British and German soldiers meeting in No Man’s Land
during the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Picture courtesy the National Army Museum.
Source: About.com: 20th Century History
By Geraldine Perreault, Professor, University of Northern Iowa
On Christmas Eve 1914, a unique event happened when German soldiers began decorating their trenches, and initiated a truce. They put up Christmas trees and began singing. In response, the British ”retaliated:”
“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 … And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
Separated by an area called “No Man’s Land,” the enemy soldiers used this area as a meeting ground where they sang Christmas carols together, exchanged souvenirs, played games, shared food and drink, and buried their dead. Participants in the truces were awed by the experience. As recounted by Oswald Tilley, “This experience has been the most practical demonstration I have seen of ‘Peace on earth and goodwill towards men.’” The 1914 Christmas truce provided a moment of shining humanity and a testament to the human spirit.
How did this come about? A number of factors can be identified. The trench situation was miserable, flooding with water, freezing and muddy, and filled with decaying bodies. The men had sympathy for others whose situation was just as bad as theirs. Remarkably, this sympathy reflected a degree of empathy, even after their own friends had been killed: “We hated their guts when they killed any of our friends; then we really did dislike them intensely … And we thought, well, poor so and sos, they’re in the same kind of muck as we are.”
Other factors included their physical proximity, sometimes only 30 yards away, as well as a shared religion and shared traditions. For some, their understanding of Christmas made killing seem incompatible with the holiday. One Tommy (British soldier) wrote in his diary that “It doesn’t seem right to be killing each other at Christmas time.”
The story of the Christmas truce is a reminder of a civic spirit that allowed soldiers to walk across battle lines and celebrate a shared holiday.