Matthew Perry: What really happened during World War I Christmas Truce of 1914
For the Christmas season I wanted to discuss one of the truly inspiring stories of brotherhood from military history and the personification of Christmas spirit, The Christmas Truce of the First World War.
The 19th century American General William Tecumseh Sherman is famous for saying, “war is hell.” While General Sherman was speaking of the carnage of the American Civil War, his quip has survived through the ages. I doubt Sherman’s mind could have fathomed the destruction and death that was to occur a half a century later in the fields of Europe, but his statement remained poignantly true. The clouds of war had wholly enveloped the continent of Europe throughout the spring and summer of 1914, and by the winter, the two sides were firmly entrenched in their snaking system of fortifications.
The year had started with delusions of grandeur, all wars begin that way, young men rushing to the recruitment centers, looking to win honor and glory on the field of battle. The realities of war though had come crashing down upon the people of Europe, and by Christmas of 1914, there were no longer grand ideas of daring cavalry charges and gallant men fighting a gentlemen’s’ war. This war was dirty, and it would last for most of the decade. These homesick lads spent the Christmas season of 1914 hunkered in their trenches, for many it was their first Christmas without their loved ones surrounding them, without the crackling fire and the smell of chestnuts on the hearth. These men were cold, lonely and afraid
of what the future held.
One night as Christmas approached, the men in the British trenches heard something familiar waft through the atmosphere, the tune was familiar, but the words no so much:
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schlft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!”
The British lads slowly realized the tune and heartily lent their translation to the adored classic:
“Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Slowly, men from both sides of the trenches met in no man’s land between the two teams, at first in small groups, exchanging tobacco, coffee, foodstuffs, and stories. Soon though, hundreds of men from both sides met in the middle over the Christmas holiday, with multiple games of soccer even taking place between the two sides. The Christmas Truce as it was dubbed in the press, became front-page news in early January, but the military brass was unhappy with their men. Forbidden forever from more fraternization, the following Christmases would not give the respite these soldiers so longed for. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a small sliver of humanity that shone through the darkness of absolute destruction.
Matthew A. Perry is a history teacher at C-K Middle and writes about the odd side of history at www.theoddpast.com.