Silent night in the trenches

Aleksandra Polewska

Recently one of the British antique auctions has sold a certain letter. Its author was an ordinary English soldier called Tom. The addressee was his sister Janet, living in London. The yellowed sheets, handwritten in ink, are not even 100 years old but many rich collectors wanted to buy them. Since the letter was written at the site of the unprecedented historic miracle: in the Belgian entrenchment at Ypres on the Christmas Eve of 1914.
During the first January days in 1915 the British newspapers competed to quote the letters of the English soldiers fighting at Ypres, Belgium, which had been sent to their relatives during that Christmas. Nobody could believe that something like that had actually happened. On 24 December 1914 the British, the Germans and the French decided to declare a spontaneous Christmas Eve armistice. At first they wanted only one day without shooting, bayonets and the dead. No privates and officers expected that night to change their hearts to such an extent that they all would refuse obedience to their commanders – in the name of their deep desire for peace. Even the best historic book could not describe the spirit of those Christmas days better than the preserved letters of the soldiers fighting at Ypres. Here is a fragment of the letter that was auctioned.
My dear sister Janet,
It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their dugouts yet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn't been through it myself, I would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy soldiers here on the battlefields of France! As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed in our trenches and waited. But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench, killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our heads above ground, for fear of a snipers bullet. And the rain, it has fallen almost daily. Of course, it collects right in our trenches, where we must bail it out with pots and pans. And with the rain has come mud a good foot or more deep. It splatters and cakes everything, and constantly sucks at our boots. One new recruit got his feet stuck in it, and then his hands too when he tried to get out just like in that American story of the tar baby! Through all this, we couldn't help feeling curious about the German soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we did, and slogged about in the same muck. What’s more, their first trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Mans Land, bordered on both sides by barbed wire. Yet they were close enough we sometimes heard their voices. Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common. And now it seems they felt the same. Just yesterday morning, Christmas Eve Day, we had our first good freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather. During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might promise a peaceful holiday, but we didn’t count on it. We’d been told the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard. I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, Come and see! See what the Germans are doing! I grabbed my rifle, stumbled out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.

Enemies signing carols

I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far as the eye could see. What is it? I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, Christmas trees! And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will. And then we heard their voices raised in song. Stille nacht, Heilige nacht... This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it and translated: Silent night, holy night. Ive never heard one lovelier or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark softened by a first-quarter moon. When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes, British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started singing, and we all joined in. The first Noel, the angel did say... In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their own and then began another’s Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum... Then we replied. O come all ye faithful... But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin. Adeste fideles ... British and German harmonizing across No Mans Land! I would have thought nothing could be more amazing but what came next was more so. English, come over! We heard one of them shout. You no shoot, we no shoot. There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then one of us shouted jokingly, You come over here. To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Mans Land. One of them called, Send officer to talk. I saw one of our men lift his rifle to the ready, and no doubt others did the same, but our captain called out, Hold your fire. Then he climbed out and went to meet the Germans halfway. We heard them talking, and a few minutes later, the captain came back with a German cigar in his mouth! We've agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow, he announced. But sentries are to remain on duty, and the rest of you, stay alert. Across the way, we could make out groups of two or three men starting out of trenches and coming toward us. Then some of us were climbing out too, and in minutes more, there we were in No Mans Land, over a hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men wed been trying to kill just hours earlier! Before long a bonfire was built, and around it we mingled, British khaki and German grey. I must say, the Germans were the better dressed, with fresh uniforms for the holiday. Only a couple of our men knew German, but more of the Germans knew English. I asked one of them why that was. Because many have worked in England! He said. Before all this, I was a waiter at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps I waited on your table! Perhaps you did! I said, laughing. He told me he had a girlfriend in London and that the war had interrupted their plans for marriage. I told him, Don’t worry. We'll have you beat by Easter, then you can come back and marry the girl. He laughed at that. Then he asked if I'd send her a postcard he'd give me later, and I promised I would. Another German had been a porter at Victoria Station. He showed me a picture of his family back in Munich. His eldest sister was so lovely, I said I should like to meet her someday. He beamed and said he would like that very much and gave me his family's address. Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts, our cigarettes for their cigars, our tea for their coffee, our corned beef for their sausage. Badges and buttons from uniforms changed owners, and one of our lads walked off with the infamous spiked helmet! I myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt a fine souvenir to show when I get home. Newspapers too, changed hands, and the Germans howled with laughter at ours. They assured us that France was finished and Russia nearly beaten too. We told them that was nonsense, and one of them said, Well, you believe your newspapers and we'll believe ours. Clearly, they are lied to. Yet after meeting these men, I wonder how truthful our own newspapers have been. These are not the savage barbarians we've read so much about. They are men with homes and families, hopes and fears, principles and, yes, love of country. In other words, men like ourselves. Why are we led to believe otherwise? As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and then all joined in for, I am not lying to you... Auld Lang Syne. Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some talk of a football match.

