PREVIEW: On a Christmas Eve of World War I, British and German soldiers lay down their weapons to celebrate the holiday together.
GENRE: Historical fiction CULTURE: European (World War I) THEME: War and peace
AGES: 9 and up LENGTH: 1600 words
Aaron’s Extras All special features are at www.aaronshep.com/extras.
Christmas Day, 1914
My dear sister Janet,
It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their dugouts—yet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t been through it myself, I would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy soldiers here on the battlefields of France!
As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed in our trenches and waited.
But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench, killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our heads above ground, for fear of a sniper’s bullet.
And the rain—it has fallen almost daily. Of course, it collects right in our trenches, where we must bail it out with pots and pans. And with the rain has come mud—a good foot or more deep. It splatters and cakes everything, and constantly sucks at our boots. One new recruit got his feet stuck in it, and then his hands too when he tried to get out—just like in that American story of the tar baby!
Through all this, we couldn’t help feeling curious about the German soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we did, and slogged about in the same muck. What’s more, their first trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Man’s Land, bordered on both sides by barbed wire—yet they were close enough we sometimes heard their voices.
Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common. And now it seems they felt the same.
Just yesterday morning—Christmas Eve Day—we had our first good freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather.
During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might promise a peaceful holiday, but we didn’t count on it. We’d been told the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard.
I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, “Come and see! See what the Germans are doing!” I grabbed my rifle, stumbled out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.
I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far as the eye could see.
“What is it?” I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, “Christmas trees!”
And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will.
And then we heard their voices raised in song.
Stille nacht, heilige nacht . . . .
This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it and translated: “Silent night, holy night.” I’ve never heard one lovelier—or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark softened by a first-quarter moon.
When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes, British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started singing, and we all joined in.
The first Nowell, the angel did say . . . .
In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their own and then began another.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum . . . .
Then we replied.
O come all ye faithful . . . .
But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin.
Adeste fideles . . . .
British and German harmonizing across No Man’s Land! I would have thought nothing could be more amazing—but what came next was more so.
“English, come over!” we heard one of them shout. “You no shoot, we no shoot.”
There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then one of us shouted jokingly, “You come over here.”
To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Man’s Land. One of them called, “Send officer to talk.”
I saw one of our men lift his rifle to the ready, and no doubt others did the same—but our captain called out, “Hold your fire.” Then he climbed out and went to meet the Germans halfway. We heard them talking, and a few minutes later, the captain came back with a German cigar in his mouth!
“We’ve agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow,” he announced. “But sentries are to remain on duty, and the rest of you, stay alert.”
Across the way, we could make out groups of two or three men starting out of trenches and coming toward us. Then some of us were climbing out too, and in minutes more, there we were in No Man’s Land, over a hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men we’d been trying to kill just hours earlier!
Before long a bonfire was built, and around it we mingled—British khaki and German grey. I must say, the Germans were the better dressed, with fresh uniforms for the holiday.
Only a couple of our men knew German, but more of the Germans knew English. I asked one of them why that was.
“Because many have worked in England!” he said. “Before all this, I was a waiter at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps I waited on your table!”
“Perhaps you did!” I said, laughing.
He told me he had a girlfriend in London and that the war had interrupted their plans for marriage. I told him, “Don’t worry. We’ll have you beat by Easter, then you can come back and marry the girl.”
He laughed at that. Then he asked if I’d send her a postcard he’d give me later, and I promised I would.
Another German had been a porter at Victoria Station. He showed me a picture of his family back in Munich. His eldest sister was so lovely, I said I should like to meet her someday. He beamed and said he would like that very much and gave me his family’s address.
Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts—our cigarettes for their cigars, our tea for their coffee, our corned beef for their sausage. Badges and buttons from uniforms changed owners, and one of our lads walked off with the infamous spiked helmet! I myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt—a fine souvenir to show when I get home.
Newspapers too changed hands, and the Germans howled with laughter at ours. They assured us that France was finished and Russia nearly beaten too. We told them that was nonsense, and one of them said, “Well, you believe your newspapers and we’ll believe ours.”
