The Paregien Journal – Issue 371 – December 8, 2017
A true story worth sharing . . .
Christmas Truces in 1914:
Peace in the Trenches of World War I
by Stan Paregien
Copyrighted Dec. 8, 2017
World War I began as a dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia on July 28, 1914, but soon involved many countries of the world. It pitted the “Allied Forces” such as Serbia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Ireland, Italy, Japan and Russia against the so-called “Central Powers” such as Serbia, Germany, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. The United States did not officially join the Allied forces until 1917. Many journalists and politicians billed this military struggle as “the war to end all wars.” By the end of World War I on November 11, 1918 , some 25 million people – soldiers and civilians – had been killed or serious injured. And when the smoke cleared, no one saw it as an antidote to future wars.
By November of 1914, all allusions about this war being a short one were gone. Along the Western Front, each side was dug-in to fortified, well-defended trenches and underground tunnels. This had become a war of attrition, depression and sometimes boredom.
However, a striking example of human decency and goodwill took place mainly on the Western Front between some of the British troops and some of the opposing German troops just five months after the war had started in Europe. One hour these young soldiers were trying to kill their enemies in their trenches often less than a hundred yards away. Each army was hunkered down in their respective muddy trenches, cold and lonely and experiencing a mixture of fear and courage.
It was shortly just before midnight on Christmas Eve that a series of purely spontaneous and often unauthorized truces broke out along the long battle line. Most believe it was the German boys who started it when they stopped firing their rifles and machine guns and artillery. As that awkward peace lingered, those German troops began singing Christmas songs. In a few places, some even accompanied the singing with harmonicas or bugles.
Naturally, the leaders of the British troops were at first skeptical of this “truce” and viewed it as a trick to lull them into a false sense of security. But it wasn’t that at all. Soon, here and there along the Western Front, British troops began singing out their own Christmas carols with both pleasure and gusto. Their own musicians kicked in with whatever instruments they had at their disposal. And the Germans began yelling out in their own language or even in broken English, “Merry Christmas.” And the British troops in those spots along the war zone responded with their own shouts of “Merry Christmas to all.”
That kind of activity lasted through the early morning hours of Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 1914. Then just after dawn, amazingly, a handful of young German troops stood up with their arms outstretched to show they were not armed. After a few minutes they slowly walked toward the opposing troops and across “no-man’s land.” Just as bravely, a few of the British troops crawled out of their trenches and walked toward the Germans with their own arms outstretched in a sign of friendship. The two groups met in the middle ground, shook hands and even embraced in generous expressions of friendship. In a few minutes, many others from both sides joined the group standing exposed in the middle of the battlefield. They sang Christmas songs with the same melodies, but their different languages. And they laughed. A lot. A few even brought out leather-bound soccer balls and the two sides played “kick ball” or “kick about.”
It was during these brief but enthusiastic kick ball competitions that the Germans got both an education and a chuckle or two. In one location there was a regiment of British troops from Scotland and they wore their traditional kilts on the battlefield. A German lieutenant, Johannes Niemann, years later recalled the scene this way:
“Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts—and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of one posterior belonging to one of ‘yesterday’s enemies.’ But after an hour’s play, when our Commanding Officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it. A little later we drifted back to our trenches and the fraternization ended.”
This entirely impromptu show of the brotherhood of man soon had them exchanging small gifts – perhaps a coin from their own respective currency, chocolate bars, military dress buttons, a pack of cigarettes, a can of peaches or plum pudding, a spare patch of their military unit or whatever they had at hand. In a few instances, prisoners were even exchanged and each side given time to bury their dead. This scene was repeated in many places along the Western war front as spontaneous gestures of goodwill, if only for a day.
Peace in the trenches, what a marvelous Christmas gift.
Of course, not all units of either Army participated in the truces. Some never even heard of them, since they were spontaneous and unauthorized beyond low-level officers right there in the field. Others among both the German and the British sides actually opposed such unauthorized fraternization with the enemy. When reports of these truces and fraternization reached the higher commanders, stern rebukes were issued and penalties imposed for such unauthorized actions. One of those who stood opposed to such truces was the French military leader Charles de Gaulle, and another was a young German officer named . . . Adolph Hitler of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry.
Meanwhile, away from the actual battlefields there were pockets of anti-war protestors who saluted the spontaneous truces but protested for far more. When the United States began drafting young men into the military in 1917, it was labor leader Eugene V. Debs who opposed it and was sent to a Federal prison until 1920. Bertrand Russell, one of Britain’s leading intellectuals, spoke out against the war and spent six-months in a London jail for his efforts. Likewise, Rosa Luxemburg was an anti-war German leader who was imprisoned for two years for her protests.
