Exactly one hundred years ago, a Christmas truce arose spontaneously among British and German soldiers on the front line during the first year of World War I.
All along the front line, soldiers on both sides began to call out good wishes for Christmas to each other, or one side started singing a Christmas carol–said to be “Silent Night”/”Stille Nacht”–and the other side joined in. After a while, someone got up the courage to approach the other side, and slowly soldiers emerged from the trenches to greet each other, exchange headgear, buttons, and Christmas “cheer,” including plum puddings, German delicacies, cigars, cigarettes, and drink.
As Rifleman C H Brazier, Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford wrote in a letter that was published in the Herfordshire Mercury on Saturday, January 9, 1915,
“You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. . . . All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ.”
The soldiers of both countries took this opportunity to retrieve and bury their dead, sometimes burying the British and German soldiers side-by-side.
A large British chain store, Sainsbury’s, has created an ad that depicts this Christmas truce. People either love it or hate it. The ad has been criticized for romanticizing the story and embellishing it with a depiction of a German/British football (soccer) game.
However, although it is documented that the truce consisted primarily of handshakes, the exchange of Christmas greetings, food, and alcohol, a very informative article provides several letters from soldiers that refer to at least one football game being played.
In 1983, Ernie Williams, of the 6th Cheshire Territorials, claimed in a TV interview that he had taken part himself in the famous match, saying,
“The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side – it wasn’t from our side that the ball came. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. . . . Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melee – nothing like the soccer you see on television. The boots we wore were a menace – those great big boots we had on – and in those days the balls were made of leather and they soon got very soggy.”
A fellow member of the 6th Cheshires, Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden, was interviewed by the Evening Mail, Newcastle while in Stockport for a week’s leave. He told the paper:
“On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part.
My feeling about the ad, which you really should view, is that it’s definitely romanticized (surely the soldiers would look more haggard and dirty due to the mud and horrendous conditions, and the music has been written to tear at the heartstrings), but that it also tells a beautiful story, about how, in the midst of a terrible war, a Christmas truce really happened.
My best wishes to you for a Merry Christmas.