Happy 12 Days of Blogmas Day 6!
Today’s story is one you are likely familiar with. It’s a well-documented and oft repeated historical event and I have read various accounts about it over the years. But I think the reason it’s a story that is repeated so frequently is because it is so remarkable. If another event quite like it has occurred in history, I haven’t heard about it.
The Christmas Truce of 1914. When you google it, one of the related frequently googled questions that comes up is “Did the Christmas Truce of 1914 Really Happen?” It just seems like the kind of story that is more myth than reality.
In the summer of 1914, war broke out across Europe. By December of that year, hundreds of thousands had already been killed in the trench warfare across a front that stretched for hundreds of miles and the early optimism that the war would be ended by Christmas was long gone. Thousands of soldiers were living in miserable conditions of muddy, cold trenches, in some places less than the distance of a football field from the trenches of the enemy, death and disease their constant companions. On December 7th, the new Pope, Benedict XV, issued an appeal “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” Leaders on both sides rejected the idea of a truce, even a temporary one on Christmas.
But then Christmas came and something amazing happened. The individual soldiers on the front lines observed their own, unofficial ceasefire.
Enemy soldiers emerged from their trenches and met in the bloody no man’s land that separated them and they exchanged small gifts, sang carols, played soccer, or in the case of one barber, offered haircuts to enemy soldiers in exchange for cigarettes. Some used the time to perform the more somber task of retrieving fallen soldiers from no man’s land.
Many soldiers wrote home about the experience and it’s clear from these first-hand accounts, that the men who lived through this remarkable event were just as in awe of it as everyone who would hear about it later.
British soldier Frederick Heath wrote a letter home describing that day and how they had heard German soldiers calling out “Merry Christmas” to them.
“‘Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.’ For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”Private Frederick Heath
As the ceasefire was unofficial, there was still death along some parts of the front and not everyone had warm feelings about the displays of fraternizing that was happening between enemy soldiers. A young German soldier named Adolf Hitler had this to say about the cease-fire: “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor?”
In the immediate aftermath of the unauthorized truce, the world’s reporting on the event was varied. It was the New York Times that first published an account of the unofficial Christmas Day truce, a story that was positive in tone and received as an inspiring story of shared humanity in the still neutral United States. The Wall Street Journal said, “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.” The coverage from countries that were actively engaged in the war was different, with German papers lamenting a breakdown in discipline on the front lines. Censorship in France tried to stop news of the story from spreading, but multiple emerging first-hand accounts forced French press to reprint a government notice that any fraternization with the enemy constituted treason.
In the years following that Christmas Day in 1914, the story has lived on through retellings, both from first-hand soldier accounts and fictional works of poets, writers, musicians, and filmmakers. It is a story that a war weary world was hungry for in 1914 and continues to be drawn to in 2021. Artists have memorialized the events of that day in film, books, music and plays through romanticized lens. Historians have analyzed the political implications of the unauthorized cease-fire, theorizing about the motives of the men who were on the front lines of one of history’s most deadly conflicts and how localized non-authorized truces, which weren’t unique to Christmas, gave individual soldiers a small measure of control in very bleak circumstances.
But the fact of the matter is whatever happened that day, really can’t be explained. At least not in any terms that make sense on a human level. Common sense had to be telling every man who heard the singing and calls to come out from the trenches, that he should not trust the people marked as enemies. Duty told him that he was supposed to listen to the commanding officers who were rightfully fearful for the lives of their men who were engaging in truces not arranged by those higher up. And the memories of the past months he had lived through shouted at him to not have anything to do with those across no man’s land who had killed his friends and comrades. But something still caused each man there that day to step out from those trenches anyway. Whatever it was doesn’t make sense to human reasoning. But it has a strong appeal to us as all of humanity craves whatever they found that day: Unity, peace, and hope in the midst of the darkest days. That moment in time, that Christmas miracle if that is what it indeed was, belongs to those men that experienced it, but the whole world in subsequent years has tried to take pieces of the story for itself because we all need whatever it was that for that brief moment in time brought enemies together.