Clearly they are lied to—yet after meeting these men, I wonder how truthful our own newspapers have been. These are not the “savage barbarians” we’ve read so much about. They are men with homes and families, hopes and fears, principles and, yes, love of country. In other words, men like ourselves. Why are we led to believe otherwise?
As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and then all joined in for—I am not lying to you—“Auld Lang Syne.” Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some talk of a football match.
I was just starting back to the trenches when an older German clutched my arm. “My God,” he said, “why cannot we have peace and all go home?”
I told him gently, “That you must ask your emperor.”
He looked at me then, searchingly. “Perhaps, my friend. But also we must ask our hearts.”
And so, dear sister, tell me, has there ever been such a Christmas Eve in all history? And what does it all mean, this impossible befriending of enemies?
For the fighting here, of course, it means regrettably little. Decent fellows those soldiers may be, but they follow orders and we do the same. Besides, we are here to stop their army and send it home, and never could we shirk that duty.
Still, one cannot help imagine what would happen if the spirit shown here were caught by the nations of the world. Of course, disputes must always arise. But what if our leaders were to offer well wishes in place of warnings? Songs in place of slurs? Presents in place of reprisals? Would not all war end at once?
All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.
Your loving brother, Tom
About the Story
The Christmas Truce of 1914 has been called by Arthur Conan Doyle “one human episode amid all the atrocities.” It is certainly one of the most remarkable incidents of World War I and perhaps of all military history. Inspiring both popular songs and theater, it has endured as an almost archetypal image of peace.
Starting in some places on Christmas Eve and in others on Christmas Day, the truce covered as much as two-thirds of the British-German front, with French and Belgians involved as well. Thousands of soldiers took part. In most places it lasted at least through Boxing Day (December 26), and in some through mid-January. Perhaps most remarkably, it grew out of no single initiative but sprang up in each place spontaneously and independently.
Unofficial and spotty as the truce was, there have been those convinced it never happened—that the whole thing was made up. Others have believed it happened but that the news was suppressed. Neither is true. Though little was printed in Germany, the truce made headlines for weeks in British newspapers, with published letters and photos from soldiers at the front. In a single issue, the latest rumor of German atrocities might share space with a photo of British and German soldiers crowded together, their caps and helmets exchanged, smiling for the camera.
Historians, on the other hand, have shown less interest in an unofficial outbreak of peace. There has been only one comprehensive study of the incident: Christmas Truce, by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Secker & Warburg, London, 1984—a companion volume to the authors’ 1981 BBC documentary, Peace in No Man’s Land. The book features a large number of first-hand accounts from letters and diaries. Nearly everything described in my fictional letter is drawn from these accounts—though I have heightened the drama somewhat by selecting, arranging, and compressing.
In my letter, I’ve tried to counteract two popular misconceptions of the truce. One is that only common soldiers took part in it, while officers opposed it. (Few officers opposed it, and many took part.) The other is that neither side wished to return to fighting. (Most soldiers, especially British, French, and Belgian, remained determined to fight and win.)
Sadly, I also had to omit the Christmas Day games of football—or soccer, as called in the U.S.—often falsely associated with the truce. The truth is that the terrain of No Man’s Land ruled out formal games—though certainly some soldiers kicked around balls and makeshift substitutes.
Another false idea about the truce was held even by most soldiers who were there: that it was unique in history. Though the Christmas Truce is the greatest example of its kind, informal truces had been a longstanding military tradition. During the American Civil War, for instance, Rebels and Yankees traded tobacco, coffee, and newspapers, fished peacefully on opposite sides of a stream, and even gathered blackberries together. Some degree of fellow feeling had always been common among soldiers sent to battle.
Of course, all that has changed in modern times. Today, soldiers kill at great distances, often with the push of a button and a sighting on a computer screen. Even where soldiers come face to face, their languages and cultures are often so diverse as to make friendly communication unlikely.
No, we should not expect to see another Christmas Truce. Yet still what happened on that Christmas of 1914 may inspire the peacemakers of today—for, now as always, the best time to make peace is long before the armies go to war.
Here's a script that turns the above letter into a play that can be performed on Christmas by anyone who likes: PDF.
