- Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 December 2013 12:55
- Published on Wednesday, 18 December 2013 12:55
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Ninety-nine years ago this Christmas soldiers of the British, French, and Belgian Armies were facing each other across no man’s land. It was first year of World War One and the beginning of a long period of trench warfare that would last four more years. Already, since the war began in August, as many as a million had already died. Leadership was in question, and more than a few soldiers, on both sides of no man’s land, that minimal stretch of territory between the lines, wondered if it was all worth it. In the long term, for the cause of the Allies, it probably was, but right at that moment, in the midst of battle, it wasn’t fighting that broke out, but rather it was Christmas.
Along the line, which ran for hundreds of miles, British, French and Belgian soldiers faced their German enemy with sometimes just a hundred yards between them.
It was on Christmas Eve 1914 that British soldiers noticed lights coming from the German lines. At first no one knew what to make of it and then it became apparent that these were little Christmas trees. The German soldiers had mounted them on the heights of their trenches. A few hours later there was singing.
As was noted in one letter home, the song was in German but it was instantly recognizable as “Silent Night.” The effect of this gentle little hymn wafting across the stillness of the frozen battlefield was too much to resist and soon the British soldiers joined in.
The phenomena occurred all up and down the Allied line. And while it seemed most prominent in the British Sector, French and Belgian soldiers also reported similar occurrences.
But there was more than just singing. Soon, with various junior officers meeting somewhere in the middle, there were truces. These weren’t sanctioned by higher headquarters, but for days, in whole segments of the line, the shooting stopped.
Halts in the fighting have occurred in other wars at Christmastime. But this was the first truly modern warn and it happened spontaneously along one of the longest battlefronts in human history. And, to the dismay of the generals on both sides some of these truces lasted well beyond Christmas. There was even a report of an impromptu soccer match between the Germans and the British in no-man’s land.
There isn’t much record of the Christmas truces of 1914. Neither side was anxious to publish reports of spontaneous peace breaking out. After all, this was war. Nonetheless, references to the truce pop up in old letters and histories written long after the event.
Both the Allied and German generals had no tolerance for these Christmas truces and as soon as word began to reach higher headquarters of this unsanctioned peacemaking orders went out declaring that any further such truces wouldn’t be tolerated. But, for a little while, a long time ago, it was Christmas and not the war that won the day.