Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright.
For a few days in December 1914 – 100 years ago this month – all was calm and bright while time seemed to stop for the English and German troops on the Western Front.
The meeting of enemies as friends in no-man’s land was experienced by hundreds, if not thousands, of men on the Western Front during Christmas 1914. The event was a shining episode of sanity from among the bloody chapters of World War One
Men who had been trying to kill each other were, hours later, hugging, exchanging gifts, and playing soccer in the mud.
This outbreak of peace, entirely unco-ordinated, spread quickly across large sections of the front-lines of Belgium and parts of France. Nobody is quite sure where or how it began.
It possibly began with the singing of Silent Night by soldiers in the German trenches. Then British soldiers joined in.
Men charged with killing each other decided to stop doing so for at least a day. In some areas of the Western Front, the truce lasted until New Year.
In at least one position, English and German soldiers played a game of soccer. Legend has it that the Germans beat the English 3-2.
It must have been so hard for these men to resume the fight.
The remarkable event, dismissed as an aberration in official war histories, interrupted fierce fighting in the trenches of France and Belgium only four months after
the start of the Great War. It shocked and terrified commanding officers on both sides.
Yet it was one of the most amazing Christmas stories of all time.
The truce was not popular with everyone, especially in France, which had been savagely invaded by the Germans. One soldier recalled in his memoirs that French women spat at British troops when they heard “how we spent Christmas Day”.
According to a German book on the truce, one Austrian soldier billeted near Ypres complained that in wartime such an event “should not be allowed”. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Official reaction to the truce was predictable. French and British commanders ordered that “any recurrence of such conduct” be prevented.
Special precautions were taken during the Christmases of 1915, 1916 and 1917, when artillery bombardments were stepped up by both sides.
The events of late December 1914 were never to be repeated.