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The World War I Christmas Truce - and Hope for Today

By Rebecca Price Janney, Dec 19 2017 03:50PM

The World War I Christmas Truce

When I was a girl, I loved the song about Snoopy and the Red Baron meeting in the skies at Christmas and thrilled over the unexpected outcome. Did you know, this whimsical tune is actually based on events from 1914, during the first World War I holiday season?

The World War I Christmas Truce is the only extended one in the history of warfare. At the time it happened, the war was only four months old, but already a million men had died. No one had anticipated the fighting would be so costly. In fact, many people believed the war would be over by Christmas.

To observe the holiday, the English government sent boxes of chocolates and cakes for the soldiers in the trenches, while Germany sent tens of thousands of small (tabletop) Christmas trees with candles clamped to the branches.

On Christmas Eve at nightfall, many English troops heard the singing of “Silent Night” coming from the German lines, and they became very curious. They started peaking through the barbed wire and saw thousands of Christmas trees suddenly appear at the top of the trenches, sparkling in the cold night. Normally to even light a match was to invite gunfire, so the Germans were doing a bold thing.

The English crawled under the barbed wire and were met by the Germans who asked, “You English—you celebrate Christmas?” Upon hearing they did, they began trading small presents with each other, things like uniform buttons, cigarettes, and candy. They agreed to a truce so they could bury the dead bodies on both sides in the no man’s land between their trenches. Some even held joint services.

After that was done, they played soccer – football - together, and one German reported their side won, 3-2. One German brought his goldfish bowl out and did a juggling act.

The military commands on both sides were far removed from the trenches, and when they heard about the truce, they weren’t pleased. They sent orders to stop, but throughout Christmas Day, the soldiers observed the truce.

The next day, the officers in high command moved their soldiers to the rear because they had fraternized with the enemy, and they brought in fresh troops.

The 1960s ballad about Snoopy vs. the Red Baron was fictional, but pilots also observed a truce. Normally, when a pilot on either side downed a plane, he would fly over the area and drop a wreath. During the Christmas Truce of 1914, there’s a story of a British pilot dropping a plum pudding, and a German, a bottle of rum.

We may not be in an all-out war, but we are living in hard times, in a deeply divided nation. There’s a lot of bitterness, anger, and fear about the future. But I believe in the Christmas miracle – of God coming to earth as a tiny baby, born of a human mother in a smelly barn of all places! He is the Prince of Peace.

Because of that overarching miracle, others tend to flow out from it at this season, even among sworn enemies. God reminds us in hard times He’s still here, and He is able to bring together even the most belligerent people.

That gives us reason to hope.

Other facts:

Some French regiments observed a ceasefire, but they didn’t fraternize. This was mainly between the English and the Germans.

The British occupied about 30 miles of trenches, and the French, 300 miles; although several regiments of the French did observe the truce, they didn’t fraternize.

There was only one German soldier who refused to go out and participate in the celebrations. His men tried to convince him -- “Come on, Adi, it’s Christmas.”

He responded, “I don’t believe in Christmas, and I don’t believe in fraternizing with the enemy.”

We have a record of this soldier’s name – it was Adolf Hitler.

For further reading:

Silent Night: The Remarkable 1914 Christmas Truce by Stanley Weinstein. (2002; Plume)

Also, there have been several movies and documentaries about the truce, some more accurate than others!

The Christmas Truce (public domain photo)
The Christmas Truce (public domain photo)
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