“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
Rifleman Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade
“I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted: “No shooting!” Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands – a bit cautiously!”
Captain Josef Sewald of Germany’s 17th Bavarian Regiment
It was a symbolic moment of peace in a violent global war. We like to believe that just for this one special day, Christmas Day 1914, all across the front lines, men from both warring armies emerged from their trenches and met in ‘no man’s land’ to exchange gifts and play football. But this brief festive reprieve was far from being a mass event. Where it didn’t occur it was much like any other day, where it did occur, accounts suggest that both sides sang carols and in some cases left their trenches and shook hands.
The arrival of December 1914 was proof, if any were needed, that the war would not be ‘over by Christmas’. For the men at the front, months of tough fighting were to be followed by a festive period away from home. By Christmas Eve itself, the damp weather gave way to the cold and a festive frost settled on certain places at the front. As the main night of celebration in Germany, candles and trees went up along parts of the German line. And as darkness fell, the entrenched German and British soldiers engaged in a carol sing-off.
“Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it.”
Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of Germany’s 134th Saxons Infantry Regiment
Along parts of the front, some men responded to the events of Christmas Eve by tentatively emerging from their trenches into No Man’s Land on Christmas Day. Where it happened, enemy soldiers did indeed meet and spend Christmas together. They exchanged gifts and took photos but according to official sources there was NO organised football match, there may have been kick-abouts but this was one of many activities that the soldiers took the time to enjoy.
It did not take long for these small scale unofficial ceasefires to reach the newspaper back in Britain. High Command were extremely angry because they feared that the men would now begin to question the war and perhaps even mutiny, as a result of their fraternisation with the enemy they were supposed to be defeating. Stricter orders were issued to end such activities with harsh punishment for any man refusing to fight. These small truces never happened again but it was too late – the amazing stories were out there – in the media and in the imagination.