On a frosty, starlit night, a miracle took place. In 1914, a melody drifted over the darkness of No Man’s Land. First “O, Holy Night,” then “God Save the King.”
Peeking over their trenches for what must have been the first time in weeks, British soldiers were surprised to see Christmas trees lit with candles on the parapets of the enemy’s trenches.
Then a shout: “You no shoot, we no shoot!”
Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
The Christmas Truce was a brief, spontaneous cease-fire that spread up and down the Western Front in the first year of World War I. It’s also a symbol of the peace on Earth and goodwill toward humans so often lacking not just on the battlefront but in our everyday lives.
In that spirit, the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City has published an online gallery of hundreds of accounts of such Christmas truces — letters home from soldiers that were published in British papers.
Here, a sampling of these letters shows the variety and wonder of the Christmas Truce:
“This has been the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck. We were in the trenches on Christmas Eve, and about 8.30 the firing was almost at a stand still. Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘a happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches.” — Cpl. Leon Harris, 13th Battalion, London Regiment (Kensington)
“At 2 am on Christmas morning a German band played a couple of German tunes and then ‘Home, Sweet Home’ very touchingly which made some fellows think a bit. After they played ‘God Save The King’ and we all cheered.” — Pvt. H. Dixon, Royal Warwickshire Regiment
“We would sing a song or a carol first and then they would sing one and I tell you they can harmonise all right.” — Pvt. G. Layton, A Company, 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment
“Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ.” — Rifleman C.H. Brazier, Queen’s Westminsters of Bishop’s Stortford
“We soon came up to them. About 30 could speak English. One fellow wanted a letter posted to his sweetheart in London.” — Gunner Masterton
“Between the trenches there were a lot of dead Germans whom we helped to bury. In one place where the trenches are only 25 yards apart we could see dead Germans half-buried, their legs and gloved hands sticking out of the ground. The trenches in this position are so close that they are called ‘The Death Trap’, as hundreds have been killed there.” — A junior officer
“On Christmas Day we were out of the trenches along with the Germans, some of whom had a song and dance, while two of our platoons had a game of football. It was surprising to see the German soldiers — some appeared old, others were boys, and others wore glasses . . . A number of our fellows have got addresses from the Germans and are going to try and meet one another after the war.” — Pvt. Farnden, Rifle Brigade
“On our right was a regiment of Prussian Guards and on our left was a Saxon regiment. On Christmas morning some of our fellows shouted across to them saying that if they would not fire our chaps would meet them half-way between the trenches and spend Christmas as friends. They consented to do so. Our chaps at once went out and when in the open Prussians fired on our men killing two and wounding several more. The Saxons, who behaved like gentlemen, threatened the Prussians if they did the same trick again. Well, during Christmas Day our fellows and the Saxons fixed up a table between the two trenches and they spent a happy time together, and exchanged souvenirs and presented one another with little keepsakes.” — A British soldier
“One of our men was given a bottle of wine in which to drink the King’s health. The regiment actually had a football match with the Germans who beat them 3-2.” — A British officer
“You said I should probably hardly know it was Christmas Day, but far from it; we had a most extraordinary day and quite different from others. . . . Lots of English and Germans met between the two lines and had talks . . . there were bicycle races on bikes without tyres found in the ruins of the house.” — A British officer
“A hundred yards or so in the rear of our trenches there were houses that had been shelled. These were explored with some of the regulars and we found old bicycles, top-hats, straw hats, umbrellas etc. We dressed ourselves up in these and went over to the Germans. It seemed so comical to see fellows walking about in top-hats and with umbrellas up. Some rode the bicycles backwards. We had some fine sport and made the Germans laugh.” — Brazier
“I daresay you will be surprised at me writing a letter on such paper as this, but you will be more surprised when I tell you that it contained cake given to one of our men by a German officer on Christmas Day, and that I was given some of it . . . We were able to bury our dead, some of whom had been lying there for six weeks or more. We are still on speaking terms with them, so that we have not fired a shot at them up to now (Dec. 29), neither have they, so that the snipers on each side have had a rest.” — Pvt. Alfred Smith, 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment
“Really you would hardly have thought we were at war. Here we were, enemy talking to enemy. They like ourselves with mothers, with sweethearts, with wives waiting to welcome us home again. And to think within a few hours we shall be firing at each other again.” — Masterson
Read more Retropolis: