It was the winter of 1914, and the world was at war. World War I had been raging for months, between the Axis powers, led by Germany, and the Allies, led by Great Britain. As Christmas approached, conditions on the front were anything but merry. Cold, wet soldiers on both sides were living in muddy, foul-smelling trenches that frequently caved in or flooded. In between the two sides lay “no-man's land,” where anything that moved would be promptly mowed down. Thousands had already died from disease or in the fighting, and there was no end in sight. On one side lay British troops, and on the other side, Germans. Christmas packages received from home were a bright spot to what was shaping up to be a pretty dreary Christmas. No one could have guessed what would happen next.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, a chocolate cake was found in one of the British trenches. Attached to it was a note from the Germans, asking for a ceasefire so both sides could celebrate Christmas. If possible, the note read, the Germans would like to give a Christmas concert after dark. Yes, that was possible, the British agreed. Sure enough, at 7:30 that night, lighted candles were placed on top of the German trenches, and German voices started singing, greeted by rousing applause on both sides. After a round of songs, the German soldiers called out to the British, or “Tommies,” as they were called, to join them. One cranky Tommy yelled, “We'd rather die than sing German!” “It would kill us if you did,” shouted back someone from the German side.
The next morning, the truce continued. Soldiers that had once been too terrified to leave their trenches ventured out to cross “no-man's land.” German and British soldiers shook hands, chatted, and swapped gifts. In some places, Germans had planted lighted Christmas trees on the trenches. One Scottish captain was startled when a German delegation approached his trench, asking in English for a ceasefire. The spokesman for the group explained that he was from Suffolk, England, where his girlfriend and favorite motorbike were waiting for his return! At one place German and English soldiers played soccer. (The Germans won, 3-2.)
The Christmas Truce lasted from one to four days (different locations varied), then the fighting began again. World War I would drag on for three more bloody years, but no one who lived through it would forget that first Christmas.