The Christmas Truce

France, December 24, 1914:

It was indeed hell, by far the most horrific thing in human history to that time; an angel of death riding high across Europe, leaving nothing more than a mangled and lifeless world in his wake.  To wit, it was five months into the Great War, a war thought to be over by Christmas; yet, it was only the beginning.

It was Christmas Eve.  The sun had finished its descent in the western sky and night fell.  The darkness brought with it the cold, and temperatures dipped below freezing.  The young soldiers in the British trenches, their damp wool uniforms beginning to freeze, huddled together for warmth, doing their best to ignore the frost  that crept into their wet feet.

An overcast crept into the sky and obstructed the dim light cast by the moon and stars, turning the battlefield into pitch blackness.  Soon, a light fluffy snow began to fall, floating to the ground like winter confetti.  It would have normally been a welcome sight on a Christmas Eve, but as it collected on the brims of steel helmets and gun barrels, it was nothing more than a reminder that the world was at war, and that the warm cheery joy of home, family, and Christmas Eve was a world away.

Across “no man’s land”, toward the German trenches, and silhouetted by the rotting corpses of dead comrades and mangled remains of French countryside, activity was spotted.  A warm glow appeared to hover over enemy lines, and voices were heard.  The Germans were lighting candles, and their talking was indicative of a charge “over the top”.

Thoughts of home on Christmas Eve were suddenly dashed as the young British soldiers readied themselves for the attack.  They scrambled to take up defensive positions, checked their weapons, and braced themselves.  Fear gripped them, and many began to pray that they would not meet their end in the cold trenches on Christmas Eve.  They watched, waiting, yet the Germans were not charging; rather, an eerie silence fell about the battlefield.  Nothing more could be heard than the sound of the soft snow gently floating to the ground.

 

Then it happened…

 

A single voice was heard from the German trench, a melodious voice rising in tone, singing the words Stille Nacht—Heilige Nacht.  Though the words were not understood by most of the Brits, the melody was unmistakable.  This man in the enemy trench was singing Silent Night.  Others in the enemy trench began singing as well, and soon the entire German line had joined in, singing loudly and casting a cheery, yet strange feel to fall over the battlefield.

The Brits were confused, and kept ready, fearing the Germans were trying to lull them into let their guard down, yet no attack was made.  Hours passed, and the Germans were still singing.  It was only a matter of time before the Brits decided to return “fire”, so to speak, and began to sing along in English.  After a time it became competitive.  The Germans sang a line in German, then the Brits sang the next verse in English, each trying to sing louder than the other.

Christmas morning dawned cold, white and frosty.  Some were uncertain if what happened the night before was real or a dream.  To be sure, the Brits were still wary of an attack.  Suddenly a stahlhelm (German helmet) atop a rifle was raised high above the enemy trench.  It was followed by a German soldier peeking his head over the trench then swiftly ducking back down before a sniper could shoot at him.  A voice rang out from the German trench “Nicht schießen!! Nicht schießen!!  Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, we don’t want to fight today”.

British officers, still wary of an attack, ordered their men to keep their heads down and stay ready.  Then, a Brit Lieutenant broke ranks and climbed out of the trench.  He drew no enemy fire, but rather, a German officer rose from the enemy trench and made his way forward.  In his hands was a tiny Christmas tree, and on his face was a smile.  When the two met, rather than exchanging gunfire, they shook hands and said “Merry Christmas”

A chorus of cheers erupted from both trenches and men scrambled out as fast as they could.  They exchanged gifts of tobacco,  alcohol, food, medical supplies, and souvenirs.  They gave each other haircuts, tended to each other’s wounded, helped to bury each other’s dead, and played soccer.  Most importantly, they realized they all shared each others misery and that they were all human.  As the day came to an end, both armies returned to their trenches; they wondered if they would be punished, and wondered if the war would simply end?

When December 26th dawned, no one knew what to do. A British officer fired two shots into the air and raised a flag that read “Merry Christmas”.  A German officer raised a flag that said “Thank You”.  He then fired his own pistol in the air, and the war resumed.

A cease fire of this magnitude would never happen again.  The following year, orders were given to officers to shoot any soldier that attempted a cease fire on Christmas.

The truce was not ordered, it was not planned, and in fact, many officers saw it as an act of treachery.  However, those that witnessed it could attest that it was one moment in history when mankind was at its worst, that the world was reminded of what it is like at its best.  It was a true act of goodwill and kindness, and one shining example of the true meaning of Christmas.

 

 

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