image courtesy of British Museum
Silent Night, Christmas 1914
| published December 24, 2015 |
By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor
By December, 1914, World War 1 was entering its fifth month. All the combatants had become adept at industrial slaughter in a war that has become synonymous with that feature. For example, in just two battles, First Marne and First Ypres, western front casualties totaled nearly 750,000 for all combatants. On the eastern front, the battles of Tannenberg and Galicia had produced approximately the same number of total casualties. Fighting on both fronts had largely degenerated into a stalemate with no end in sight.
The fronts were relatively quiet in December. The reduced tempo of combat was due to the weather as well as the need for both sides to lick their collective wounds and replenish their numbers and supplies, especially artillery. In the west, the French had attacked in the area around Arras and also in the Champagne. There were other limited offensives in the Argonne and at St. Mihiel. In the east, the Germans kept the Russians at bay in the Battle of Lodz in November while the Russians continued fighting with Austro-Hungarian forces guarding the passes of the Carpathian Mountains. Armies on both sides of the battle were jockeying for positions advantageous to spring offensives and they were also attempting to straighten or reverse salients in their lines.
Although the war was less than six months old, a state of emotional weariness and physical exhaustion had settled in among troops of all the combatant nations. The winter lull was a welcome relief for many of them. Soldiers who survived those first few months missed their families and they were shocked by the sheer amount of killing and maiming they had witnessed. Politicians and generals on both sides had promised their soldiers a short war. By December it was obvious to the men on the battlefield that they were not going home anytime soon. They were cold, tired and needed a respite. The achievement of peace seemed inconceivable.
For much of December, the weather in France had been cold and wet. By the 24th, though, the weather was drier and the temperature dropped, causing frost to develop and snow to fall. Soon, a light blanket of snow sprinkled the trenches and what was left of the trees, many of which were denuded or uprooted by exploding artillery rounds and soldiers digging trenches. The snow also covered unburied corpses and piles of debris left from battles and skirmishes, lending a temporary blanket of white across what had been a gruesome, tangled, muddy landscape.
One of the features of trench-living on the western front was soldiers shouting at each other across no-man’s land, the area between the trench lines. However, in some places the trenches were no more than twenty-five or thirty yards apart. This proximity led the soldiers to yell at the enemy and hold up wooden signs taunting each other with epithets the soldiers likely would not use in their homes. A form of black humor developed. After a barrage of bullets or shells they might yell “three feet to the right” or “you just missed me by a hair.”
On Christmas Eve, soldiers expected nothing different and certainly expected no official concession to a holiday. In the area around Ypres, where a major battle had ended just a month earlier, an uneasy calm descended. Towards evening, the German soldiers began placing Christmas trees on the parapets of their trenches. As darkness fell, they started singing carols. The sound drifted across the snowy landscape and into the British lines, where the British troops did not know what to make of it. Some of them believed it might be a ruse before an attack. However, they did not notice any other signs of an impending attack. The British troops then realized that the Germans typically celebrate Christmas more on the 24th than on the 25th, thus the caroling.
Although “Silent Night” is the carol most often associated with the truce of 1914, no one really knows if it was the first one sung, as is often asserted. Some soldiers’ diaries mention the song, others do not. “O, Tannenbaum” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” are also mentioned in contemporary diaries and other documents as being sung by soldiers on both sides of the battle lines. Cries of “Merry Christmas!” and “Froehliche Weihnachten” were exchanged, in each other’s languages. This singing and exchanges of greetings lasted throughout the night and set the tone for the next day, Christmas Day.
With daybreak, soldiers began sticking their heads above the parapets and waving to each other, an act which usually resulted in a quick death. It is also not known who actually climbed first out of the trenches to approach the other side but by dawn, it was apparent that on many sectors of the front, soldiers would impose their own truce. The Germans and their British counterparts met in no-man’s land and began to fraternize, swapping tobacco, alcohol, food from home and any other items they could scrape up and exchange as souvenirs. In addition, the two sides allowed each other to bury their dead and tend their wounded without fear of attack and they could share information about the war. The troops also agreed not to shoot each other while the truce was in place. In certain areas, soldiers playfully rode bicycles, wore hats and carried umbrellas, anything to add levity to the moment.
Some accounts of the truce also mention football (soccer) matches between the two sides. The accounts are vague, though, so it cannot be stated with certainty that the matches occurred, or, for that matter, who won them. Stories of football matches may even be hearsay. If they did take place, the games were likely not to have been highly organized and most of them could not have been played due to the absence of proper balls or officiating. Much of the ground of no-man’s land was rough and badly chewed up as well, rendering it useless for soccer games.
By the next day, the 26th, fighting began anew, although some areas of that sector extended the truce up to New Year’s Day. There were even places where the two sides were reluctant to start shooting each other again. Of course, the truce did not hold indefinitely. Higher headquarters quickly became aware of the truce and sent down orders to resume fighting and cease fraternizing. The generals issuing the orders may have been apprehensive about a situation they did not initiate. In any event, ground over which opposing soldiers had exchanged souvenirs and greetings the day before was again contested with violence.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was short-lived and passed quietly before the slaughter began anew. It arose spontaneously out of a sense of camaraderie, even with the enemy, and was maintained, briefly, by the shared memories and circumstances of combat. A century later, the Christmas Truce is portrayed not only as creating hope where many men felt no hope. The truce also—for a day at least—lifted their spirits and gave the soldiers a pause from the brutal business of killing each other. Additionally, the truce possessed an element of supreme irony. One of the bloodiest and most violent wars in history was interrupted with a poignant peace by armed soldiers acknowledging the birth of the Prince of Peace.
Related Thursday Review articles:
The Legacy of Tannenberg; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; August 29, 2014.