BELLEAU WOOD by Joe Henry and Garth Brooks
Oh, the snowflakes fell in silence
Over Belleau Wood that night
For a Christmas truce had been declared
By both sides of the fight
As we lay there in our trenches
The silence broke in two
By a German soldier singing
A song that we all knew.
Though I did not know the language
The song was "Silent Night"
Then I heard by buddy whisper,
"All is calm and all is bright"
Then the fear and doubt surrounded me
'Cause I'd die if I was wrong
But I stood up in my trench
And I began to sing along
Then across the frozen battlefield
Another's voice joined in
Until one by one each man became
A singer of the hymn
Then I thought that I was dreaming
For right there in my sight
Stood the German soldier
'Neath the falling flakes of white
And he raised his hand and smiled at me
As if he seemed to say
Here's hoping we both live
To see us find a better way
Then the devil's clock struck midnight
And the skies lit up again
And the battlefield where heaven stood
Was blown to hell again
But for just one fleeting moment
The answer seemed so clear
Heaven's not beyond the clouds
It's just beyond the fear
No, heaven's not beyond the clouds
It's for us to find it here.
CHRISTMAS IN THE TRENCHES by John McCutcheon
My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, ``Now listen up, me boys!'' each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
``He's singing bloody well, you know!'' my partner says to me
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
``God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen'' struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was ``Stille Nacht.'' ``Tis `Silent Night','' says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky
``There's someone coming toward us!'' the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night
``Whose family have I fixed within my sights?''
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same
The 1969 British film Oh! What a Lovely War, a musical telling of the Great War using popular songs and quotes from the period, depicts the truce between German and Scottish soldiers on one section of the front. The cordial exchange ends when British artillery fire commences.
In the Christmas episode "River of Stars" from the Fox series Space: Above and Beyond, Joel Delafuente's character narrates the 1914 Christmas truce. He juxtaposes the event against the fact that over the next three years the war became, what was then, the costliest in human history.
In the final episode titled "Goodbyeeee" from the series Blackadder Goes Forth, Tony Robinson's character Baldrick asks the others if they remember the football match from the Christmas truce. Captain Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) replies "Remember it - how could I forget it - I was never offside! I could not believe that decision!"
In episode 25 of Warehouse 13, there was an artifact enchanted in the 1914 Christmas truce.
A Christmas truce memorial was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, on 11 November 2008. Also on that day, at the spot where, on Christmas Day 1914, their regimental ancestors came out from their trenches to play football, men from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers played a football match with the German Panzergrenadier Battalion 371. The Germans won, 2–1.
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, Du kannst mir sehr gefallen! The news had come out in the First World War The bloody Red Baron was flying once more The Allied command ignored all of its men And called on Snoopy to do it again. Was the night before Christmas, 40 below When Snoopy went up in search of his foe He spied the Red Baron, fiercely they fought With ice on his wings Snoopy knew he was caught. Christmas bells those Christmas bells Ring out from the land Asking peace of all the world And good will to man The Baron had Snoopy dead in his sights He reached for the trigger to pull it up tight Why he didn't shoot, well, we'll never know Or was it the bells from the village below. Christmas bells those Christmas bells Ringing through the land Bringing peace to all the world And good will to man The Baron made Snoopy fly to the Rhine And forced him to land behind the enemy lines Snoopy was certain that this was the end When the Baron cried out, "Merry Christmas, my friend!" The Baron then offered a holiday toast And Snoopy, our hero, saluted his host And then with a roar they were both on their way Each knowing they'd meet on some other day. Christmas bells those Christmas bells Ringing through the land Bringing peace to all the world And good will to man
Shortly after the doings set forth in the previous chapter we left the trenches for our usual days in billets. It was now nearing Christmas Day, and we knew it would fall to our lot to be back in the trenches again on the 23rd of December, and that we would, in consequence, spend our Christmas there. I remember at the time being very down on my luck about this, as anything in the nature of Christmas Day festivities was obviously knocked on the head. Now, however, looking back on it all, I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.
