The Christmas Truce of 1914

By:  Kurt Hyde
12/26/2013
       
The Christmas Truce of 1914

What if they called a war and peace broke out instead? That's exactly what happened during the Christmas season of 1914 when the soldiers themselves called a truce and, had it not been for intervention by the higher authorities on both sides, World War I might have ended.

Stanley Weintraub does an excellent job of preserving for posterity this remarkable wartime truce in his book Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, and much of what follows is derived from that valuable source. The truce came as no surprise, Weintraub explains, as there were early indications that some of the fighting men might lay down their arms for a Christmas truce, particularly between the British and German lines near Ploegstreert Wood in Belgium. Many of these troops held no animosities toward each other and questioned their reasons for being involved in the war. The opposing trenches were close enough for them to see and hear each other preparing to celebrate the same Christian holiday, Christmas.

Intelligence reports indicating friendly exchanges and the possibility of an informal truce prompted British Brigadier General G. T. Forrestier-Walker to issue an order forbidding the friendly exchanges. When Forrestier-Walker's directive didn't stop the friendly exchanges, the high command reacted by trying to step up the war, ordering attacks on German trenches. In general, these costly attacks failed not only militarily but also in terms of stopping the truce. The final attempt to prevent the truce came on Christmas Eve when the British high command issued a bogus intelligence report of a supposed impending German attack. Very few commanders believed this phony intelligence report, relying instead on their own intelligence information, which was that the German troops were in all-out preparation alright — to celebrate Christmas.

During Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides could hear numerous Christmas carols being sung in the trenches on the other side. One particularly solemn moment occurred in the trenches near Ploegstreert Wood. At 11:00 p.m., which was at midnight in Berlin, Germany, there was a booming baritone voice singing the beloved Christmas carol "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"). History has failed to record the name of this man who sang "Stille Nacht," but his singing of this beloved Christmas carol had an enormous psychological effect on the soldiers of both sides. Despite official pronouncements to the contrary, the soldiers in those trenches slept that night knowing in their hearts that a Christmas truce had begun. There were many Christmas carols, the singing of each hymn communicating peace amongst those who sang them and those who heard from opposing trenches, but "Silent Night" seems to be the one stood out the most. 

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