It was December 25, 1914, only 5 months into World War I. German, British, and
French soldiers, already sick and tired of the senseless killing, disobeyed their
superiors and fraternized with "the enemy" along two-thirds of the Western Front
(a crime punishable by death in times of war). German troops held Christmas trees
up out of the trenches with signs, "Merry Christmas."
"You no shoot, we no shoot." Thousands of troops streamed across a no-man's land
strewn with rotting corpses. They sang Christmas carols, exchanged photographs of
loved ones back home, shared rations, played football, even roasted some pigs.
Soldiers embraced men they had been trying to kill a few short hours before. They
agreed to warn each other if the top brass forced them to fire their weapons, and
to aim high.
A shudder ran through the high command on either side. Here was disaster in the
making: soldiers declaring their brotherhood with each other and refusing to
fight. Generals on both sides declared this spontaneous peacemaking to be
treasonous and subject to court martial. By March 1915 the fraternization movement
had been eradicated and the killing machine put back in full operation. By the
time of the armistice in 1918, fifteen million would be slaughtered.
Not many people have heard the story of the Christmas Truce. On Christmas Day,
1988, a story in the Boston Globe mentioned that a local FM radio host played"Christmas in the Trenches," a ballad about the Christmas Truce, several times and
was startled by the effect. The song became the most requested recording during
the holidays in Boston on several FM stations. "Even more startling than the
number of requests I get is the reaction to the ballad afterward by callers who
hadn't heard it before," said the radio host. "They telephone me deeply moved,
sometimes in tears, asking, `What the hell did I just hear?' "
I think I know why the callers were in tears. The Christmas Truce story goes
against most of what we have been taught about people. It gives us a glimpse of
the world as we wish it could be and says, "This really happened once." It reminds
us of those thoughts we keep hidden away, out of range of the TV and newspaper
stories that tell us how trivial and mean human life is. It is like hearing that
our deepest wishes really are true: the world really could be different.
Christmas in The Trenches - Song
This inspirational Christmas story in song:
Words & Music by John McCutcheon, c. 1984 John McCutcheon
This song is based on a true story from the front lines of World War I that I've
heard many times. Ian Calhoun, a Scot, was the commanding officer of the British
forces involved in the story. He was subsequently court-martialed for 'consorting
with the enemy' and sentenced to death. Only George V spared him from that fate.
-- John McCutcheon
My name is Francis Toliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school. To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here, I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung. Our families back in England were toasting us that day, Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear, As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony. The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more, As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht," "'Tis 'Silent Night,'" says I, And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
"There's someone coming towards us!" the front line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side. His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright, As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land,
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand. We shared some secret brandy and wished each other well, And in a flare lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home.
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own. Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin, This curious and unlikely band of men.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night:"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung. For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war, Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.
My name is Francis Toliver, in Liverpool I dwell,
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well, That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame, And on each end of the rifle we're the same.
Note: There was an engaging movie based on this inspirational Christmas story. A highly decorated U.S. general, USMC Major General Smedley D. Butler, describing how wars are waged largely to fill corporate coffers titled: War Is A Racket.
See our collection of inspirational resources at http://www.WantToKnow.info/inspirational
Explore these empowering websites coordinated by the nonprofit PEERS network:
http://www.momentoflove.org - Every person in the world has a heart
http://www.WantToKnow.info - Reliable, verifiable information on major cover-ups
http://www.inspiringcommunity.org - Building a Global Community for All
http://www.weboflove.org - Strengthening the Web of Love that interconnects us all
Educational websites promoting transformation through education and inspiration
Christmas Truce at the World War I Front
Though World War I had been raging for only four months, it was already proving to
be one of the bloodiest wars in history. Soldiers on both sides were trapped in
trenches, exposed to the cold and wet winter weather, covered in mud, and
extremely careful of sniper shots. Machines guns had proven their worth in war,
bringing new meaning to the word "slaughter." In a place where bloodshed was
nearly commonplace and mud and the enemy were fought with equal vigor, something
surprising occurred on the front for Christmas in 1914. The men who lay shivering
in the trenches embraced the Christmas spirit. In one of the truest acts of
goodwill toward men, soldiers from both sides in the southern portion of the Ypres
Salient set aside their weapons and hatred, if only temporarily, and met in No
After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, the world
was plunged into war. Germany, realizing they were likely to face a two-front war,
attempted to defeat the western foes before the Russians were able to mobilize
their forces in the East (estimated to take six weeks), using the Schlieffen Plan.
