The unofficial Truce in No-Man's-Land on the Western front on Christmas Eve 1914 still haunts the collective imagination. It formed one of the most effective scenes in the film Oh What A Lovely War, which was based on the stage musical of the same name. The 2005 film Joyeux Noël, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards is based on the same stories.
An excellent book by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton has collated all the evidence and proved beyond question that the truce certainly happened, all along the line. The famed football match really did take place, with the Fritzes beating the Tommies 3-2. The Germans rolled barrels of beer across and swapped them for plum-puddings. A German juggler entertained and a Tommy had his hair cut by his pre-war German barber.
Nor were officers immune from the festivities: the following letter was written to his wife by a regular officer of the 1/North Staffs. who hurried to set down the extraordinary scene while it was fresh in his memory.
I have just been through one of the most extraordinary scenes imaginable. Tonight is Christmas Eve, I was in my dugout reading a paper and the mail was being dished out. The firing had stopped at about seven.
It was reported that the Germans had lighted their trenches up all along our front. We had been calling to one another for some time Christmas wishes and other things. I went out and they shouted 'no shooting' and then somehow the scene became a peaceful one. All our men got out of the trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English.
I got on top of the trench and spoke German and asked them to sing a German folk song, which they did, then our men sang. Each side clapped and cheered the other. I asked a German who sang a solo to sing one of Schumann's songs, so he sang 'The Two Grenadiers' splendidly. Our men were a good audience and really enjoyed his singing.
Then P. and I walked across and held a conversation with the German officer in command. I gave the latter permission to bury some German dead who were lying between us and we agreed to have no shooting until 12 midnight tomorrow.
We talked together, ten or more Germans gathered round, I was almost in their lines.
Then we wished one another good night and a happy Christmas and parted with a salute. The Germans sang and so did our men. It sounded so well. With a goodnight we all got back into our trenches. It was a curious scene, a lovely moonlight night, the German trenches with small lights on them, and the men on both sides gathered in groups on the parapets.
I allowed one or or two men to go out and meet a German or two halfway. They exchanged cigars and talked. The officer I spoke to hopes we shall do the same on New Year's Day. I said 'yes, if I am here'.
It is weird to think that tomorrow night we shall be hard at it again. If one gets through this show it will be a Christmas time to live in one's memory. The German who sang had a really fine voice.
Am just off for a walk round the trenches to see all is well. Good Night.