By Anastasia Kaliabakos
The first time I learned about World War I was in my 6th grade history class. It was difficult for me and my classmates to wrap our young minds around such a destructive and bloody world event at such a young age—so much so that I think our teacher noticed the palpable sadness we all felt after discussing battle after ruthless battle. Therefore, one day during our World War I unit, we were taught about one odd event that occurred over the course of this dark war that has remained with me for years.
During the first Christmas of the war, in 1914, there were a few brief hours during which men from both sides on the Western Front laid down their arms, came out of the trenches, and partook in food, games, and comradeship with one another. This famous Christmas Truce was actually unofficial and prohibited. Many officers on both sides of the war disapproved of the truce and actually ensured that it would not happen again over the course of the war. However, while it lasted, the truce was said to be magical. As the Wall Street Journal wrote “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.”
Murmurs that a truce was going to happen began to circulate on Christmas Eve. In the early hours of the night, the Germans lit up their trenches and began to sing Christmas carols. This emboldened the British soldiers on the other side to begin singing as well. Soon, scouts on both sides began walking through no man’s land between the trenches to meet one another. They still were cautious at this point, and most of the officers in command were fearful that the other side would pull a trick and attack. One soldier said, “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.”
At this point in the war, even though it was still early on, the soldiers were exhuasted and really desired a ceasefire. Christmas was the perfect excuse to bring one about and ushered in festivities for the tired soldiers to share in as well. For example, there was the legendary “football”—soccer—game between the Germans and the British. The story has it that the match played between the two sides went on until the early morning and the Germans claimed to have won, 3-2. One soldier recounted, “The mist was slow to clear and suddenly my orderly threw himself into my dugout to say that both the German and Scottish soldiers had come out of their trenches and were fraternizing along the front. I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee. A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm.”
Even though the soldiers were forced to return to battle the next day, they were able to see the light in a terrible situation and come together to celebrate a holiday that had meaning to them. In the same way, we today in America may also be divided on political, social, or other issues. However, during this holiday season, it is important to put our differences aside and to enjoy one another in camaraderie and joy as the Germans and British did during their Christmas truce.
Photo: Soldiers playing soccer in No-Man’s Land during the Christmas Truce in 1914. Credit: Universal History Archive