No one knows exactly where it started or how it started, but for one bitterly cold day peace settled over the killing fields of World War I.
Christmas Eve 1914 was, according to one British soldier, “a beautiful moonlit night.” Frost covered the ground, turning the black mud white. Sometime during the evening, somewhere along the Western Front a German soldier erected a Christmas tree outside his trench. He lit it with candles. Then, someone began to sing Christmas carols. German soldiers in their trenches sang in German. British soldiers in their trenches sang in English. Back and forth, throughout the night, the songs of Christmas echoed over No Man’s Land. But as the familiar strains of O Come, All Ye Faithful was carried from the British trenches it was met with German voices singing the same carol in Latin, Adeste Fideles.
The next morning—Christmas Day—German troops began popping up all along the line, shouting in broken English, “Merry Christmas, Englishmen!” Some waved arms as an invitation for the British to leave their trenches. Others held up crude signs: “You no shoot, we no shoot.” British troops, unsure if it was a trick, warily peered over the parapets . . . then quickly ducked behind the safety of their lines. However, it didn’t take long before men from both sides—German and British—began climbing out of their trenches. Soldiers laid aside their weapons and “met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines,” as British Captain Robert Patrick Miles described it. “Here the agreement . . . came to be made that we should not fire at each other until midnight tonight.”
But until midnight came, Germans and Englishmen shook hands and swapped gifts of cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobacco. They exchanged buttons and hats. They shared schnapps and chocolate, and other food and drink. They passed around photographs of girlfriends and wives and families. And they played a friendly game of football.
Years later, Alfred Anderson of the British Black Watch recalled the Christmas Day truce:
All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machine gun fire and distant German voices. But there was dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. . . . [But the] silence ended . . . and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.
And a terrible war it was, taking the lives of seventeen million and wounding at least twenty million more. Yet, for a brief moment in that long war, the prayer of all was answered: “Peace on earth, good will to men”—all because of the baby born in Bethlehem.
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