“One of the Greatest Surprises of a Surprising War”

Christmas Eve is a very special time for many people around the world, a time when families get together and have celebrations or go to church together. Over the years, there have been occurrences on Christmas Eve that have shown that hope can come through tragedy. One such incident occurred on Christmas Eve in 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, and it was called by newspapers at the time as “One of the Greatest Surprises of a Surprising War.”Image

On Christmas Eve, shouts of “You no fight, we no fight!” and German troops decorating their trenches near the Belgium front created an unofficial truce between the German troops and their Belgian, French, and British counterparts. Candles were place along the top of the trenches and a few small trees in “no man’s land” received some decorations as well which would normally be dangerous as the light would give away their locations. The war-wearied soldiers continued celebrating their Christmas by lustfully singing German Christmas carols that have English equivalents, such as Stille Nacht, or Silent Night. The English troops responded by singing English carols and soon both groups were shouting Christmas greetings across the buffer zone. During this unofficial truce German and British troops exchanged gifts and some of them played a game of football (soccer). The Germans and the English helped each other bury their dead and together they mourned the loss of their compatriots. This truce occurred through Christmas and some reports indicated it lasted until the New Year, in spite of orders from higher military commanders.

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Here is an excerpt from a letter of an unknown English soldier:

This will be the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don’t think theres been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us—wishing us a Happy Christmas etc.

They also gave us a few songs etc. so we had quite a social party. Several of them can speak English very well so we had a few conversations. Some of our chaps went to over to their lines. I think they’ve all come back bar one from ‘E’ Co. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir. In spite of our fires etc. it was terribly cold and a job to sleep between look out duties, which are two hours in every six…. After breakfast we had a game of football at the back of our trenches! We’ve had a few Germans over to see us this morning. They also sent a party over to bury a sniper we shot in the week. He was about a 100 yds from our trench. A few of our fellows went out and helped to bury him.

About 10.30 we had a short church parade the morning service etc. held in the trench. How we did sing. ‘O come all ye faithful. And While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ were the hymns we had. At present we are cooking our Christmas Dinner! so will finish this letter later… Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came 1/2 way over to us so several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I’ve also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they won’t fire tomorrow if we don’t so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday—perhaps. After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner…We can hardly believe that we’ve been firing at them for the last week or two—it all seems so strange. At present its freezing hard and everything is covered with ice…

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References:

Weintraub, Stanley. Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914. New York: Free Press, 2001. http://www.ssag.sk/SSAG%20study/DEJ/letter.pdf

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About Jason U Rose

I am a graduate from IU South Bend with a major in History, and a double minor in European Studies, and Women and Gender Studies. I currently attend Ball State University studying early 20th Century American Cultural and Social History with a subspecialty in Transnationalism and Digital History. I am an avid music collector and I try to go to as many shows as I can. A particular favorite of mine is to visit blues bars in Chicago.

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