Christmas 1914: a day of respite from the horrors of the trenches
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 23 Dec. 2014. One hundred years ago this week a group of German soldiers in Belgium fighting in the trenches of the Western Front started to get homesick. They were cold and tired. They had been fighting since August, and it was Christmas time.
They weren't supposed to have been there in the trenches; they should have been in Paris celebrating their victory over the Western Allies. The von Shifflen Plan was to have swept them around French defenses, through the countryside, and into the French capital within weeks of the initial attacks more than four months before ...
... if it were not for a tactical error that pivoted the attacking German line too soon and too quickly, offering its vulnerable flank to the defending French army near the Marne River. The ensuing French counter-attack back in September stopped the German attack cold, and the two sides settled into the trenches. Now they faced their first Christmas under fire.
Frustrated, dirty, and missing families back home, some German soldiers started singing Christmas carols. Some of them found a little tree, decorated it for the holiday, and set it up on the forward edge of the trench where the opposing British soldiers on the other side of No Man's Land could see it clearly.
Was it some sort of trick? Was it the beginning of an attack? Alerted, British soldiers grabbed their rifles and made ready for yet another German assault. Something was strange, though. The Christmas carols from the German trenches didn't stop.
Some of the British soldiers started singing carols of their own. One voice, then two, and then many, joined the Christmas melodies floating over from the German lines.
Then a British soldier saw movement on the German side. Was he dreaming? A German soldier -- just one -- climbed out of his trench and stood in the open, unarmed. The Englishman took a bead with his rifle on the lone German soldier, but then raised the muzzle of his rifle and took his finger off the trigger.
Some British were starting to stand up, too; raised hands demonstrated that they carried no weapons. More Germans did the same thing. Cautiously the opposing soldiers walked toward each other amid the muddy shell craters and broken trees of No Man's Land. It was Christmas 1914, and for these soldiers there would be no fighting that day.
There were no orders for a Christmas truce that came from the top; in fact, some orders came down specifically prohibiting fraternization. Still, more carols were sung, whisky and schnapps were exchanged, as were bars of chocolate, uniform buttons, and hats.
Soon the soldiers who had been shooting at each other only the day before started kicking around a soccer ball. Photos of wives and sweethearts came out and were passed around.
So it went on sectors of a quiet Western Front. Those who shook hands and slapped backs that day couldn't dream of what lay before them. World War I, the Great War, or the War To End All Wars would see 38 million killed and wounded before the guns fell silent almost four years later in the fall of 1918.
Place names like Verdun, Ypres, the Somme, and the Argonne Forest would be seared into memory. Nearly a generation of young men in Europe would be lost to the artillery, machine guns, and poison gas in the trenches.
But for these soldiers meeting for Christmas peacefully between the trenches, all that was in the future. That day there was no war ...
... until near nightfall when the first thumps of artillery fire could be heard in the distance. Smiles fell, meaningful glances exchanged, the last crumbs of cookies and other treats offered, along with last handshakes and embraces.
Then they waved to each other and sauntered heavily back to their trenches.