1914, in the days leading up to Christmas, a strange thing happened in the trenches. After months of fighting with no end in sight, the promise that war would be over by Christmas felt like a cruel joke to soldiers on both sides.
But in these final days of the year, one morning no shots were fired. The Germans had decided to eat breakfast before fighting. According to British accounts, this new routine suited them well, and they too began having breakfast first, not taking up arms until nearly 11:00.
Then Christmas Eve arrived. A frigid winter frost had set in. Men, standing ankle-deep in icy water, watched as rats scurried over food scraps and gnawed at corpses, an otherworldly, unpleasant fact of life. But it was Christmas, and, for no planned reason, a dead silence descended over the trenches. All shooting ceased, spontaneously. Then something even more unexpected happened…
It was common in Germany to celebrate the Eve of Christmas with decorated trees small enough to set upon a table, and this year the German government sent thousands of these tiny trees to the trenches. On this night a few of the soldiers decided to set theirs on top of the parapet, in view of the enemy. In a letter, British Private William Quinton recalls:
Something in the direction of the German lines caused us to rub our eyes and look again. Here and there, showing just above their parapet, we could see very faintly what looked like very small colored lights… when something even stranger happened. The Germans were actually singing! Not very loud, but there was no mistaking it … Across the snow-clad no-man’s land, a strong clear voice rang out, singing the opening lines of “Annie Laurie.” It was sung in perfect English, and we were spellbound. … Not a sound from friend or foe, and as the last notes died away, a spontaneous outburst of clapping arose from our trenches …
Suddenly, calls of “Merry Christmas” and “Fröhliche Weihnachten” were heard exchanged across the fifty yards. Then, soaked and plastered with mud, men began to emerge from the burrows they had lived in for over 5 months and venture into no-man’s land. There, soldiers from both sides shook hands and offered further wishes for a Merry Christmas.
An unofficial truce resulted, lasting, in some areas, for several more days. It was an organic process, not organized or planned, and of course there was always the fear that the enemy could shoot at any time. Both sides kept sniper sentries, who would take potshots at nearby trees just to prove their ability to retaliate at a moment’s notice. Yet during those days there was peace.
And then one more strange thing happened. Letters home from both sides recall this incident. The German, Leutnant Johannes Niemann, wrote:
A Scottish soldier appeared with a football, which seemed to come from nowhere, and a few minutes later a real football match got underway…It was far from easy to play on frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour, and that we had no referee…The game finished with a score of three goals to two in favor of “Fritz” against “Tommy.”
What is moving is the story of the human will and its simultaneous decision to rise above conflict. But what I find even more remarkable is the story of what happened when the unexpected happened. I have to wonder: Who was that one soldier who sang “Annie Laurie”? And, in the language of the men he was supposed to hate? Who was that first soldier who ventured out to bring a token of camaraderie, a football, as an offering to his enemy? It is the sort of thing I wish to remember the next time someone cuts me off on the road, gets on my nerves in the grocery store, or annoys me with a phone solicitation. The unexpected really can happen.