It had been five months since the war began in Europe. British, French, Belgian and Russian forces were allied in defensive warfare against Germany. In the “no man’s land” that delineated the eastern and western fronts, signs in broken English began appearing along the German lines on Christmas Eve, 1914, with the message, “You no fight, we no fight.”
Were the signs a ruse to ensnare the allies in yet another German trap? The weather was cold. In the trenches both allied soldiers and the German troops experienced all the dread of war. Christmas season seemed to maximize their loneliness, deprivation, separation from families, the bitter cold and discomfort of a severe winter, the fear of war with its mortar shells, and, even worse, face-to-face confrontation with the enemy bringing mortal wounds at any time with bayonet or gunfire. Add to that the monotony of field rations as visions of sugarplums and the Christmas feasts they had enjoyed back home came to mind again and again.
“You no fight, we no fight!”? Daresome, indeed. Had the allied forces the courage to venture forth to see if the Germans actually meant to declare a truce or if it was a dirty war trick to get the allied forces into a position for good aim.
Some from warring factions met, bayonets at rest. They shook hands, and shared gifts they had received in care packages from home, miraculously delivered by Christmas Eve.
Throughout the German battlefield, the strains of “Silent Night” sounded with lyrics in the language of the soldiers. The tune was familiar, having been used throughout most of the churches in Europe since Franz Gruber composed the music in 1818 set to words by Father Joseph Mohr written two years earlier. The lovely and simple carol had become a favorite at Christmastime.
In language native to soldiers on every side, the words were raised to the stars that twinkled in the cold December sky as the chorus of the music echoed along the trenches. It was a “Stille Nacht,” a night of wonder when enemies celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace. Guns were silent. The men slept more peacefully in their trenches that Christmas Eve night, drawing their field blankets about them in an effort to find some creature comfort from the biting cold.
On Christmas Day soccer games were organized and enemy soldiers laughed and sported as they engaged in the games.
Officers on both sides could hardly contain their consternation. They had not ordered cessation of hostilities. The soldiers had managed it on their own. One French general, still suspecting the move to be a trap set by the Germans, ordered explosives laid just in case it was a trick. Another fear of the allied officers was that such action on the part of enemy troops would damper plans to defeat the enemy. After all, what soldiers would want to fight and kill those with whom they had enjoyed Christmas?
After that unique Christmas truce in 1914, hostilities continued for almost four years with America joining the Allied Forces on April 6, 1917. It was not until November 11, 1918 that Armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
A historical commentator has written of that Great War, “the war to end all wars”:
“It was more than a war between nations. It was a war between what was and what was to be. The ‘old world’ was dying, and the new world had yet to be born. People of all classes and nations saw it as a great cleansing fire that would accelerate this battle and lead to a better world. But, when it was over, more than men had died in the mud of the battlefields. The naive dream of progress, along with the innocence of the pre-war world, faith in God, and hope in the future all died in the trenches of Europe.” (from pitt.edu/~purgachev/greatwar/ ww1). This was indeed, a pessimistic view of the results of the Great War. Faith did not die, nor did hope.
During a time of truce on a German battlefield at Christmas time, 1914, the strains of “Silent Night” lifted through the cold of wintertime to become a sacred moment of shared beliefs and mutual yearnings for peace on earth among men of good will.
[Note: The news of this event was published on January 9, 1915 in The Illustrated London News under the headline “Saxons and Anglo-Saxons Fraternize on Battlefield.” The article had pictures of smiling soldiers from both sides engaged in greetings and friendly games.]
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 8, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.