On a cold December night in 1914, after yet another arduous day of brutal, bloody fighting, German and British soldiers returned to their respective trenches to prepare and rest for yet another arduous day of brutal, bloody fighting.
The still of the night was eventually interrupted by the strains of a familiar Christmas carol but having words unfamiliar to the Brits — “Silent Night,” sung in German. It was then that everyone remembered — this was Christmas Eve.
“It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere: and at about 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights — I don’t know what they were,” Pvt. Albert Moren, a British soldier, wrote in a journal, according to Fox News. “And then they sang, ‘Silent Night’ – ‘Stille Nacht.’ I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.”
Then, during that first Christmas Day during World War I, in 1914, something magical happened, at least in some areas.
Soldiers, the number is hard to quantify but believed to be around 100,000, who had been killing each other by the tens of thousands for months, climbed out of their soggy trenches to seek a shred of humanity amid the horrors of war.
Hands reached out across a narrow divide, presents were exchanged, and in Flanders Fields a century ago, a spontaneous Christmas truce briefly lifted the human spirit.
No one knows today who made that first overture of peace — Brit or Hun — but it had to have been seen as either an act of extreme bravery or unmitigated madness at the time, following months of slogging it out in the mud of the “no man’s land” that separated the trenches of the two forces.
The Christmas gifts exchanged were crude and makeshift — bits of chocolate, scraps of food, and mementos from home.
On the other side of the front line, Pvt. Henry Williamson of the London Rifle Brigade was amazed by the goodwill among his enemies.
Few could believe their eyes, on this patch of Belgium and northern France where crimson poppies had long ago shriveled in the cold. Peace allowed for dead bodies to be recovered from the fields and given a proper burial.
“Not a shot was fired,” Lt. Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxony regiment wrote in his diary that Christmas.
German soldier Werner Keil scribbled his name on a piece of paper and gave a uniform button to 19-year-old British Cpl. Eric Rowden of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles on Christmas Day 1914. “We laughed and joked together, having forgotten war altogether,” Rowden wrote.
“We stood inside the circle like street corner orators. … What a sight — little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front!” Cpl. John Ferguson, a Scottish troop, wrote. “Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs.”
That was 100 years ago today — when “the Great War” came to a screeching halt for a single day. Dec. 26 was business as usual.