The year is 1914.
The place is Ypres, outside of Belgium.
World War I has only been in action for tad more than 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, and the advent of modern technology as well as the industrial revolution had proven their worth in war, bringing new meaning to the word “slaughter.”
To protect against the threat of this vast firepower, the soldiers were ordered to dig in and prepare for next year’s offensives, which most men believed would break the deadlock and deliver victory.
The early trenches were often hasty creations and poorly constructed; if the trench was badly sighted it could become a sniping hot spot. In bad weather (the winter of 1914 was a dire one) the positions could flood and fall in. The soldiers – unequipped to face the rigors of the cold and rain – found themselves wallowing in a freezing mire of mud and the decaying bodies of the fallen.
This is World War I. And this is Christmas.
But as Christmas approached, something changed.
The men on both sides could not help but feel sorry for each other as both groups fought not only each other but the harsh winter, the mud, the blood, the brutal cold, snow and poor clothing.
A feeling of shared presence appeared.
It started with Christmas carols being sang to either side.
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 -Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, The Great War: And the Shaping of the 20th Century (New York: Penguin Books, 1996)
Along the front the enemy was sometimes no more than 70, 50 or even 30 yards away. Both Tommy and Fritz could quite easily hurl greetings and insults to one another, and, importantly, come to tacit agreements not to fire. Incidents of temporary truces and outright fraternization were more common at this stage in the war than many people today realize – even units that had just taken part in a series of futile and costly assaults, were still willing to talk and come to arrangements with their opponents.
As Christmas approached the festive mood and the desire for a lull in the fighting increased as parcels packed with goodies from home started to arrive. On top of this came gifts care of the state. Tommy received plum puddings and ‘Princess Mary boxes’; a metal case engraved with an outline of George V’s daughter and filled with chocolates and butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco, a picture card of Princess Mary and a facsimile of George V’s greeting to the troops. ‘May God protect you and bring you safe home,’ it said.
Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts.
Not to be outdone, Fritz received a present from the Kaiser, the Kaiserliche, a large meerschaum pipe for the troops and a box of cigars for NCOs and officers. Towns, villages and cities, and numerous support associations on both sides also flooded the front with gifts of food, warm clothes and letters of thanks.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides – as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units – independently ventured into no man’s land, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. Food and supplies were exchanged on a one to one basis, while in some areas men borrowed tools and equipment from the enemy, in order to quickly improve their own living conditions. As well as joint burial ceremonies of the dead, several meetings ended in carol-singing, or – famously – games of football.
One ‘fixture’ in particular caught the imagination. The game in question was between the German Royal Saxon Regiment and Scottish Seaforth Highlanders, with the official war diary of the 133rd Saxon Regiment detailing how a Scot produced a football and “this developed into a regulation football match”. Though the final score is far from certain, accounts on both sides agree with an unnamed German soldier who wrote: “We marked the goals with our caps. Teams were quickly established for a match on the frozen mud and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3-2.”
Contemporary accounts suggest that Germany had the better of the majority of the matches that took place during the truce, though one encounter did end in a victory for Britain.
In 2000, the daughter of the captain of the British team, Private Bill Tucker, donated the trophy he won – a German beer mug – to the Imperial War Museum in London. An inscription on the mug reads: “Bruder Stokt die Glaser an Hoch lebe der Reservemann” (“Brother raise your glass – long live the reservist”).
The fraternization lasted, in many areas, for the whole of Christmas day.
There is no evidence that the truce extended to the French front, and this is understandable since they had started a major counterattack in the Champagne on December 20th.
The Germans were the invaders and were on French soil. The memories of defeat in 1871 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine was too vivid in French memory to allow any rapprochement with the hated Boche.
Frank Richards, one of the very few “other ranks” to write a book about the war after beating odds on the order of thousands to one by surviving all four years, reports that the French people “were saying all manner of nasty things about the British Army” when they “…had heard how we spent Christmas Day;” French women spat on British troops.
The night closed in early – the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches 200 yards away. Fires in the English lines had died down, and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers’ Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it…..
…..Still looking and dreaming, my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. A light in the enemy’s trenches was so rare at that hour that I passed a message down the line. I had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice. There was no mistaking that voice with its guttural ring. With ears strained, I listened, and then, all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”
One of the thoughts my Grandfather often shared with me, is that Christmas is the one time of year that people, no matter the situation, no matter the world acted civilized. We acted as we should, towards each other, towards our fellow man. it is interesting now how many people rail against Christmas when it has such abject roots and the ability to bring peace even over war torn lands and battle zones, even today.
The 19-day ceasefire is the longest in 10 years.
The Christmas truce was agreed upon between Undersecretary Alex Padilla, who is also the chair of the government peace panel negotiating with the NPA, and National Democratic Front (NDF) chair Luis Jalandoni during their informal dialogue in Hong Kong on Dec. 1-2.
David also assured that the AFP will respect any agreement reached between the government and rebel groups.
If only everyday could be Christmas.