By mid December of 1914 it was clear to soldiers that the promise of returning home by Christmas would not be kept. When the German army stalled at the Marne River 25 miles from Paris, both sides dug in for what would be the start of four years of murderous trench warfare. It had been only five months since the incident at Sarajevo, and already 150,000 young men were dead or wounded.
But for a few short days a strange and wonderful event occurred. It was, some say, the last pure moment of decency… evidence that the world was still a civilized place. Along the trench lines of the western front, not far from the Belgian border, both sides began to detect in the opposing trenches, certain signs of Christmas celebration (if celebration is the right word in such miserable conditions). Germans would be heard singing, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” The British would respond with a British Christmas carol. On Christmas Eve night British troops peered over at the German trenches and noticed flickering lights. The German soldiers had set up make shift Christmas trees! There was a mutual curiosity as troops on both sides, some religious, some not, realized that on this holiest of nights there should be no shooting, no death, no horror. They began applauding each other’s singing; and it became a friendly duel of joyous caroling.
On Christmas day itself, the first curious, slightly headstrong men from both sides poked their heads above the trenches and realizing that somebody on the other side wasn’t going to shoot it off, then clambered cautiously out. Others followed suit. People stopped in the middle of no-mans-land, shook hands, exchanged buttons, badges, food and cigarettes. Few could speak the others language but they were all soldiers; happy to enjoy a moment of peace, so communicating was easy. One German officer spoke English well and told of a great time he had in 1910, working at a hotel in Manchester. He wondered how his old friends there were doing. At one sector along the line, the men rolled old rags and bandages into a ball and a spontaneous football game broke out in a small field as yet not damaged by shell craters. Who won the game didn’t matter, and for that brief moment in time, neither did Kings and Kaisers.
This went on, in some parts for two or three days but eventually word got to British Army headquarters. The next day telegraph messages reached the trenches; “ any officer or enlisted man who fraternizes with the enemy will be punished.” A Christmas cease-fire was understandable, but the Generals could not have this sort of thing go on. Generals and other high commanders would never set foot in a front line trench themselves of course. That night both trenches fired flares across no-mans-land and it was understood that war was on again. The young men who had just sung Christmas carols together would again be slaughtering each other at daybreak.
This so called “ Christmas Truce” was never repeated. It was very much a 1914 phenomenon. The war became total war few rules and little civility. Being decent and humane would become a fond memory of old times when being a soldier meant chivalry, medals and glorious parades. Modern war was no place for sentimental people. War was now mechanized, inhumane and brutal. Sadly, most of the men who participated in that strange and beautiful Christmas would not live to see the end.