3-2 for the Germans

The next day, 25 December 1914, could have been considered as an important date in the sports history, and strictly speaking, in the history of soccer. On that day, in No Man’s Land the team of the Prussian army and the team of the British army, hostile to the Germans, played a football match. Unfortunately, the match ended before time because the ball fell on the barbed wire and the air from the ball escaped. Because of that circumstance the winners were the Germans, the score being 3-2. The headquarters of the British army learnt about the truce with much delay because of the distance from the front line. On Boxing Day the high rank officers of both armies tried to end the truce. However, although the truce ended officially at 8.30 a.m. there was no fighting all day. The soldiers of both armies were not in a hurry. In some places the truce was prolonged until the New Year’s Eve or the New Year Day. The Scots maintained peace until 3 January. Finally, the snipers of both armies began shooting those soldiers who tried to cross the trenches and the truce ended. Soon the new German units from East Prussia arrived at the German front. And that was not accidental. Most of the Germans who had agreed on the truce refused to continue fighting. And they were severely punished. They were sent to the eastern front, to the most dangerous battlefield where rescue would be a real miracle.

What does that all mean?

Let us return to Tom’s letter to his sister:
I was just starting back to the trenches when an older German clutched my arm. My God, he said, why cannot we have peace and all go home? I told him gently, That you must ask your emperor. He looked at me then, searchingly. Perhaps, my friend. But also we must ask our hearts. And so, dear sister, tell me, has there ever been such a Christmas Eve in all history? And what does it all mean, this impossible befriending of enemies? For the fighting here, of course, it means regrettably little. Decent fellows those soldiers may be, but they follow orders and we do the same. Besides, we are here to stop their army and send it home, and never could we shirk that duty. Still, one cannot help imagine what would happen if the spirit shown here were caught by the nations of the world. Of course, disputes must always arise. But what if our leaders were to offer well wishes in place of warnings? Songs in place of slurs? Presents in place of reprisals? Would not all war end at once? All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.

Trauma of the generals

This is a case of sad irony of history. In the same battlefield where in December 1914 there was an unprecedented reconciliation in the history of civilisation, almost six months later, on 22 April 1915, the mass destruction weapons – the lethal gas, today called mustard gas, also called Yperite, were used for the first time. The name comes from Ypres, in the vicinity of which the Germans began using it. In December 1915, at the same site, near Neuve Chappelle, other spontaneous truces were agreed on. However, their ranges were much smaller. The reasons were the events of the preceding months: the bloody attack at Ypres or the usage of the mustard gas by the Germans. The commanders of both armies tried to prevent any forms of reconciliation, ordering artillery attacks during holidays. They also avoided keeping military units at one place for a long time so that the soldiers would not get to know their counterparts. The commanders who were shocked by the completely unforeseen behaviours of their armies did not want to experience this trauma again. Because if during the war one soldier refuses to fulfil the orders he can be shot without any problems. If ten soldiers refuse to obey their commanders they could be executed as well. It would be possible to execute even one hundred of rebellious soldiers but one could not punish all units and brigades, considering that these would be your own soldiers. The history of military affairs has not witnessed anything like that and perhaps it will never do.

"Niedziela" 52/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: