In August 1914, the world went to war. The Great War, they called it, or the War to End All Wars, before they knew enough to number them. World War I was a new kind of war. At first it was fought like men had fought wars for millennia, massed armies of men facing each other across a battlefield, then marching, row on row, toward each other to decide the outcome in bloody, hand to hand combat. But the dawn of the 20th Century brought with it more fearsome weaponry than the world had ever seen. Armored tanks crushed everything in their path: trees, stones and even men. Machine guns cut down soldiers faster and more efficiently than had ever been dreamed possible. The commanders on both sides soon learned that to march into battle as was the custom was nothing short of suicide. A new kind of warfare, trench warfare, developed. Opposing armies dug trenches where the soldiers could hide. This led to a stalemate as neither side dared venture out of its respective trenches.
By December, the German and English/French armies faced each other in Flanders Fields and a dozen other places in France. Here, separated by about the length of a football field, the opposing forces ground to a halt. The land between the trenches was a no-man’s land. Anyone foolish enough to enter risked being shot by either side. As the weather turned colder, the trenches became miserable places. The men had little shelter from the elements. The trenches filled with water. Lice and rats infested their living quarters. Snipers on both sides took a dreadful toll on anyone whose head came above ground level. Another, silent killer, influenza, mercilessly cut down thousands more. Supply wagons couldn’t get through the mud and the troops on both sides were frequently hungry to the point of starvation.
As December dragged on toward a cheerless Christmas, a most strange and wonderful thing occurred. At several places along the Western Front, hostilities suddenly and inexplicably stopped. At one point along the lines, an English soldier wrote home that his group intended to bombard the Germans with all sorts of Christmas carols. Soon the sounds of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and others rang out across No-Man’s Land. The Germans responded with “O Tannenbaum”. First one side would sing, then the other. The Brits began singing “O Come All Ye Faithful”. The Germans joined in, singing the Latin words, “Adeste Fidelis”. One soldier wrote of this “Well this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
One by one heads poked out and tentative calls to meet were made. Singly at first, then in small groups, and finally in droves, men on both sides poured out, meeting in the middle, exchanging cigarettes, whiskey, cookies, dry socks, whatever they had that the others did not.
Lieutenant Edward Hulse wrote in his diary:
A scout named Murker went out and met a German patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.
Lieutenant Bruce Barinsather also took part, and described it this way:
A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a strong German accent “Come over here!” A ripple of mirth swept along our trench, followed by a rude outburst of mouth organs and laughter. Presently, in a lull, one of our sergeants repeated the request, “Come over here!”
“You come half-way – I come half-way” floated out of the darkness.
“Come on then,” shouted the sergeant. “I’m coming along the hedge.”
Presently the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Machonochies and a tin of Capstan, which he had taken with him.
On Christmas morning I awoke very early and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist.
“Fancy all this hate, war and discomfort on a day like this!” I thought to myself. The whole spirit of Christmas seemed to be there, so much so that I remember thinking, “This indescribable something in the air, this Peach and Goodwill feeling, surely will have some effect on the situation here to-day!”
Walking about the trenches a little later, discussing the curious affair of the night before, we suddenly became aware of the fact that we were seeing a lot of evidence of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over the parapet in a most reckless way and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced!
A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet and looked about. This became infectious. It didn’t take our Bert (the sergeant who exchanged goods with the Germans the day before) long to be up on the skyline. This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied by our men, until in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing toward each other in no-man’s land.
This was my first real look at them at close quarters. Here they were – the actual practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between rounds in a friendly boxing match.
One of the Germans, Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch, wrote in his diary:
Mockel from my company, who had lived in England for several years, called to the British in English, and soon a lively conversation developed between us. . . Afterwards we placed even more candles than before on our kilometre long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination – the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake.
In perhaps the most famous demonstration of brotherhood, German and British forces met in No-Man’s Land for an impromptu soccer (football) game. This was not an isolated incident but was repeated at many places along the front. Lacking a ball, they used whatever was available, a lump of straw tied with string or an empty jam tin.
The informal cease fire stretched all along the 500-mile Western Front where more than a million men were encamped, from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. This strange truce lasted for several days. One observer, Oswald Tilley, wrote, “This experience has been the most practical demonstration I have ever seen of ‘Peace on earth and goodwill towards men.’” It was never repeated.