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Silent Night: The Christmas Truce in World War I

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Paul Pfeifer

By Paul Pfeifer
Former Justice
Ohio Supreme Court

More than 100 years ago, on Christmas Eve, one of the more extraordinary events of the 20th century occurred on the battlefields of Western Europe, during the early days of World War I.

It’s an incident that, over the years, grew into legend and achieved a sort of mythological status.

But historian Stanley Weintraub, in his book – "Silent Night" – stripped away the embellishments and rescued the story from myth.

It’s a story I’ve written about before, more than a decade ago, but it’s well worth remembering and telling again.

When World War I began in the summer of 1914 – ironically, with two of Queen Victoria’s grandsons, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and King George V of England, opposing one another – both sides believed it would end quickly. They were wrong on a grand scale.

The war lasted more than four years, and it was dreadful even by war’s grim standards: a battle of 19th century tactics pitted against 20th century weaponry. The inevitable consequence was death at an appalling rate of efficiency – on average, more than 6,000 soldiers died each day of the war.

In the war’s opening battles, Germans made quick advances into France and Belgium, but the combined French, Belgian and British forces managed to halt their progress.

For all their efforts though, the allies couldn’t push the Germans back. The hoped for quick victory turned into a “long war of attrition,” and the stalemate on the Western Front produced a grotesque network of trenches stretching for three hundred miles across the French and Belgian countryside.

Life in the trenches was about as close to hell on earth as men had ever seen. Artillery shells and machine guns produced quick death; disease and a quagmire of mud and filth brought prolonged suffering.

On Christmas Eve 1914 the war was only about four months old, but already more than a million men were dead and the misery had firmly taken hold. The falling temperatures that day froze the ground, bringing welcome relief from the mud. But the young soldiers in both trenches were homesick and weary.

Precisely what happened that night is difficult to say – accounts vary up and down the line – but the overarching story is easy to summarize: a spontaneous, unauthorized truce broke out all along the Western Front.

In the twilight of Christmas Eve, the British soldiers saw strange figures silhouetted against the darkening sky over the German trenches. As they watched, lights began to appear and the British soon realized that the strange figures were hundreds of small Christmas trees that the Germans had placed at the parapets of their trenches and decorated with candles.

The British were suspicious – was this a trick? But they held their fire and watched. Here and there, soldiers on both sides erected signs wishing the occupants of the opposing trench a “Merry Christmas.”

The trenches were separated by only about two hundred feet or so – the area known as No Man’s Land – a denuded strip of earth strewn with barbed wire, shell craters and corpses. They were close enough that raised voices – usually taunts, boasts, or rude comments – could easily be heard.

But on this night, the British heard the Germans singing, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” – "Silent Night."

When they finished, the British answered with "The First Noel." The Germans applauded, then struck up "O Tannenbaum." When the British sang "O Come All Ye Faithful," the Germans joined in, singing the hymn in Latin.

One soldier wrote, “I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”

The Germans began yelling, “Hey Tommy, you come over and see us.” The allied troops, still cautious, answered, “No, you come and see us.”

Incredibly, men began emerging from both trenches, warily making their way over No Man’s Land, unarmed, to meet the soldiers that, only hours before, they’d been trying to kill.

Handshakes led to talk and talk led to laughter. Gifts were exchanged – food, beer, cigarettes, souvenirs. They showed one another photos of families and girlfriends back home; and the soldiers of warring nations tentatively began to realize that the men in the other trenches weren’t so very different after all.

The truce lasted all night and through Christmas Day – even extending to New Year’s Day in many areas. Both sides took the opportunity to bury their dead. In some instances, joint burial services were held.

Enemy soldiers posed next to one another for photographs. In a few places along the line, soccer balls were brought out for some impromptu matches. One game ended when the ball deflated on the barbed wire.

At the time, the truce was not widely reported in the press. The higher-ups on both sides were none too thrilled. They didn’t want their subordinates getting any crazy notions about the humanity of the troops in the other trenches.

As novelist Graham Greene wrote, “An enemy had to remain a caricature if he was to be kept at a safe distance: an enemy should never come alive. The generals were right – no Christmas cheer ought to be exchanged between the trenches.”

But for the soldiers on the Western Front, commiserating in common misery, the men in the other trenches had become “yesterday’s enemy.”

Nevertheless, for all its beauty, the spontaneous Christmas Truce didn’t stop the war, which raged for another forty-six months until an uneasy armistice ended it. Just two decades later, war ripped across the globe again; all told, an estimated 111 million people died in the 20th century’s wars.

Mr. Weintraub once observed, “Peace is harder to make than war.”

But for one brief and joyous silent night, when humankind was doing its worst, the spirit of Christmas gently touched down upon the battlefields of Europe and gave us all a glimpse of what could be, if only we would follow our better angels.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

NOTE: Some of the information in this column was obtained from "SILENT NIGHT: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce," by Stanley Weintraub.

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