By: Nancy RommelmannPublished: December 25, 2022

Christmas Truce on 1914

"Do you get PBS?" texted a friend, asking because the theatrical production All is Calm, the Christmas Truce of 1914 would be airing Christmas night. She included a link to British and German soldiers - or the actors playing them - singing "Silent Night" together, a moment of fraternization during an otherwise ghastly season.

When we were younger, or when I was younger, I wondered why WWI was called the Great War. I knew of the atrocities of the war my grandfather fought in - WWII, in the Pacific theater - and did not apprehend how things could get much worse than that. Not until I was older did I apprehend the shock of Industrial Age warfare, how the weaponry commandeered killing in ways people had no chance against: poison gases that melted faces and caused asphyxiation, land mines, aerial bombing, mechanical flamethrowers. By war's end, an estimated 20 million were dead and 21 million wounded, including 880,000 British forces and more than two million German.

For at least one documented day, they decided instead to sing together.

It was Christmas Eve 1914, and a British machine gunner named Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote how he'd been was shivering in a mud hole in Belgium when he heard the Germans "kicking up that racket" from across the frozen field.

“I listened,” he recalled. “Among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices.”

The German troops were singing "Stille Nacht." The British added their voices in English. After some back and forth between officers, soldiers on each side climbed from their respective trenches and traversed the barbed-wire no-man's land, meeting on land they'd heretofore only been able to cross unmolested to collect their dead.

"But now, there were handshakes and words of kindness. The soldiers traded songs, tobacco and wine, joining in a spontaneous holiday party in the cold night," according to one account. The camaraderie continued unto Christmas Day, with libations and even a game of soccer. Has the Christmas Truce perhaps been embellished for, say, a biscuit commercial? Sure, and why not?

I will be watching the commemoration tonight with my friend. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.


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