BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - When World War I erupted in 1914 launching the
first great European war of the 20th century, soldiers on both sides
were assured they would be home by Christmas to celebrate victory.
That prediction proved to be false.
The men on the fronts did not get home for Christmas as the war
dragged on for four years. During that time 8.5 million men were
killed, with hundreds of thousands more injured. The "war to end all
wars" took a horrific human toll and transformed
Christmas Eve in December 1914 one of the most unusual events in
military history took place on the Western front.
On the night of Dec. 24 the weather abruptly became cold, freezing
the water and slush of the trenches in which the men bunkered. On the
German side, soldiers began lighting candles. British sentries
reported to commanding officers there seemed to be small lights
raised on poles or bayonets.
Although these lanterns clearly illuminated German troops, making
them vulnerable to being shot, the British held their fire. Even more
amazing, British officers saw through their binoculars that some
enemy troops were holding Christmas trees over their heads with
lighted candles in their branches. The message was clear: Germans,
who celebrated Christmas on the eve of Dec. 24, were extending
holiday greetings to their enemies.
Within moments of that sighting, the British began hearing a few
German soldiers singing a Christmas carol. It was soon picked up all
along the German line as other soldiers joined in harmonizing.
The words heard were these: "Stille nacht, heilige nacht." British
troops immediately recognized the melody as "Silent Night" quickly
neutralized all hostilities on both sides. One by one, British and
German soldiers began laying down their weapons to venture into no-
man's-land, a small patch of bombed-out earth between the two sides.
So many soldiers on both sides ventured out that superior officers
were prevented from objecting. There was an undeclared truce and
peace had broken out.
Frank Richards was an eyewitness of this unofficial truce. In his
wartime diary he wrote: "We stuck up a board with 'Merry Christmas'
on it. The enemy stuck up a similar one. Two of our men threw off
their equipment and jumped on the parapet with their hands above
their heads as two of the Germans did the same, our two going to meet
"They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench and so did
the Germans," Richards said. Richards also explained that some
German soldiers spoke perfect English with one saying how fed up he
was with the war and how he would be glad when it was all over. His
British counterpart agreed.
That night, former enemy soldiers sat around a common campfire. They
exchanged small gifts from their meager belongings - chocolate bars,
buttons, badges and small tins of processed beef. Men who only hours
earlier had been shooting to kill were now sharing Christmas
festivities and showing each other family snapshots. The truce ended
just as it had begun, by mutual agreement.
Captain C.I. Stockwell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers recalled how,
after a truly "Silent Night," he fired three shots into the air at
8:30 a.m. December 26 and then stepped up onto the trench bank. A
German officer who had exchanged gifts with Captain Stockwell the
previous night also appeared on a trench bank. They bowed, saluted
and climbed back into their trenches. A few minutes later, Captain
Stockwell heard the German officer fire two shots into the air.
The war was on again.