Prologue: The Truce Begins
It was a cool December evening as Sergeant Thomas Coals climbed out of the main trench and onto the parapet to relieve the previous sentry. He’d have the latest shift, and be out until about 4 in the morning before his shift ended. He glanced out across the grim landscape that was no-man’s land, and across to the German lines beyond. He reached the pervious sentry, Sergeant Lewis McGregor, and relieved him of his post. “Have the Huns been silent?”
“Yes, for the most part, just a little movement, nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe tonight will be totally quiet.”
“Well, I hope so. I don’t like it when my sentry duty isn’t quiet.” Coals said with a grin.
“Ha, no I don’t like it either mate.” McGregor said as he walked down into the trench. “Oh, by the way, Merry Christmas if I don’t see you tomorrow.”
“Thanks Lewis. Merry Christmas to you too.”
It was sometimes hard to remember that the joyous holiday was now upon them, what with all the gloom of war totally surrounding the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force. So much violence, so much death. Just a month before, the Battle of Ypres, which had raged for nearly 6 long weeks, had finally ended, with over 79,000 good men dead and another 16,000 wounded. This on top of the massive losses at the Marne. In all the BEF had lost over 100,000 men since the war broke out 4 months ago. All hope of a short and glorious war against the German Empire had long since been dashed. The war would now definitely continue into 1915, possibly 1916 if Fortune decided to be stingy. Coals himself just hoped he could make it through this bloody conflict and back to his young wife Sophie, who was expecting their first child.
As Coals looked out across the wasteland that existed between the British and German lines, he began to imagine what his own family would be doing. They’d be all gathered at his childhood home north of London, father in the parlor with his brothers and sisters trimming the tree, his mother and his wife baking some snacks in the kitchen. In a few hours they’d get into the carriage and ride to the near by St. Gregory’s church for the midnight Christmas service. Tomorrow they’d awake to prepare for the big holiday feast with his aunts and uncles and grandparents, and exchange gifts afterwards. How he wished he could be with them tonight. But he was proud to serve his country. Or at least, he had been when he and so many other young men had volunteered to join the army at the outbreak of war. Now though, after living through the horror of Ypres, where the Germans had briefly taken the town before being driven out by the British, and having heard of the horrors of the Marne, he wasn’t so sure. Why were he and his fellow compatriots out here dying on the fields of France?
While the sergeant began to drift in his thoughts, a light of in the distance caught his eye. He immediately glanced about, and notices several brightly lit candles dotting the German trenches. Where the Huns up to something? Fearing that the enemy might be preparing for some sort of sneak attack, Coals hollered out for his superior. “Lieutenant Scott! Lieutenant Scott!” Shouted Coals down into the trenches. Soon, Lieutenant Horatio Scott came up the ladder, calling out, “What is is Sergeant Coals? Are the Germans moving?”
“I don’t rightly know sir. They are lighting lanterns and moving about more than they have the past few nights.” Scott joined Coals on the parapet, and gazed over towards the German trenches. Sure enough, dozens of Candles were dotting this part of the line, in plain view of the British forces. This was most unusual.
“Do you hear that?” asked Scott. Coals listened hard, and sure enough, he did hear something drifting over from the enemy.
“Sounds like they are shouting something in unison sir. But I can’t make out....” the noise was louder now, and Coals could make it out:
[i]”Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht; Alles schlaft, einsam wacht....”[/i]
Scott chuckled a bit. “Well, what do you know. The Huns are singing Christmas carols. Maybe the Christmas spirit will make it out to the trenches this year.” Lieutenant Scott smiled, then excused himself. Coals continued his watch, listening first to the Germans sing, and then to his own fellow soldiers in the British trenches. Lt. Scott appeared to be right. The Christmas spirit had made it out to the trenches. Little did Coals, Scott, or any of the British or German soldiers realize that night as the sang carols and shouted “merry Christmas” back and forth, that the next 48 to 72 hours would change the course of the War, and with it, the course of modern history.
-Springer, Thomas. All Silent on the Western Front. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1925.
TO: Imperial Command, Berlin
FROM: Army HQ, Western Front
Commanders in Field are reporting a large scale truce developing spontaneously with enemy forces at multiple locations along the Western Front, believed to be due to the Christmas holiday. Troops are meeting the enemy in “no-mans land” to trade goods and to collect the dead.
-Communique from German Army HQ on the Western Front to the German General Staff in Berlin, 11:25 a.m. December 25, 1914. Deutsch Kaiserlichen Historisches Museum, Berlin.
