When Peace Broke Out
British and German soldiers made history in 1914 when they stopped shooting and started to sing carols and play football together.
The facts almost beggar belief. At the first Christmas of a hideous war, Germans and British sang carols to each other, lit each other’s cigarettes in no man’s land, exchanged souvenirs, took group photographs, even played football. Some sort of accommodation with the enemy, from cheerful waves and shouted greetings to full-scale fraternisation, took place over two-thirds of the 30 miles of the western front held by the British Expeditionary Force.
On Christmas Eve at Plugstreet Wood, Germans put Christmas trees on the parapet of their front-line trench and sang Stille Nacht (Silent Night), then largely unfamiliar to British ears but instantly acknowledged as a carol of extraordinary beauty. Moved to respond the territorials opposite struck up with The First Noel. So it continued until, when the British sang O Come, All Ye Faithful, they heard the Germans joining in with the Latin words Adeste Fideles. Recalling the event many years later, one former soldier commented: “I thought this a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of the war.”
A memorable joint burial service between the trenches on Christmas morning offers another uplifting detail. The prayers and readings were spoken first in English by a battalion chaplain and then in German by a young divinity student. “It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight,” wrote one witness. “The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. I think it was a sight one will never see again.” To deal decently with the dead was one powerful motive for establishing a truce. The Christmas spirit provided another. “It doesn’t seem right to be killing each other at Xmas time,” a Tommy noted in his diary.
Details which seem almost ludicrous enrich the story. A British Tommy met his German barber from High Holborn in London and had a short-back-and-sides between the lines. A German who had raided an abandoned house strutted about wearing a blouse, skirt and top hat and sporting an umbrella. After a bout of between-the-lines photography, one officer wrote in a letter home that another truce had been fixed for new year’s day “as the Germans want to see how the photos come out”.
Not everybody approved. One officer, ordered to prepare a more usable pitch by filling in shell holes, angrily refused to comply. This must surely be a very early case of a failure to create a level playing field. The proposed match did not take place. Some Frenchwomen, hearing of the goings-on at the front, spat at members of one battalion next time they were in town. The medical officer of a non-trucing unit, furious at the unsoldierly behaviour of a neighbouring battalion, approvingly reported “a bit of a scrap” between his men and theirs. He wrote home: “We aren’t here to pal up with the enemy.”
Yet the general reaction was one of amazed acceptance of a happening that delighted far more than it dismayed. Letters home confirm the incredible nature of the occasion. “It would have made a good chapter in Dickens’s Christmas Carol,” wrote one soldier. “Just you think,” mused another, “that while you were eating your turkey I was out talking with the men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding.”
The truce was not organised, nor, as it might be assumed, contagious, with units catching the spark from their neighbours. Rather, it was the spontaneous product of a mass of local initiatives. Thus peaceful areas were interlaced with “business as usual” zones where hostilities continued. This could have unhappy results. One sergeant crossing no man’s land to offer cigarettes to a friendly German regiment was shot by a sniper from a regiment not observing a ceasefire. He was officially described as “killed in action”, his “action” being the distinctly unmilitary one of attempting to carry Woodbines to the enemy. The Germans sent across an apology.
At a time when the world is yet again at war, this strange event of 1914 – with its message of common humanity and goodwill between enemies – has a special relevance. Far from losing its attraction, it is a story that seems to gain in resonance and potency as the years go by.
Excerpts from Malcolm Brown Sunday December 23 2001 The Observer
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