Also, unfortunately, even on that Christmas day in 1914 killing and dying took place not far from some of those truce celebrations. Here are two examples.
In the darkness just before dawn, near the French village of Festubert—just a half-mile from some of the truce celebrations, several German soldiers hoisted lamps up above their trenches. “Those lamps looked like Chinese lanterns” some said. Then they called out to their British counterparts across the no man’s land. The men shouted out an offer for a day of mutual piece on this Christmas day. A British officer, thinking it was a ruse, ordered his men to shoot out those glowing lamps and they did. The German troops got the message, dismissed their generous overture to the British, and had their own short period of singing Christmas carols.
Photo of Private Percy Huggins
(1) So it was that later that day a 23-year old private from England named Percy Huggins (1st Battalion Hertfordshire Regiment ) was at his assigned post. It was business as usual on his part of the Western Front. He was stationed on the line less than a hundred yards from a German trench Private Huggins peeked over the mound of dirt in front of his own trench and that is when a German sniper fired a fatal bullet through his head.
(2) The men of Huggins’ regiment were enraged by his killing on this Christmas day. Immediately, his platoon Sergeant, Tom Gregory, demanded and received permission to take his comrade’s position to give him a chance at avenging his friend’s death. Sgt. Gregory, was 36-years old and an expert marksman himself. Back home in Watford, England he had worked for the postal service. On this frigid day he lay still on the frost covered dirt and soon saw the German sniper and killed him with one shot. Instantly, he detected the movement of another sniper but before he could aim his own rifle the second sniper shot and killed him.
These two British soldiers were among their 149 fellow soldiers who lost their lives on that Christmas day in 1914 (some who died that day had had previously-inflicted battle wounds). And, of course, a number of German troops – like the one sniper mentioned above — were killed on that day as well.
By 1915, both sides had perfected new technologies of killing their enemies such a machine guns and tanks. One of the most frightening weapons, but not terribly efficient, was the release of poison gas, a tactic used by both the Allied Forces and the Cenral Powers. By 1917, both sides were experiencing sharp increases in deaths and carnage. So, not surprisingly, all sides demonized their opponents. And no more opportunities occurred for such spontaneous truces as those in 1914.
Still, those amazing displays of brotherhood and humanity between opposing troops on Christmas day in 1914 are still poignant reminders of what can happen between people of goodwill. That unique day has inspired poems like that of Carol Ann Duffy (Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom) in 2013 titled “The Christmas Truce” and songs like “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon in 1984, as well as scores of articles like this one you’re reading and dozens of books like scholar Adam Hochschild’s volume titled To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.
So let’s all stop for a moment, making our own truce in the middle of our busy lives. Is there a person or a group of people with whom you have had difficulties that you might take a first step of peace . . . and perhaps of reconciliation?
The apostle Paul certainly was echoing the ministry of Jesus when he wrote in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
Maybe you could break the ice between you and an estranged relative . . . or between you and a group of people . . . or between your congregation (or club or organization) and another by handing key people a copy of this article. And say something to the effect that you’d like to stop shooting at each other and have a truce, with a view toward lasting peace.
My hope is the examples of these warring troops who reached out to each other on Christmas day in 1914 will motivate us to establish our own spontaneous truces where the influence of the Prince of Peace is desperately needed.
Bajekal, Naina. “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914.” Published online by Time magazine at: http://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/. Accessed on Dec. 7, 2017.
Brown, Malcolm and Shirley Seaton. The Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914. London: Papermac, 1994.
“Christmas is for Sharing.” This was a Christmas-time ad (video) which was produced in 2014 as a TV commercial by the Sainsbury’s chain of grocery stores in the eastern United State. You may view it on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KHoVBK2EVE
“Christmas Truce.” Wikipedia, accessed on Dec. 1, 2017. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce)
“Christmas truce of 1914 was broken when German snipers killed two British soldiers.”
Posted to the web site of the London Telegraph newspaper on Dec. 22, 2014 near the 100th anniversary of this event. Accessed Dec. 2, 2017 at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/11307513/Christmas-truce-of-1914-was-broken-when-German-snipers-killed-two-British-soldiers.html ]
Cleaver, Alan and Lesley Park (eds.). The Christmas Truce 1914: Operation Plum Puddings, accessed December 22, 2011.
Dash, Mike. “The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce.” An article for the Smithsonian Museum Magazine which was published on their web site on Dec. 23, 2011. Accessed on Dec. 2, 2017 at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-story-of-the-wwi-christmas-truce-11972213/
Ferro, Marc and Malcolm Brown and Rémy Cazals and Olaf Mueller. Meetings in No Man’s Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in the Great War. London: Constable & Robinson, 2007.