Though the Germans had made a strong offensive into France, French, Belgian, and
British forces were able to halt them. However, since they were not able to push
the Germans out of France, there was a stalemate and both sides dug into the earth
creating a large network of trenches. Once the trenches were built, winter rains
tried to obliterate them. The rains not only flooded the dug-outs, they turned the
trenches into mud holes - a terrible enemy in and of itself.
It had been pouring, and mud lay deep in the trenches; they were caked from head
to foot, and I have never seen anything like their rifles! Not one would work, and
they were just lying about the trenches getting stiff and cold. One fellow had got
both feet jammed in the clay, and when told to get up by an officer, had to get on
all fours; he then got his hands stuck in too, and was caught like a fly on a
flypaper; all he could do was look round and say to his pals, 'For Gawd's sake,
shoot me!' I laughed till I cried. But they will shake down, directly they learn
that the harder one works in the trenches, the drier and more comfortable one can
keep both them and oneself.1
The trenches of both sides were only a few hundred feet apart, buffered by a
relatively flat area known as "No Man's Land." The stalemate had halted all but a
scattered number of small attacks; thus, soldiers on each side spent a large
amount of time dealing with the mud, keeping their heads down in order to avoid
sniper fire, and watching carefully for any surprise enemy raids on their trench.
Restless in their trenches, covered in mud, and eating the same rations every day,
some soldiers began to wonder about the un-seen enemy, men declared monsters by
* We hated their guts when they killed any of our friends; then we really did
dislike them intensely. But otherwise we joked about them and I think they joked
about us. And we thought, well, poor so-and-sos, they're in the same kind of muck
as we are.2
The uncomfortableness of living in trenches coupled with the closeness of the
enemy who lived in similar conditions contributed to a growing "live and let live"
policy. Andrew Todd, a telegraphist of the Royal Engineers, wrote of an example in
* Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the soldiers in both lines of
trenches have become very 'pally' with each other.
The trenches are only 60 yards apart at one place, and every morning about
breakfast time one of the soldiers sticks a board in the air. As soon as this
board goes up all firing ceases, and men from either side draw their water and
rations. All through the breakfast hour, and so long as this board is up, silence
reigns supreme, but whenever the board comes down the first unlucky devil who
shows even so much as a hand gets a bullet through it.3
Sometimes the two enemies would yell at each other. Some of the German soldiers
had worked in Britain before the war and asked about a store or area in England
that an English soldier also knew well. Sometimes they would shout rude remarks to
each other as a way of entertainment. Singing was also a common way of
* During the winter it was not unusual for little groups of men to gather in the
front trench, and there hold impromptu concerts, singing patriotic and sentimental
songs. The Germans did much the same, and on calm evenings the songs from one line
floated to the trenches on the other side, and were there received with applause
and sometimes calls for an encore.4
After hearing of such fraternization, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander
of the British II Corps, ordered:
* The Corps Commander, therefore, directs Divisional Commanders to impress on all
subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging the offensive spirit
of the troops, while on the defensive, by every means in their power.
Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices (e.g. 'we won't fire if
you don't' etc.) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting
and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.5
Christmas at the Front
On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for
the celebration of Christmas. Though Germany readily agreed, the other powers
Even without a cessation of war for Christmas, family and friends of the soldiers
wanted to make their loved ones' Christmas special. They sent packages filled with
letters, warm clothing, food, cigarettes, and medications. Yet what especially
made Christmas at the front seem like Christmas were the troves of small Christmas
On Christmas Eve, many German soldiers put up their Christmas trees, decorated
with candles, on the parapets of their trenches. Hundreds of Christmas trees
lighted the German trenches. The British soldiers could see the lights but it took
them a few minutes to figure out what they were from. British lookouts reported
the anomalies to their superiors. Could this be a trick? British soldiers were
ordered not to fire but to watch them closely. Instead of trickery, the British
soldiers heard many of the Germans celebrating.
