Sometimes the best Christmas gifts can’t be wrapped in paper and tied with ribbons. Sometimes they touch the heart more than items we hold in our hands. Such was the gift shared by enemy troops during World War I.
Allied troops--Great Britain, France and the then-Russian Empire--were fighting German troops in trench warfare on The Western Front. Trenches for opposing sides were in close proximity. In fact, soldiers on opposing sides could and did shout to one another.
An expanse of ground called No Man’s Land lay between the deep ditches of opposing sides. Half an hour each day a truce was called, and each side could enter and collect their dead for burial.
Early in December of 1914, soldiers on both sides began shouting friendly greetings to their enemies. They were tired of the war and began asking one another about football leagues and world news. They even bartered for tobacco. This alarmed the commanding officers, who feared friendly overtures between sides would weaken the troops’ resolve to fight.
By Christmas, the soldiers all knew the war wouldn’t be over. They would not be home to celebrate with families. They settled down to wait out Christmas Day the best they could.
On Christmas Eve, a British soldier noticed light from Christmas tree candles coming from the German trenches. Then German fighters began singing Silent Night. The British politely applauded, then responded with The First Noel.
Later, a British soldier cautiously peeked above the parapet. His eyes widened and the grip on his weapon instinctively tightened. German soldiers approached, unarmed and waving a white flag. Were they seeking a truce?
A cautious yet friendly handshake was given in No Man’s Land, and that was the beginning of the unusual Christmas celebration. Both sides left their trenches and happily exchanged gifts of food and tobacco, as well as buttons and hats on that remarkable day. One barber gave his enemy a haircut. They held worship services and enemies buried their dead. A friendly football kick-about ensued.
Captain Sir Edward Hulse later described the truce ending with all sides singing Auld Lang Syne, which, he said, “We all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, joined in.”
Another soldier wrote to his family, “This experience had been the most practical demonstration I have seen of peace on earth and goodwill towards men.”
While gunfire could be heard other places along the fighting lines, on one cold, snowy section of ground, enemies became friends on Christmas Day.
Sometimes the best gifts can’t be held in our hands.
Footnote:: In St. Yves, Belgium, friends erected a cross to commemorate the site of this unusual Christmas celebration. It is inscribed, 1914−The Khaki Chum’s (sic) Christmas Truce− 1999−85 Years−Lest We Forget.
How about you? Any thoughts on the unusual effect which Christmas has on people? Feel free to comment below.