Over a century ago, across the 400-mile battle line of Europe, World War I had claimed almost a million lives over the previous five 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.” They replied with a British chorus of “The First Noel.” During this time, soldiers wrote in diaries to tell of local armistices established between both sides, occurring across dozens of other locations along the battle line as well. One British soldier said,
… down the line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war:
“English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”
German and British soldiers left their trenches. They crossed “No Man’s Land” to meet and exchanged gifts they’d received from home: chocolate, gingerbread, 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.
Truce Football Game?
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 then still-neutral United States.
Even the usually conservative Wall Street Journal reported:
“What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”
How unusual was this Truce?
A century and a half earlier, in America during the Revolutionary War, German auxiliaries 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 Delaware River on Christmas night and attack them by surprise on December 26, 1776, at the Battle of Trenton.
While this temporary Christmas Truce of World War I was attempted a year later at Neuve Chapelle, among other places, the armistice was not repeated. Instead, superior officers ordered threats of court-martial and the shooting of deserters. 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.
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. But he had changed his surname 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 1918. In 2005, a slightly fictionalized version of the story was made into the movie Joyeux Noel.
In partnership with The Royal British Legion, the Sainsbury supermarket chain in the UK 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