Well, as I said before, we went "in" again on the 23rd. The weather had now become very fine and cold. The dawn of the 24th brought a perfectly still, cold, frosty day. The spirit of Christmas began to permeate us all; we tried to plot ways and means of making the next day, Christmas, different in some way to others. Invitations from one dug-out to another for sundry meals were beginning to circulate. Christmas Eve was, in the way of weather, everything that Christmas Eve should be.
I was billed to appear at a dug-out about a quarter of a mile to the left that evening to have rather a special thing in trench dinners—not quite so much bully and Maconochie about as usual. A bottle of red wine and a medley of tinned things from home deputized in their absence. The day had been entirely free from shelling, and somehow we all felt that the Boches, too, wanted to be quiet. There was a kind of an invisible, intangible feeling extending across the frozen swamp between the two lines, which said "This is Christmas Eve for both of us—something in common."
About 10 p.m. I made my exit from the convivial dug-out on the left of our line and walked back to my own lair. On arriving at my own bit of trench I found several of the men standing about, and all very cheerful. There was a good bit of singing and talking going on, jokes and jibes on our curious Christmas Eve, as contrasted with any former one, were thick in the air. One of my men turned to me and said:
"You can 'ear 'em quite plain, sir!"
"Hear what?" I inquired.
"The Germans over there, sir; 'ear 'em singin' and playin' on a band or somethin'."
I listened;—away out across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices, and an occasional burst of some unintelligible song would come floating out on the frosty air. The singing seemed to be loudest and most distinct a bit to our right. I popped into my dug-out and found the platoon commander.
"Do you hear the Boches kicking up that racket over there?" I said.
"Yes," he replied; "they've been at it some time!"
"Come on," said I, "let's go along the trench to the hedge there on the right—that's the nearest point to them, over there."
So we stumbled along our now hard, frosted ditch, and scrambling up on to the bank above, strode across the field to our next bit of trench on the right. Everyone was listening. An improvised Boche band was playing a precarious version of "Deutschland, Deutschland, uber Alles," at the conclusion of which, some of our mouth-organ experts retaliated with snatches of ragtime songs and imitations of the German tune. Suddenly we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again. 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!"
"Ah! but there are two of you," came back the voice from the other side.
Well, anyway, after much suspicious shouting and jocular derision from both sides, our sergeant went along the hedge which ran at right-angles to the two lines of trenches. He was quickly out of sight; but, as we all listened in breathless silence, we soon heard a spasmodic conversation taking place out there in the darkness.
Presently, the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Maconochie's and a tin of Capstan, which he had taken with him. The séance was over, but it had given just the requisite touch to our Christmas Eve—something a little human and out of the ordinary routine.
After months of vindictive sniping and shelling, this little episode came as an invigorating tonic, and a welcome relief to the daily monotony of antagonism. It did not lessen our ardour or determination; but just put a little human punctuation mark in our lives of cold and humid hate. Just on the right day, too—Christmas Eve! But, as a curious episode, this was nothing in comparison to our experience on the following day.
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. It was such a day as is invariably depicted by artists on Christmas cards—the ideal Christmas Day of fiction.
"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 Peace and Goodwill feeling, surely will have some effect on the situation here to-day!" And I wasn't far wrong; it did around us, anyway, and I have always been so glad to think of my luck in, firstly, being actually in the trenches on Christmas Day, and, secondly, being on the spot where quite a unique little episode took place.
Everything looked merry and bright that morning—the discomforts seemed to be less, somehow; they seemed to have epitomized themselves in intense, frosty cold. It was just the sort of day for Peace to be declared. It would have made such a good finale. I should like to have suddenly heard an immense siren blowing. Everybody to stop and say, "What was that?" Siren blowing again: appearance of a small figure running across the frozen mud waving something. He gets closer—a telegraph boy with a wire! He hands it to me. With trembling fingers I open it: "War off, return home.—George, R.I." Cheers! But no, it was a nice, fine day, that was all.
Walking about the trench 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 evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over their 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 itself. This complaint became infectious. It didn't take "Our Bert" long to be up on the skyline (it is one long grind to ever keep him off it). This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by all our Alf's and Bill's, 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 towards each other in no-man's land.
A strange sight, truly!
