Today, of course, is Christmas Eve. In the Biblical story, set centuries afterwards by the Church at this time to correspond with traditional the Roman solstice festival of Saturnalia, an angel appeared to shepherds abiding in their fields:
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Unfortunately in the long history of humanity since the days of the old miracle story, peace on earth and good will toward men has often been in short supply. War and more war seemed the inevitable fate of human kind. Although Christmas and other Holy Day truces were sometimes observed by medieval feudal armies, by the 19th Century industrial warfare had transformed battlefields into remorseless mass killing fields. Old notions of gallantry toward enemies were quickly fading.
In December of 1914 the Great War, as it was beginning to be called on all sides, was less than six months old. Any visions of heroic charges and quick victories cherished by both sides had quickly evaporated against the grim reality repeating rifles, machine guns, and mass artillery that had made the old warfare of maneuver and attack obsolete.
On the Western Front in France the war had settled into a bloody stalemate. Both sides dug in with make-shift trenches where men lived and died for days on end between futile attacks over a no man’s land between the lines. As winter closed in the trenches filled with water and slush. Mud walls often collapsed, burying soldiers alive. Neither side had good winter uniforms and the men were suffering horribly from cold.
Many of the soldiers on both sides of the line that winter were not the highly disciplined professional troops that were the core of both the German and Allied armies. Most had been reservists, volunteers or draftees—civilians only months before. That winter many had not yet been trained or embittered to be remorseless killing machines.
Early on the day of Christmas Eve something strange happened, mostly on the section of the front where British and Imperial troops faced the Germans south from the bloody Ypres salient for 27 miles to the La Bassee Canal. Here and there firing stopped. Men in the trenches, often as close a 70 yards apart, began to shout at one another offering Christmas greetings. Singing broke out in both trenches, and sometimes the two sides joined in common carols—particularly Silent Night (Stille Nacht) and O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree.)
Stories differ on how this fraternization spread to become informal local truces. In at least one spot, the Germans sent a man with a white flag across no man’s land to request a cease fire to celebrate a beloved Captain’s birthday on the trench parapet. The English officer in charge agreed and crossed back to make arrangements with his counterparts. In other areas British troops simply allowed the Germans to erect small decorated Christmas trees sent to the lines by the High Command along the trenches. In other places more formal truces were arranged so that each side could safely retrieve the many bodies that littered no man’s land.
By afternoon troops were out of their trenches and mingling between the lines. Both the British and Germans had received special Christmas packages of tobacco and sweets. The men began exchanging some of these items as well as souvenirs like buttons off their uniforms and trinkets from home, even family pictures. Officers shared their bottles of Scotch, Schnapps, or French wine. German enlisted men swapped kegs of beer with British soldiers for Bully Beef and jam. By evening the truce had spread across the entire section of the front and had even taken hold in some additional sectors manned by French and Belgian troops.
That evening some troops engaged in common mess on the battle field and mingled for hours in celebration. When word got back to the British Command, miles behind the lines, stern order and dire warnings of severe punishment for fraternizations were sent to the front. Similar orders came from German generals.
But the truce not only held on Christmas morning, it continued to spread. Up and down the line several soccer games and other competitions were organized through the day. More dinners were arranged for that evening.
But it could not last. With more pressure from the Brass Hats desultory firing began that night. British medical officer Captain J. C. Dunn recounted how it ended in his sector:
At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with “Thank you” on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.
But in some areas the informal truce lingered for a day or two and in other sectors no serious fighting resumed until early January, 1915. A handful of officers and men were disciplined by the British for disobeying orders or fraternization.