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Was There Really a Christmas Truce in 1914?

It’s the kind of tale we want to be true. Misery and hatred giving way to something much more valuable and significant. Enemies finding common ground that makes them, even for a brief time, the same. 

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a story that has been shared and mythologized for generations. Soldiers from England and Germany climbing out of the wet, muddy trenches and meeting across no-man’s land to exchange cigarettes, laughter and even an impromptu game of soccer (football). While the story has grown in the telling, as most stories do, the facts remain that many eyewitnesses corroborated and even recorded in wartime diaries. 

Singing in the Trenches on Christmas Eve

One of the most notable and believable accounts is that of a British machine gunner who later became a prominent cartoonist, Bruce Bairnsfather. Like many soldiers, he kept a rough diary and used it to develop his own memoirs after the war. Serving in 1914 in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, in a place called Bois de Ploegsteert, Belgium, his Christmas Eve shelter was a smelly, muddy trench that only measured three feet deep and three feet wide. 

He recorded, “Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity…miles and miles from home. Cold, wet through and covered with mud. There didn’t seem the slightest chance of leaving—except in an ambulance.”

Late that night around 10 PM, the British soldiers began hearing noise from the opposing trenches – from the German soldiers. It soon became clear that they were singing familiar Christmas carols. As Bairnsfather recorded in his memoirs, here’s what happened next. 

A voice … “from an enemy soldier, speaking English with a strong German accent… said ‘Come over here.’ One of the British sergeants answered, ‘You come halfway. I come halfway.’”

One account explained it like this: “Normally, the British and Germans communicated across No Man’s Land with streaking bullets, with only occasional gentlemanly allowances to collect the dead unmolested. But now, there were handshakes and words of kindness. The soldiers traded songs, tobacco and wine, joining in a spontaneous holiday party in the cold night.”

“There was not an atom of hatred on either side.”

Bairnsfather memorably recorded in his diary that night, “Here they were – the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side.” 

Widespread Evidence of Christmas Cease-Fires

And this wasn’t the only site of such cease-fires. That same Christmas Eve night, French, German, British and Belgian soldiers all along the Western Front paused and shared a night of peace, song and generosity. Many other World War I diaries record similar strange, almost surreal events of peace and kindness on that first Christmas Eve at war. 

One account claims that this may have been prompted, at least in part, by the action of German emperor William II, who is reported to have sent Christmas trees to the front in an effort to boost morale among his army. Many diaries report seeing small, lit Christmas trees in and outside German trenches. 

British rifleman J. Reading wrote a letter to his wife, which she kept, detailing a similar experience. “My company happened to be in the firing line on Christmas eve, and it was my turn…to go into a ruined house and remain there until 6:30 on Christmas morning. During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: ‘Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so, we will come half way and you come the other half.’”

“Later on in the day they came towards us,” Reading described. “And our chaps went out to meet them…I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet it seemed like a dream.”

Another British soldier named John Ferguson recalled in his diary, “Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”

Several diary entries from the time also record that soldiers on both sides helped each other recover and bury their dead comrades; and there were plentiful numbers from both countries lying throughout no-man’s land. 

A World War II Christmas Truce 

Oddly enough, while no widespread Christmas truce is recorded to have happened on any front in World War II, one story has survived and been corroborated. It was even referenced in a speech by President Ronald Reagan while speaking in Germany in 1985. Ten years later in 1995, the television program Unsolved Mysteries was instrumental in bring two actual participants in the event together. 

On Christmas Eve in 1944, three American soldiers were lost in the Ardennes Forest, and one of them was badly wounded. They stumbled upon a cabin where a German mother and her young son lived, having been forced out of their home by the war. She invited them in and began preparing a meal for them. Soon, another knock at the cabin door revealed a group of four German soldiers. 

At this tense moment, the German mother confronted the soldiers and told them of the Americans inside. She invited them in to share the meal and declared, “It is the Holy Night, and there will be no shooting here.” The German soldiers complied, leaving their weapons stacked outside. The Americans followed suit and placed their weapons outside. 

“It is the Holy Night, and there will be no shooting here.”

As the meal was prepared, one of the German soldiers, who had medical training, did what he could for the wounded American soldier. They all shared a meal and a warm night of comfort together with no animosity or violence. 

The next morning, the German soldiers showed the Americans on their map the best way to reach their lines, and gave them a compass to aid in their return. The soldiers shook hands all around, thanked their host and left, heading in opposite directions. 

After this story aired on television in 1995, two participants were located who had been telling this same story for years. The young boy of the benevolent German mother, named Fritz, survived the war and eventually relocated to Hawaii. In 1996, Fritz flew to Frederick, Maryland, and reconnected with Ralph Bank, the wounded American soldier from that Christmas Eve truce in 1944. He showed Fritz the map and German compass from the encounter and said, “Your mother saved my life.”

A Modern Christmas Truce 

Such stories warm our hearts, especially at this time of year when we sing of “Peace on Earth” and “Glory to the Newborn King.” But more than just enjoying the stories, why not let them compel you to make a modern Christmas truce? Many families have been separated and fractured for years, some over significant issues, but many more over trivial things that will not matter in the long run. Others have been shattered by circumstances relating to the pandemic and its stresses. Far too many are at odds over political parties and positions. 

Who in your family or circle of influence could use a compassionate word or act of kindness? These touching Christmas truce stories detail how warring factions were brought together over something greater – the Christmas story of Christ’s birth and its importance to mankind. Christ has been bringing separated peoples together for many generations, in large world wars and smaller personal ones. 

Let the Spirit of Christmas guide your actions this season. Call a truce between warring factions in your family or close circle and celebrate the very birth of reconciliation that took place in Bethlehem so many, many years ago. 

References: 

https://www.britannica.com/event/The-Christmas-Truce

https://www.abmc.gov/news-events/news/christmas-eve-1944-brief-moment-peace-battlefield 

https://www.history.com/topics/christmas-truce-1914-world-war-i-soldier-accounts 

https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-real-story-of-the-christmas-truce 

https://owlcation.com/humanities/About-World-War-2-A-Small-Christmas-Truce 

https://www.nytimes.com/1985/05/06/world/transcript-of-reagan-s-speech-at-air-base-after-his-visit-to-the-cemetery.html 

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