Christmas 1914: When British And German Soldiers Laid Down Their Guns For A Moment Of Peace
Pope Benedict XV had suggested a temporary hiatus on December 7, 1914, for Christmas celebrations but the warring countries refused to create any cease-fire officially. The soldiers in the trenches, however, declared an unofficial truce- fire ceased completely. The German and British forces were separated by a no man’s land that was littered with their fallen comrades. Then as night fell on Christmas eve, sounds of a German Christmas carol filled the air: “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). The British Troops joined in and the two sides sang Christmas carols to each other across the line.
At first light, on Christmas day, some of the German soldiers approached the allied lines across the no man’s land and called out “Merry Christmas” using their enemy’s native tongues. The allied soldiers thought it to be a trick at first but the Germans were not armed and so they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the soldiers. They exchanged presents in form of cigarettes and plum puddings and also sang Christmas carols and songs.
“We had a sort of truce on Christmas Day, and we were out in between the two trenches talking to one another. A German officer gave me two cigars, which were very good, and the men exchanged good wishes and smokes, &c. They told us that they didn’t want to fight us, as they had no grudge against us. They were mostly young fellows, and the officer was only about 21 years of age, and said he had only seen one year’s service. Nearly all the Germans spoke English, and there was one there about 12 years old and also one or two old men with bald heads, and one or two in civilian dress, so you can see they are rather a mixed crowd. It hardly seems credible, does it, but I saw it with my own eyes. “ an officer with the 8th Division said.
“You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches,. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ. On Christmas Day we all got out of the trenches and walked about with the Germans, who, when asked if they were fed up with the war said ‘Yes, rather’… Between the trenches there were a lot of dead Germans whom we helped to bury… A hundred yards or so in the rear of our trenches there were houses that had been shelled. These were explored with some of the regulars and we found old bicycles, top-hats, straw hats, umbrellas etc. We dressed ourselves up in these and went over to the Germans. It seemed so comical to see fellows walking about in top-hats and with umbrellas up. Some rode the bicycles backwards. We had some fine sport and made the Germans laugh. No firing took place on Christmas night and at four the next morning we were relieved by regulars.” An extract letter written home by Rifleman CH Brazier, Queen’s Westminsters of Bishops Strafford.
Some of the soldiers used this ceasefire to retrieve bodies of fellow soldiers who had died between the lines and gave them a proper burial.
Experts claim there was no hard evidence that a football game was played on that day but this letter published on January 1915, written by an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the front, claims otherwise: “This has been a strange Christmas. All has been peaceful except for some occasional sniping on our right but none on our front. The most extraordinary scenes took place between the trenches… The regiment actually had a football match with the Germans who beat them 3-2.”
The spirit of the World War I Christmas truce lives on even today and this month, the British and German armies played a football match to commemorate the 100th anniversary. The match ended with a 1-0 victory to the British. Handshakes were exchanged safely in the knowledge that they would not be taking aim at each other the next day. The game represented a moment of humanity in a four-year conflict that had more that 16 million troops and civilians killed.
The players had on the modern kits and boots and were led from the tunnel by actors dressed in German and British World War I uniforms. The match started with a minute of silence as an opera singer performed Silent Night, which the German’s sang on Christmas eve in 1914.
After the game, British defender, Kev Haley was a happy man, “Thinking back to them days and us being able to spend an hour and a half on the football pitch to commemorate that is very special.”
The Christmas truce of 1914 was the last example of its kind and was never repeated. The officers quashed any future attempts at holiday ceasefires with threats of disciplinary action. The act however was a heartening proof that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ humanity still endured.
A football match came to a halt 60 years ago when spectators spotted unidentified objects flying over a Florence stadium.
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