Cleaver, Alan and Lesley Park. Not a Shot was Fired: Letters from the Christmas Truce 1914. Alan Cleaver, Publisher. 2nd Edition in full color, 2008.
“Christmas Truce of 1914,” a video. History.com Accessed on Dec. 7, 2017 online at: http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/christmas-truce-of-1914
Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918. New York: Mariner Books by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
Kuper, Simon. “Soccer in the trenches: Remembering the WWI Christmas Truce.” Published on the ESPN sports web site on Dec. 25, 2015. Accessed on Dec. 7, 2017 at: http://www.espn.com/soccer/blog/espn-fc-united/68/post/2191045/christmas-truce-soccer-matches-during-world-war-one.
Rees, Simon. “The Christmas Truce.” Published online on Aug. 22, 2009 at http://firstworldwar.com/features/christmastruce.htm . Accessed on Dec. 7, 2017. “First World War.com” bills itself as “a multimedia history of World War One.”
Snow, Dan. “What really happened in the Christmas truce of 1914?” A presentation on the British Broadcasting Company’s TV channel. Accessed Dec. 1, 2017 online at
“The Christmas Truce.” A song written by John McKutcheon in 1984 about the truces in the trenches of World War I along the Western Front in Europe. See and hear him perform his song on YouTube at: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=chords+for+the+song%2c+%22Christmas+in+the+Trenches%22&&view=detail&mid=2E284897E6744A13B6DE2E284897E6744A13B6DE&&FORM=VDRVRV
Twitter, Jon Wiener. “The Day the Troops Refused to Fight: December 25, 1914.” Published in the online version of The Nation magazine on Dec. 23, 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of this remarkable day. Accessed on Dec. 1, 2017 at:
Weintraub, Stanley. “Demystifying the Christmas truce.” The Heritage of the Great War. __________. Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce Of 1914. London: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
“World War I.” Wikipedia. Accessed on Dec. 1, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I.
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Some Thoughts on Cats and Dogs,
Candles, and Romans 14
By Curtis K. Shelburne
Copyrighted Dec. 4, 2017
Getting ready. That’s what Advent is about.
At church we lit the first candle of Advent this morning, and, as I write on this Sunday evening, I’m sitting in a quiet house, enfolded by the warm glow of the light from our Christmas tree.
I didn’t grow up observing Advent or, for that matter, any of the other seasons of the “Christian calendar.” I was unaware that there was such a thing, and in our non- or anti-denomination denomination, there most certainly was not. I was blessed by “our” folks and still love them, but our bunch back then wasn’t even very sure about celebrating Christmas as a “religious” holiday. We weren’t the only ones. Chalk that, and a lot of this, up to our common Puritan ancestors, I think, who tended to be suspicious of both color and celebration. But, honestly, I need to read more history to be sure I’m being fair with them.
As I grew older, I suppose I became vaguely aware that Lent was a time preceding Easter and, I thought, seemed to have something maybe to do with eating fish on Fridays. What else? I didn’t know.
As is the case with all of us pretty much all of the time, I needed very badly to learn a little more history to be able to make more sense out of the present and plot a wise course for the future. And, as a Christian, I desperately needed to read more church history for the very same reasons.
I also needed to learn some things other members of Christ’s family could teach me if we’d just try to cross over our walls occasionally and visit a bit. Not only do we honor our Lord by doing so (he prayed poignantly for the unity of God’s people, you know, in John 17), we also put ourselves in a position to learn some things. We might or might not choose to make some changes in our own situations, but at least we might come to understand more about the decisions and practices of other folks who love and honor their Lord every bit as much as our own little group does. The guy who said that cats and dogs who try spending more time with each other often find it to be a very broadening experience was on to something.
Differences among Christians regarding the keeping—or not—of special days is nothing new. When the Holy Spirit made it clear that God wanted the doors of his church opened wide to both Jews and Gentiles (the gulf between them was vastly wider than that between, say, a Baptist and a Lutheran) well, you never saw cats and dogs have a harder time figuring out how to live under one roof.
Ironically, then it was the more conservative folks who felt duty-bound to observe special feast days, and folks on the other end of the spectrum who felt perfectly free not to. Read the amazing Romans 14 to see God’s incredible counsel to his kids about dealing with differences. Don’t stand in judgment on each other, he says. Make a decision that you believe honors Christ. In love, let your brothers and sisters do the same. And don’t you kids dare look down on each other or try to make laws for one another! You’ve got one Master. You’re not him.
By the way, it turns out that Lent has precious little to do with fish. Advent does have something to do with candles (and I like candles). But both have a lot to do with preparing our hearts to more fully receive what God is doing. Personally, I like that a lot. Personally, I need that a lot.
[Copyright 2017 by Curtis K. Shelburne of Muleshoe, TX. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice. You’re invited to visit his website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com ]