The incredible story of how two sides of a bitter conflict put aside their differences at Christmas
Christmas really is the most magical time of the year. Celebrated by billions around the world, the day is filled with love, joy, family tradition and, of course, a whole lot of food. Everyone sets aside their responsibilities and personal issues to spend the day with family and friends, giving and receiving gifts. But, imagine not being able to spend this lovely day surrounded by the comfort of family?
In the midst of World War 1 in 1914, Christmas time was upon the Western Front. This Christmas would not be be the same as previous years. To try and keep spirits up, soldiers sang carols and lit candles on Christmas trees that lined the trenches. Then, something remarkable happened. Here is the story of the Christmas truce, as told by the soldiers who were there.
The Graphic, 30 January 1915 Image © Illustrated London News Group
Rifleman Mallard (machine gun section in the Rifle Brigade):
"About 4.30 on Christmas Eve we heard music, and gathered that the Germans had a band in their trenches, but our artillery spoilt the effect by dropping a couple shells right in the centre of them, and you can guess what became of the band, for we heard it more. We were wondering if the Germans would agree to a couple days' truce, and soon as it was dark we were surprised to see Christmas trees stuck the top of their trenches lighted up with candles, and men sitting on the trench. We got out our trench and exchanged a few cigarettes with the Germans, and invited them to come over and have a drink and smoke, bat we did not like to trust each other first. After a while, however, three of our officers started to go over meet German officers who were approaching them, their way being directed by a searchlight ia the German lines. It made a fine picture see those six officers meet between the two lines, shake hands, and smoke each other's cigarettes the glow of the searchlight, and all the boys gave tremendous cheer and became quite excited over it. After a while our officers returned, bringing with them souvenirs of the Germans."
A private in the Queen's Westminster Rifles:
"About 5pm on Thursday, when in the trenches, our thoughts turned to home and Christmas Eve, and we started singing a few carols. This seemed to cheer the Germans, they, too, began to sing, shouting to us, "A merry Christmas." Not a shot was fired at them or us all night, and it seemed the war had almost finished. Next day, Christmas Day, we had a short service in the trenches and after that we started going halfway to the Germans. In less than half hour were busily talking to them, and found that they were quite longing for the war cease. They asked us not fire all day, and said they would not do so. In the meantime exchanged cigarettes and tobacco, and I also managed get several buttons and cap badges. Two of them with whom I happened to get in conversation were quite decent fellows and a cut above the others. They were brothers the 107th Saxons, and being reservists were called up. One had a ticket for London with him, and told us that he was just going London for a holiday when he was called up. Both said they were personally very sorry to have to fight against us. The rest the regiment were rather lower class, and looked as if a good feed would benefit them. Taking them all round, they were medium age and rather well built. One fellow had an iron cross, which he kept in his purse. One thing that made us envious was their jackboots, which are just the things we want."
The Sphere, 9 January 1915 Image © Illustrated London News Group
Along with the sharing of cigarettes, some regiments exchanged gifts and friendly games of football. The newspapers said that after the truce was agreed upon, both sides spent a bit of time burying the bodies that had been killed earlier that week and then they held a small ceremony to commemorate them.
Letter from a subaltern at the front:
"When I got out I found a large crowd of officers and men, English and German, grouped around the bodies, which had already been gathered together and laid out in rows. I went along those dreadful ranks and scanned the faces, fearing at every step to recognise one I knew. It was a ghastly sight. They lay stiffly in contorted attitudes, dirty with frozen mud, and powdered with rime. The digging parties were already busy on the two big, common graves; but the ground was hard, and the work slow and laborious."
Many letters were written home describing the peaceful experience. Many explained how speaking to these men [the Germans] changed their entire view on them. They originally believed, as they were taught to, that the Germans were pure evil. Seeing the Germans in a friendly manner and having normal conversation with them opened their eyes to the fact they were all just men who had been dragged into a horrible situation.
Acting Corporal F. Edwards (Birkenhead Police Force) with the 3rd Rifle Brigade:
"I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but I assure you it is perfectly true. If I had not participated in it I should feel rather inclined to disbelieve it myself, as I have witnessed some very treacherous acts on the part of the Germans, but I think this will to prove that there are honourable Germans."
The Graphic, 9 January 1915 Image © Illustrated London News Group
These quotes are real letters from soldiers who witnessed this unbelievable event. All the letters were published in articles from our British Newspaper Collection.