December 24, 1914 started out like many other days during the Great War. The day began with a barrage of artillery and gunfire between German and British troops entrenched along the Western Front near Ypres, Belgium. As the hours of Christmas approached, a most miraculous event occurred on the battlefield. Late in the day there was a lull on the battlefield as troops rested in the trenches. British soldiers soon heard the sounds of Christmas carols coming from the German trenches across the blood-spattered battlefield known as “No man’s land.”
Not to be outdone, the British soldiers began singing a Christmas carol. Moments after the last note was sung, a German officer stepped from his trench and called out to the British. A few British soldiers reluctantly stepped from the trenches to meet their adversaries. Within moments, the British and Germans were shaking hands and fraternizing with one another.
Bruce Bairnsfather, a British soldier, later wrote, “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything … I spotted a German officer and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
The festive spirit prevailed and soldiers of both sides began singing carols together in this most unlikely of settings. A a soccer ball was brought out and the soldiers of the two opposing armies engaged in a friendly game in the middle of the battlefield where only hours earlier they tried to kill each other.
On this field of inhumanity there was peace as the soldiers exchanged small gifts and told their new friends of their families back home.
The festive spirit of the holiday spread along the lines and within hours numerous other soldiers had laid down their weapons to embrace the Christmas spirit.
The bodies of dead soldiers were taken from the battlefield and given proper burials that were jointly attended by men of both sides.
Gen. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, was irate when he heard what was happening and issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with the enemy. These orders went largely ignored as the celebration continued. In some regions the unofficial truce continued into New Year’s Eve.
Officers threatened men with court-martial for failing to obey orders and, in some cases, threatened to have them shot for treason.
As the days wore on and the threats from superior officers became more ominous, the men gradually returned to their trenches and the fighting and killing resumed. For a few brief days, however, almost forgotten by the passing of time and lost in the pages of history, two of the greatest armies on Earth laid down their weapons in homage to the spirit of Christmas.
In 1999 a plaque was placed at the edge of the battlefield where the Christmas truce took place. The plaque is a silent reminder of that symbolic moment of peace and humanity, when guns fell silent on the night angels sang, amid one of the most violent events of modern history.
Michael Williams is the author of “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual but true stories. They leave the reader convinced that Mark Twain was right when he penned “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
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