other season’s greetings.
 
Of course, we know now that the Christmas truce did not last. But in some places it lasted into the new year, causing a great deal of concern among the officers. One soldier wrote on the 30th of December:

At about lunchtime a message came down the line that the Germans had sent word across to say that their general was coming along in the afternoon, so we had better keep down, as they might have to do a little shooting to make things look right!
A reporter in Paris wrote in early 1915:

The French and German soldiers who had thus fraternised subsequently refused to fire on one another and had to be removed from the trenches and replaced by other men.
 
Years later, a British soldier, speaking as a member of the House of Commons, said:

We went over in front of the trenches and shook hands with many of our German enemies. A great number of people (now) think we did something that was degrading. The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.
 
A final word from a soldier, writing six months after the Christmas truce:

It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated … should on Christmas day … lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.
 

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