It feels so strange. We’ve been fighting since the summer ended, and have seen horrible carniage and unimaginable losses in life. And now, peace has overtaken the trenches. My comrades and I went out and traded food with German soldiers. I heard that some men in another unit actually started a football match with some Germans. If you’d told me last week that this would happen I’d have called you a liar. But here it is, solid reality, Brit and Hun being friendly. I’ve even heard that in some areas the French have laid down their arms.
What’s even more remarkable is the talk I’m hearing more and more as the day goes on. Lots of the men, even some officers, are saying things like “if we can stop the fighting today, what’s to keep us from stopping it tomorrow?” I’m shocked. Can they be serious? How can we mere soldiers stop this bloody war. Sure we’ve paused today, but when dawn comes tomorrow, will it not start again?
-Diary entry of an unknown British Soldier, December 25, 1914. British National Archives, London.
The War of 1914, also known as the Last Great European War, had the potential to become the bloodiest war in the history of mankind. By the end of 1914, there were upwards of a million dead on the Western Front alone, and that was just from the combined military deaths of the belligerent countries, not counting the civilian losses. Half of those deaths came from the Battle of the Marne alone, where a solid week of fighting chewed through the armies of Britain, France, and Germany right up to the outskirts of Paris. By the time the cold winter of 1914 set in along the trench lines, there was a great frustration with the war and it’s seeming pointlessness and destructiveness. It also seemed like it might never end, at least according to some soldiers who wrote about their experiences afterwards.
Then, almost out of nowhere, the guns fell silent. It was after sunset on December 24. In several locations German troops began to light candles and sing Christmas carols. Their British and French counterparts soon took notice, and began to sing songs of their own. The soldiers could be heard calling out “Happy Christmas,” Frohe Weihnachten,” and “Joyeux Noel” across No-Mans Land to the enemy trenches. The officers on both sides were a little uncomfortable at first, but felt that the men needed the morale boost of the Christmas spirit, so did not reprimand their men.
When dawn broke on Christmas Day 1914, the now apparent “Christmas Truce” was in full swing. German and British officers met under flags of truce to agree to burial details. Then the men began to wander into the desolate landscape that lay between the opposing trenches and began to talk with one another, trading food, souvenirs, even addresses to get in touch after the war ended. As the day wore on, several Christmas services were held, some of them joint services with British and German soldiers in attendance. In some places, friendly games of football broke out, with the opposing armies facing each other in peaceful competition. One observer reportedly said, “Too bad we couldn’t just decide the war with a football match.”
What few could have predicted as this impromptu peace broke out was what kind of affect it would have on the men. And not just the foot soldiers, but the officers as well. They began to ask one another, “why must this war continue?” “why are we fighting in the first place?” and “how many more of my comrades must die before the people in high places are satisfied?” In addition, they fraternization with the enemy essentially shattered the myth that government propaganda had been feeding the soldiers for months, that the men on the other side of the trenches were not really the boogymen that they’d been led to believe they were. In several different places on the line, these questions and new discoveries began to take root, and many began to contemplate more than just idle thoughts but tangible actions. And it is because of these men that the Christmas Truce of 1914 forever altered human events.
-Franklin, Dr. David. Peace on Earth: Christmas 1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
TO: British High Command, London
FROM: BEF Command Post, France
We are getting scattered reports from several key positions on the front line that our soldiers, many of whom participated in yesterday’s spontaneous and unsanctioned cease fire with the enemy in marking the Christmas holiday, are refusing to fight. Offices are involved. Need direction as to how to proceed. Afraid that ordering loyal troops to fire on those refusing to fight might cause more men to mutiny. No violence has been reported. We believe that this may be occurring in some places amongst the enemy troops as well.
-Communique from British Expeditionary Force HQ on the Western Front to the British General Staff in London, 9:30 a.m. December 26, 1914. British National Archives, London.
December 26, 1914- I’m still in shock at the news coming in from Field Marshal French and the BEF. It seems as though more than 20,000 of His Majesty’s troops have refused to pick up their weapons and fight in light of yesterday’s reported truce. TWENTY THOUSAND! And from the reports it seems as though this is occurring with the French and maybe even the German troops up and down the line. The cabinet isn’t sure what to do, and neither is the King. Protocol dictates action against these mutineers, possibly even firing on them. But there are so many. And I fear that ordering our loyal troops to fire on those refusing to fight could backfire greatly. We are going to meet again tomorrow. I pray God grant myself and my fellow leaders some way to resolve the crisis.
- From the personal papers of Herbert Henry Asquith, former Prime Minister of Great Britain (1908-1915). British National Archives, London.