I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in a muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches.
It all felt most curious: here were these sausage-eating wretches, who had elected to start this infernal European fracas, and in so doing had brought us all into the same muddy pickle as themselves.
This was my first real sight of 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 war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match. The difference in type between our men and theirs was very marked. There was no contrasting the spirit of the two parties. Our men, in their scratch costumes of dirty, muddy khaki, with their various assorted headdresses of woollen helmets, mufflers and battered hats, were a light-hearted, open, humorous collection as opposed to the sombre demeanour and stolid appearance of the Huns in their grey-green faded uniforms, top boots, and pork-pie hats.
The shortest effect I can give of the impression I had was that our men, superior, broadminded, more frank, and lovable beings, were regarding these faded, unimaginative products of perverted kulture as a set of objectionable but amusing lunatics whose heads had got to be eventually smacked.
"Look at that one over there, Bill," our Bert would say, as he pointed out some particularly curious member of the party.
I strolled about amongst them all, and sucked in as many impressions as I could. Two or three of the Boches seemed to be particularly interested in me, and after they had walked round me once or twice with sullen curiosity stamped on their faces, one came up and said "Offizier?" I nodded my head, which means "Yes" in most languages, and, besides, I can't talk German.
These devils, I could see, all wanted to be friendly; but none of them possessed the open, frank geniality of our men. However, everyone was talking and laughing, and souvenir hunting.
I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons.
We both then said things to each other which neither understood, and agreed to do a swap. 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.
Whilst this was going on a babbling of guttural ejaculations emanating from one of the laager-schifters, told me that some idea had occurred to someone.
Suddenly, one of the Boches ran back to his trench and presently reappeared with a large camera. I posed in a mixed group for several photographs, and have ever since wished I had fixed up some arrangement for getting a copy. No doubt framed editions of this photograph are reposing on some Hun mantelpieces, showing clearly and unmistakably to admiring strafers how a group of perfidious English surrendered unconditionally on Christmas Day to the brave Deutschers.
Slowly the meeting began to disperse; a sort of feeling that the authorities on both sides were not very enthusiastic about this fraternizing seemed to creep across the gathering. We parted, but there was a distinct and friendly understanding that Christmas Day would be left to finish in tranquillity. The last I saw of this little affair was a vision of 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.
German and British soldiers fraternize - Christmas 1914
OLD soldiers, they say, never die, they only fade away. Bertie Felstead was an exception. The older he was, the more famous he became. He was over 100 years old, and had long been ensconced in a nursing home in Gloucester, when he was awarded the French Légion d'Honneur by President Jacques Chirac. He was over 105 when he became the oldest man in Britain. And by then he was even more famous as the sole survivor of the spontaneous Christmas truces that occurred on the western front during the first world war. Few wartime events are the subject of so much controversy and myth.
Mr Felstead, a Londoner and at the time a market gardener, volunteered for service in 1915. Later in that same year he took part in the second, and last, of the Christmas truces while stationed near the village of Laventie in northern France. He was then a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the regiment of Robert Graves, the author of one of the most powerful books about that war, “Goodbye to All That”. As Mr Felstead remembered it, the peace overture came on Christmas Eve from enemy lines. Soldiers there sang, in German, the Welsh hymn “Ar Hyd y Nos”. Their choice of hymn was taken as a much-appreciated acknowledgment of the nationality of the regiment opposing them in trenches about 100 metres away, and the Royal Welch Fusiliers responded by singing “Good King Wenceslas”.
After a night of carol singing, Mr Felstead recalled, feelings of goodwill had so swelled up that at dawn Bavarian and British soldiers clambered spontaneously out of their trenches. Shouting such greetings as “Hello Tommy” and “Hello Fritz” they at first shook hands in no-man's-land, and then presented one another with gifts. German beer, sausages and spiked helmets were given, or bartered, in return for bully beef, biscuits and tunic buttons.
A different ball game
The game they played was, Mr Felstead recalled, a rough sort of soccer. “It wasn't a game as such, more a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don't know how long it lasted, probably half an hour.” Then, as another of the Fusiliers remembered it, the fun was brought to a stop by a British sergeant-major ordering his men back into the trenches and gruffly reminding them that they were there “to fight the Huns, not to make friends with them”.
