If there is one true story that embodies the spirit of Christmas and, even in these cynical times, reminds us that humanity can exist under the most horrendous circumstances, it is the story of the events that took place on the front lines in France on Christmas Day in 1914.
On that day, German, British, French and Belgian soldiers -- in the midst of a relentless battle that had already left hundreds of dead bodies littering their trenches -- laid down their arms and called a wordless truce in order to allow each other to celebrate Christmas. Not only did they stop fighting, but they sang hymns together, played soccer together, shared food and beer and even swapped photographs and stories of their wives and families back home.
By the end of November in 1914, although the war had only been raging for a little over four months, there were almost a million people dead as new weapons turned the fields of France into blood-soaked abattoirs.
With the Germans moving swiftly through Europe, the allies were forced to build defensive trenches that stretched for almost 400 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland. Across this hell hole the armies dug themselves in to try and repel their enemy. Deadlocked only 30 feet apart, the two opposing armies attacked each other across "no man's land" with barrages of fire that would last for days on end.
The numbers of dead were mounting steadily and the harsh winter was quickly setting in making life in the trenches unbearably grim for the stranded enlisted men. That December it rained every single day so the troops sat in their foxholes immersed in five feet of ice-cold rotting water. The wounded lied in agony for days, roaring in terror as their comrades looked on, helpless to assist them, until blood poisoning or some other infection would finally put an end to their suffering. The ground was frozen so these brave fallen comrades could not be buried; disease, rats and lice fought with the men for the meager space and the even sparser rations. "Trench foot," dysentery and gangrene were commonplace. If there was a hell on earth, this must surely have been it, but both sides continued to obey their superiors and fight on, regardless. By Christmas millions of soldiers were entrenched in this dire situation, attacking each other with a grim futility as snow fell on the ground and the rest of the world looked on in horror.
But on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, as temperatures dropped below freezing, something happened; the fighting stopped on both sides, the thousands of enlisted men forgot the bloody war they were waging against each other and joined in a celebration of Christmas. How it happened is uncertain, but records suggest that this "truce" was initiated by the Germans. During the evening a chocolate cake was delivered to the British lines, with a note that proposed a cease-fire so that they (the Germans) could have a concert. The British accepted, and offered some tobacco as a return gift to their enemies. The guns fell silent and the British were treated to the beautiful sound of the German soldiers singing "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night), as they saw the light of hundreds of small candles, "like the footlights of a theater," as one British solider said afterwards) spread down the trenches. This goodwill soon spread down the 27 miles of the British front line, and the soldiers from both sides put down their weapons and, shouting at each other not to shoot, began calling seasonal messages of goodwill to each across the front line, singing Christmas carols, exchanging gifts and even indulging in a game of soccer.
Frank Richards was one of the enlisted men in those trenches in 1914, and his eyewitness account was reported in his 1933 memoir, "Old Soldiers Never Die."
"On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with 'Merry Christmas' on it, the enemy stuck up a similar one... two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped up on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two Germans did the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench."
Richards reports how his company commander tried to prevent this happening, but he was too late; very shortly the whole company had left the trenches to meet their German counterparts. Finally the officers on both sides joined in.
"We mucked about all day with them; some of them spoke English and said they were fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was over. We told him he wasn't the only one who was fed up. By the look of their trenches they were in as bad a state as ours were, we did not allow them in ours or go into theirs."
The men on both sides discovered that their so-called enemies were just ordinary men like themselves, heartsick at the war and homesick for wives and children and loved ones. They swapped photos of those they had left behind and chatted, using sign language where there was no common tongue.
"When they couldn't talk with a language," recalled Cpl. John Ferguson of the Seaforth Highlanders of Scotland, "They were making themselves understood by signs. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill."
The German commanders then rolled over barrels of beer, promising not to get the men drunk (as Richards said -- this French beer was rotten stuff) and plum pudding was shared by the officers, who drank to each others' health. One German participant commented afterwards: "It was a day of peace in war; it is only a pity it was not a decisive peace."
Just before midnight on Christmas night, when offensives were due to be resumed, the enlisted men on the British side decided among themselves not to fight until the Germans fired the first shot. All during the night there was silence; not a shot was fired by either side. The silence held at dawn.
"During the whole of Boxing Day [Dec. 26], we never fired a shot," remembered Richards. "And they were the same: each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball rolling. One man shouted over and asked us had we enjoyed the beer -- we shouted back and told them it was very weak but we were grateful for it. We were conversing on and off for the whole of Boxing Day."
The High Commanders on all sides were not at all happy with the situation, and of course, the truce was not to last. On Dec. 29, one German Commander ordered that all fraternization with the enemy would be punished as "high treason." It is also reported that one of the British commanding officers involved in the Christmas Truce, Ian Calhoun, was court-martialed for "consorting with the enemy" and sentenced to death. (He was later pardoned by George V).
By the time the war finally ended in 1918, over 15 million people would have died, but for that short time at least, these men were allowed to remember and celebrate the simple message of Christ's birth