In the midst of the unrelenting violence of World War I, a ceasefire suddenly swept across areas of the Western front in 1914. Massive amounts of life had already been extinguished, but there was one event that halted the brutality and bloodshed.
On December 24, 1914, a British soldier noticed something strange happening along the Western Front in France and Belgium. Through the icy fog, the flicker of candles was visible, and there were dark silhouettes of little fir trees positioned along the German lines. Rifle fire had been replaced by Christmas carols.
“Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas,” the officer reported to headquarters. “Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.”
World War I had broken out the previous summer, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers had already died. By the time Christmas Eve came around, it had been raining for weeks, making life in the trenches all the more dismal. But on December 24, the storms suddenly stopped.
Instead, a light snow began to fall and gently blanket the ground. British Private Albert Moren recalled Christmas Eve 1914 as “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere.”
Men settled into their trenches for a subdued celebration. The German government sent their troops small Christmas trees and candles; British soldiers received brass boxes containing candy or tobacco.
The battlefield went silent. Then, somewhere within the trenches, soldiers broke out in a chorus of “Silent Night.”
The Germans’ rendition of “Silent Night” was greeted with a British performance of “The First Noel.” Then, a German voice cut through the night: “Do not shoot after 12 o’clock and we will not do so either.”
As a chilly Christmas Eve brightened into Christmas day, the uneasy peace continued. German soldiers emerged from the trenches, calling out Christmas greetings. Sometimes they held up signs, promising not to shoot.
At dawn, many British soldiers could more easily see the Christmas trees set up along German trenches. Men of both sides began to emerge, moving cautiously toward the opposing army. Rifleman Oswald Tilley described the scene in a letter to his parents, writing that “literally hundreds of each side were out in No Man’s Land shaking hands.”
As the day continued, the men exchanged small gifts. They offered each other things they had on hand like cigarettes, food, buttons, and hats. Many of the Germans spoke English and engaged in conversation with the British soldiers. Meanwhile, the pause in hostilities allowed both sides to collect their dead.
The temporary truce of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914 has since come to be regarded as an unparalleled time of light in the darkness — a short-lived moment of peace during the bloody slog of World War I.
Learn more about the incredible story of the Christmas Truce of 1914.