During the bleak winter of 1914, amid the mud, blood and chaos of World War One, an extraordinary series of ceasefires spontaneously occurred along the Western Front. In the 1960s the BBC spoke to some of the men who, over that exceptional Christmas period, decided to lay down their arms.
On Christmas Eve 1914, Rifleman Graham Williams, of the 5th London Rifle Brigade, stood out on sentry duty staring out anxiously across the wasteland of no man’s land to the German trenches. He had already endured months of the brutal violence, bloodshed and destruction that would come to characterise World War One, when something remarkable happened.
“All of a sudden, lights appeared along the German trench. And I thought this is a funny thing. And then the Germans started singing ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’. And I woke up, and all the sentries did the same thing, all woke up the other people to come along and see this and what the Earth is going on,” he recalled, in the BBC radio show Witness History.
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The voices carried across the desolation of no man’s land, familiar songs bridging the barrier of language, a musical reminder of a shared humanity. “They finished their carol and we applauded them and we thought we should retaliate in some way. So, we replied with The First Noel.”
It is hard to pinpoint the exact origins of the 1914 Christmas Truce. It seemed to emerge spontaneously in multiple locations along the Western Front. There wasn’t one uniform Christmas Truce but rather several localised events. For some soldiers in trenches, it lasted a couple of hours, in some areas until Boxing Day, and even in isolated pockets to the New Year. While in some parts of the Western Front, it didn’t happen at all. Some 77 British soldiers were still killed in fighting on Christmas Day 1914.
For Col Scott Shepherd, then a junior officer, fighting near the town of Armentières in northern France, it seemed to begin almost by accident. At dawn on Christmas morning, no man’s land was covered in a heavy fog. “The fog was so thick that you couldn’t see your hand in front of you,” he recalled when he returned to the battlefield with the BBC in 1968.
The decision was made to take advantage of the cover provided by the weather to repair their crumbling trenches. But as the soldiers worked filling sandbags and trying to restore the trench parapet, the fog suddenly began to dissipate.
“It lifted astoundingly quickly. And along that line we were suddenly able to see Germans doing exactly the same thing all out in the open. And we just looked at each other for some time and then one or two soldiers went towards them. They met, they shook hands, they swapped cigarettes. They got talking. The war, for that moment, came to a standstill.” General Walter Congreve, who led the Rifles Brigade, wrote to his wife on Christmas Day, describing the ceasefire as “an extraordinary state of affairs”. Because the trenches were so close, soldiers were able to shout greetings to each other, initiating conversations. “A German shouted out that they wanted a day’s truce and would one come out if he did,” wrote the general. “Very cautiously one of our men lifted himself above the parapet and saw a German doing the same. Both got out, then more… they have been walking about together all day giving each other cigars and singing songs.”
In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today
The ceasefires allowed soldiers some respite to recover their dead from no man’s land and give proper burials to fallen comrades. Men who just hours earlier had been trying to kill each other exchanged cigarettes, food and souvenirs from home. There are even reports of impromptu games of football breaking out, with soldiers having a kick about in barren space between the opposing trenches. Col Johannes Niemann, a second lieutenant with the 33rd Saxon Regiment, was one of the soldiers who took part.
“Suddenly a Tommy came with a football… And then began a football match. We marked our goals with our caps. Tommy did also. And we had much kicking. And then, after all, the Germans won the football game 3-2.”
The war resumes
Nothing like this truce would happen again during World War One. Military leaders, who had been caught by surprise by the ceasefires and the unexpected camaraderie that flourished during them, feared they would erode their troops’ willingness to fight, and would undermine the war effort.
On both sides there were orders issued to stop “fraternisation with the enemy” with threats of court marshals. Officers were told to open fire on enemy soldiers who approached the trench and gradually shots began to ring out again along the line. The war resumed its brutality, and as its relentless horrors escalated, the bitterness between opposing nations deepened. The following Christmas, machine gun barrages were deliberately timed to drown out any sound of carol singing to prevent spontaneous truces happening again.
For a brief moment, soldiers on different sides saw each other as fathers, brothers and sons who just longed to go home and return to loved ones
The 1914 Christmas Truce may not have ultimately altered the course of the war, but as historian Dan Snow says in the BBC podcast Voices of the First World War, the fact that it happened at all is miraculous. “The truce was a brief tantalising flash of individual humanity, in a war of bureaucracies, machines and high explosives.”
And it had a profound effect on the men, such as Col Scott Shepherd, who experienced it. For a brief moment, soldiers on different sides saw each other as fathers, brothers and sons who just longed to go home and return to loved ones, rather than as faceless enemies to be killed.
“Several of them spoke English. They rather expressed their dislike… for the whole war in fact. They weren’t aggressive at all. Some of them said they had been to London, been to England, in fact, they gave every indication of being glad to meet us,” he said.
In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.
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