Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Christmas Truce - Third Sunday in Advent

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.


  1. 'I wish it could be Christmas every day', as the song goes.

  2. We watched the film Joyeux Noel the other night after Armistice day with middle who is 13 ( for those who have not seen it click this link . The saddest thing is that as punishemnt for fratenizing the men were sent to the frontline. A film worth seeing and a memory that needs preserving in order to remind future and present generations of the horror and futility of war.

  3. I remember reading about this but had forgotten it. A stunning piece of history and a good argument against all war.

  4. what a cool moment in time...a small taste of peace on earth...

  5. Oh Friko, what a story. I too had heard of what happened but knew none of the details. Yet another amazing Christmas gift from you to me, and for that, I thank you.

  6. Hello Friko, and thank you for this post and the previous thoughtful posts of this week.

    I have had some quiet moments myself to read through each post and to think a bit about various aspects of this Christmas season.

    Having been home for a couple of weeks of relative calm, making gifts and painting cards and seeing friends, it is now time for me to return to the commercial fray. Back to work, in the midst of what might well be retail frenzy. I imagine that I'll sleep soundly tonight.

    Best wishes. xo

  7. What an extraordinary story, and what a perfect example of the insanity of man! How can one leave the death trenches, walk into neutral territory and embrace one's enemy, sing songs with one's enemy, even applaud one's enemy, and yet return to the trenches at an appointed hour and pick up the weapons with which one hopes to kill the enemy. My mind just can't get wrapped around that scene. Oh how I wish the two sides had stopped fighting permanently and just continued singing, notwithstanding the displeasure of their respective governments.

  8. Reading this story how can anyone deny the magic of Christmas? But as George says, how can the magic so swiftly be undone? We have great capacity to be good and to be brutal. Seeing them couched in the same battlefield in such immensity makes my heart sick, even while it rejoices!

  9. This story has long been one of the special ones...if we could only let the soldiers themselves get together to figure things out and keep the higher ups from intervening, perhaps peace could finally be achieved.
    Just dreaming, I know...

  10. Oh my, what an amazing account! As The Solitary Walker says, "I wish it could be Christmas everyday."

  11. I remember that story too Friko - the true essence of Christmas.

  12. This is such a poignant story. I had already heard about it but reading it here again was very moving.

  13. As an historian and simply a human being, this entry breaks my heart. The truth is that these men did not harbor animosity against each other, no matter what their stupid leaders had done to cause the mess. WWI was the most stupid conflict ever waged, and we historians know it did not end until 1945. The interlude in the 1920s and 1930s was not peace. Millions of people died needlessly between 1915 and 1945.

  14. I was reading about it recently in Ken Follet's new book "Fall of Giants" but your quote from the officer makes it much more real. More and more I am beginning to think that we need ordinary people to make sense of the world. The so-called leaders seem to make so many mistakes. But then, if you haven't gathered by now, I'm going through a jaded patch. Things will get better soon. Every Blessing

  15. friko i've read about this incredible story before but as stories that reveal the deeper wishes and intentions of people it ranks so high that repeated reading is as much a gift as anything a person could wish to receive! thanks. steven

  16. The novelist William Wharton, who fought in WWII in the Battle of the Bulge, wrote a book, "A Midnight Clear," which, while set in WWII, surely took its inspiration from the Christmas truce event. Scenes from the movie made from that book have always stayed in my mind.

  17. It was great to read an original account of this - I've never seen one before. Such an amazing thing to happen.

  18. The pointlessness of war is heartbreaking .

  19. Both JOYEUX NOEL and the very
    should be mandatory viewing
    during this Advent season,
    and perhaps KING OF HEARTS
    for dessert. As we tug ourselves
    in with our loved ones for the
    holidays, let us not forget the
    young men and women who
    are in Iraq and Afghanistan
    in harm's way this very day.

  20. As the historian previous mentioned,
    these stories reinforce our humanity,
    but their truth will break our hearts,
    for in all cases, the guns were pointed
    at each other, and so many died
    needlessly at the order of their
    superiors. In 1914, the official
    retribution that the higher ups took
    was unconscionable.

  21. What a wonderful post, Friko! And why does the madness of war continue?

  22. von Herzen einen wunderbaren 3. Advent für Dich!!!

  23. What a poignant and emotional message.

  24. This story is one that captured my heart years ago. I've seen the movie Joyeux Noel once but not the other. I'll have to look it up. Thank you for sharing the letter - it truly was an amazing event, recognized even at the time it happened.

  25. Thank you Friko. A story that has always wrenched my heart as I believe many of them died on the front as punishment for what they did.
    The Masters of the Universe in their gold lined caves made sure they paid for it.

  26. A beautiful story (and the detail provided by the letter is new to me) of the holiest night of the year.
    I read this with tears in my eyes.

  27. Hi Friko. I just linked to you at my site for this meaningful post. Merry Christmas.


Comments are good, I like to know what you think of my posts. I know you'll keep it civil.