This intervention has helped sustain the vulgar Marxist myth, relayed for instance in the musical “Oh, What a Lovely War!”, that the ordinary soldiers on both sides longed only for a comradely peace and were excited or compelled to fight by jingoistic officers pursuing their class interest. In fact, officers on both sides started several of the Christmas truces in 1915 and of the much wider truces in 1914. After parleying to agree the terms of the ceasefires, most officers mingled with the enemy just as keenly as their men did.
In his account of the truces, Robert Graves explained why. “[My battalion] never allowed itself to have any political feelings about the Germans. A professional soldier's duty was simply to fight whomever the King ordered him to fight...The Christmas 1914 fraternisation, in which the Battalion was among the first to participate, had had the same professional simplicity: no emotional hiatus, this, but a commonplace of military tradition—an exchange of courtesies between officers of opposing armies.”
According to Bruce Bairnsfather, one of the most popular soldier-writers of the first world war, the Tommies were just as hardheaded. There was, he wrote, not an atom of hate on either side during these truces, “and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to win the war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match.”
The many British contemporary accounts of the truces help scotch another myth: that the authorities kept all knowledge of fraternisation from the public at home lest it damage morale. Popular British newspapers and magazines printed photographs and drawings of German and British soldiers celebrating Christmas together in no-man's-land.
It is true, however, that the Christmas truces were not repeated in the later years of the war. By 1916 and 1917 the relentless slaughter of a war of attrition had so deepened enmity on both sides that friendly meetings in no-man's-land were all but unthinkable, even at Christmas.
Mr Felstead was among the doughtiest of the Tommies. He returned home for hospital treatment after being wounded in the battle of the Somme in 1916 but recovered sufficiently to qualify again for service overseas. He was sent to Salonika, where he caught acute malaria and then, after a further spell of recuperation in Blighty, served out the final months of the war in France.
After being demobbed, he led a comparatively dull, respectable life. Only longevity put an end to his obscurity. Writers and journalists clamoured to interview, and celebrate, a participant in a legendary truce whose life eventually stretched across three centuries. He told them that all Europeans, including the British and the Germans, should be friends.
Before Christmas emerged as a commercial success, it led a checkered social life. In the 13 American colonies and the early days of the United States, it was known as a festival of heavy drinking and brawling.
But as the struggle over slavery heated up in the 1830s, a band of Christian women abolitionists guided it into a holiday devoted to the prince of peace and emancipation.
In 1834, members of William Lloyd Garrison’s newly formed Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society – African-Americans and whites, men and women – saw Christmas as an opportunity to expose a hypocritical republic that proclaimed liberty for all yet held millions of African men, women and children captive in slavery.
Portrait of author Harriet Martineau
Women assumed the lead in this endeavor, boldly defying a society that denied them the vote and much of a public voice. To finance the abolition cause, these women organized Christmas bazaars that sold donated gifts and trumpeted anti-slavery messages.
Because women were prominent in this effort, the media of the day labeled abolitionist gatherings “promiscuous assemblies” and denounced male supporters as “Aunt Nancy men.” Yet, even in the face of verbal and physical attacks, anti-slavery men and women persisted. After some meetings, women linked arms, black and white, and surrounded their men to protect them from angry mobs.
Women abolitionists also took the lead in confronting a Northern public that felt the degradation of enslaved women and children was too sensitive and immodest a subject for public discussion. With clear language and vivid images, the women abolitionists used their Christmas fairs to publicize the brutality and rapes suffered by their enslaved sisters.
To penetrate the Northern conscience, the women also compared the common practice of whipping children as discipline — which was beginning to gain widespread disapproval — to the brutal whipping of enslaved men, women and children, which the media largely had hidden from public view.
The women turned the Christmas holiday into a time for generous gift-giving that rewarded children. By emphasizing this kind treatment of children, the women asked Americans to accept that enslaved people, who had even fewer rights than children, deserved Christian care and generosity, too.
