During World War I, a battle line was drawn at the Western Front – stretching from Lorraine in the south to the English Channel in the north. Soldiers dug trenches and erected barbed wire to hold their positions. In places, the trenches were just yards apart and, as the soldiers realised that neither side was going to make any rapid victories or progress, the trenches became more fortified. The opposing forces now had time to regroup and strengthen their lines with more men. The proximity of the enemies also allowed men to shout out to their opponents or stick up signs on wooden boards. After a particularly heavy barrage of missiles or bullets, the soldiers might shout out “Missed” or “Left a bit”.
For much of December it had been wet but on Christmas Eve the temperature dropped and a sharp frost enveloped the landscape. The shouting between troops turned into something more during Christmas Eve. Germans celebrate Christmas on December 24 more than they do on the day itself (in Britain and France, December 25 is the main day of celebration). So on the Western Front on Christmas Eve, German soldiers began to sing carols and place Christmas trees lit with lanterns above the trenches.
As written in one of the British soldier’s letter, “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. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. 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 enduring legacy of the informal ‘Christmas truce’ has been positive and it’s looked upon today as a wonderful example of humanity during an dreadfully dark hour of man’s history.