* Time and again during the course of that day, the Eve of Christmas, there were
wafted towards us from the trenches opposite the sounds of singing and
merry-making, and occasionally the guttural tones of a German were to be heard
shouting out lustily, 'A happy Christmas to you Englishmen!' Only too glad to show
that the sentiments were reciprocated, back would go the response from a thick-set
Clydesider, 'Same to you, Fritz, but dinna o'er eat yourself wi' they sausages!'6
In other areas, the two sides exchanged Christmas carols.
* They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way,
so we sang 'The first Noël', and when we finished that they all began clapping;
and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, 'O Tannenbaum'. And so it
went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing
one of ours, until when we started up 'O Come All Ye Faithful' the Germans
immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words 'Adeste Fidéles'.
And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing - two nations both
singing the same carol in the middle of a war.7
The Christmas Truce
This fraternization on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas was in no way
officially sanctified nor organized. Yet, in numerous separate instances down the
front line, German soldiers began yelling over to their enemy, "Tommy, you come
over and see us!"8 Still cautious, the British soldiers would rally back, "No, you
In some parts of the line, representatives of each side would meet in the middle,
in No Man's Land.
* We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if
we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements
and surrounded by Germans - Fritz and I in the centre talking, and Fritz
occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying.
We stood inside the circle like street corner orators.
Soon most of our company ('A' Company), hearing that I and some others had gone
out, followed us . . . What a sight - little groups of Germans and British
extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear
laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman's cigarette and
vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs. Where they couldn't talk the
language they were making themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to
be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few
hours before we were trying to kill!9
Some of those who went out to meet the enemy in the middle of No Man's Land on
Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day negotiated a truce: we won't fire if you won't
fire. Some ended the truce at midnight on Christmas night, some extended it until
New Year's Day.
One of the main reasons Christmas truces were negotiated was in order to bury the
dead. Though some had died recently, there were corpses out in No Man's Land that
had been there for several months. Along with the revelry that celebrated
Christmas was the sad and somber job of burying their fallen comrades. On
Christmas day, British and German soldiers appeared on No Man's Land and sorted
through the bodies. In just a few rare instances, joint services were held for
both the British and German dead.
Yet many soldiers enjoyed meeting the un-seen enemy and were surprised to discover
that they were more alike than he had thought. They talked, shared pictures,
exchanged items such as buttons for food stuffs. An extreme example of the
fraternization was a soccer game played in the middle of No Man's Land between the
Bedfordshire Regiment and the Germans. A member of the Bedfordshire Regiment
produced a ball and the large group of soldiers played until the ball was deflated
when it hit a barbed wire entanglement.
This strange and unofficial truce lasted for several days, much to the dismay of
the commanding officers. This amazing showing of Christmas cheer was never again
repeated and as World War I progressed, the story of Christmas 1914 at the front
became something of a legend.
* This experience has been the most practical demonstration I have seen of 'Peace
on earth and goodwill towards men.10
1. Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse as quoted in Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton,
Christmas Truce (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984) 19.
2. Leslie Walkinton as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 23.
3. Andrew Todd as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 32.
4. 6th Division of the Gordon Highlanders Official History as quoted in Brown,
Christmas Truce 34.
5. II Corp's Document G.507 as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 40.
6. Lieutenant Kennedy as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 62.
7. Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, The Great War: And the Shaping of the 20th
Century (New York: Penguin Books, 1996) 97.
8. Brown, Christmas Truce 68.
9. Corporal John Ferguson as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 71.
10. Oswald Tilley as quoted in Brown, Christmas Truce 97-98.
Brown, Malcolm and Shirley Seaton. Christmas Truce. New York: Hippocrene Books,
Terraine, John. "Christmas 1914, and After." History Today December 1979: 781-789.
Winter, D. "Time off From Conflict: Christmas 1914." The Royal United Service
Institution Journal December 1970: 42-43.
Winter, Jay and Blaine Baggett. The Great War: And the Shaping of the 20th
Century. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
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