At least one early Massachusetts anti-slavery fair featured an interracial children’s chorus known as “the Boston Garrison Juvenile Choir.” It sang such popular holiday songs such as “The Sugar Plums.” The women who conducted these Christmas fairs also used attractive symbols, such as the evergreen shrub. By the end of the 1830s, Christmas fairs had become the primary source of abolitionist fundraising.
Bazaar sponsors replaced the small green shrub with a tall, full-grown evergreen tree, an idea inspired by Charles Follen, a German immigrant who was a children’s rights advocate and a professor of literature at Harvard University. He was fired in 1835 because of his anti-slavery activities.
That Christmas, popular British author Harriet Martineau visited Follen’s home and became entranced by his towering evergreen. Martineau enthusiastically described Follen’s “Christmas tree” in one of her books and the public became enthralled, too. The Christmas tree stood as a kind of tall green freedom flag.
In those days, the women anti-slavery crusaders and their male allies were confronting a powerful slave-holding elite that treated millions of men, women and children as property, as well as a political system dominated by Southern states controlling many policies of the three branches of the federal government.
Yet, to expose the country’s great crime of slavery, this daring interracial band of women transformed what had been an antisocial, rowdy festival into a humane Christmas celebration that promoted freedom for all.
To shine a light on the sin of human bondage and demand emancipation on Christmas and the other 364 days, these anti-slavery crusaders beat hard on closed doors, using intellectual creativity and moral strength. Eventually their crusade not only liberated their Southern brothers and sisters but gave birth to the Suffrage movement that decades later achieved political rights for all women in the United States.
Their use of Christmas to dramatize the cause of anti-slavery also handed down many endearing symbols of Christmas, including its emphasis on children, the gift-giving and the evergreen tree. And, by strengthening freedom, these women gave American democracy a Christmas gift that never stops giving.
William Loren Katz, the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage and forty other American history books, is a Visiting Scholar at New York University. Copyright William Loren Katz 2010 His website is www.williamlkatz.com
Frank Richards was a British soldier who experienced the "Christmas Truce". We join his story on Christmas morning 1914:
"On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with 'A Merry Christmas' on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. Platoons would sometimes go out for twenty-four hours' rest - it was a day at least out of the trench and relieved the monotony a bit - and my platoon had gone out in this way the night before, but a few of us stayed behind to see what would happen. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.
Buffalo Bill [the Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man's-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.
We mucked in all day with one another. They were Saxons and some of them could speak English. By the look of them their trenches were in as bad a state as our own. One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn't the only one that was fed up with it. We did not allow them in our trench and they did not allow us in theirs.
The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assured him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another's health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches.
British and German troops mingle in No Mans Land Christmas 1914
...The two barrels of beer were drunk, and the German officer was right: if it was possible for a man to have drunk the two barrels himself he would have bursted before he had got drunk. French beer was rotten stuff.
Just before midnight we all made it up not to commence firing before they did. At night there was always plenty of firing by both sides if there were no working parties or patrols out. Mr Richardson, a young officer who had just joined the Battalion and was now a platoon officer in my company wrote a poem during the night about the Briton and the Bosche meeting in no-man's-land on Christmas Day, which he read out to us. A few days later it was published in The Times or Morning Post, I believe.
During the whole of Boxing Day [the day after Christmas] we never fired a shot, and they the same, each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball a-rolling. One of their men shouted across in English and inquired how we had enjoyed the beer. We shouted back and told him it was very weak but that we were very grateful for it. We were conversing off and on during the whole of the day.
We were relieved that evening at dusk by a battalion of another brigade. We were mighty surprised as we had heard no whisper of any relief during the day. We told the men who relieved us how we had spent the last couple of days with the enemy, and they told us that by what they had been told the whole of the British troops in the line, with one or two exceptions, had mucked in with the enemy. They had only been out of action themselves forty-eight hours after being twenty-eight days in the front-line trenches. They also told us that the French people had heard how we had spent Christmas Day and were saying all manner of nasty things about the British Army."
References: This eyewitness account appears in Richards, Frank, Old Soldiers Never Die (1933); Keegan, John, The First World War (1999); Simkins, Peter, World War I, the Western Front (1991).