When the Great War, which we now call World War I, started in Europe, many young men were eager to fight. Just out of school, they joined up with their schoolmates to go off on an exciting adventure. War seemed glorious in the fall of 1914 when young men from the British Empire went to France to fight against young men from the German Empire.
It did not take long for the new soldiers to discover the realities of war. Both sides dug trenches in the ground a few hundred feet from each other in France and in Belgium. Between the trenches was a flat open space called No Man's Land. Young men hid in the trenches day after day as gunfire came from snipers or artillery on one side or the other. To lift your head up out of a trench was to risk getting shot. Many soldiers were killed or wounded. When it rained, soldiers were trapped in muddy, wet trenches, with the task of endless digging, as they tried to keep ahead of the floodwaters. When winter approached, there was more and more rain, and the trenches of both the German army and the British army were wet, cold, miserable mud holes.
As the soldiers huddled in their miserable trenches, they began to wonder about the enemy soldiers so close by. Bored soldiers shouted at each other back and forth between the trenches, calling names and taunting one another. Each side sang patriotic songs and folk songs to remind them of home. The two armies were close enough to hear one another's music. Always, there were the rifles and the machine guns, firing at any sign of movement outside the trench.
Back home, people in Germany and Britain thought often of their soldiers. German families sent their soldiers packages of gifts, letters, and photos. They also sent Christmas trees to the soldiers, who put them on top of the sandbags protecting the fronts of the trenches. The British saw all the Christmas trees and wondered if some kind of surprise attack was being planned. They watched and waited. The British people also sent letters, candies, and gifts to their soldiers. Each one received a small brass box embossed with a profile of Princess Mary of England. The box was full of cigarettes and had a card inside saying: "With best wishes for a happy Christmas and a victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and friends at home."
Christmas Eve arrived in 1914 and soldiers on both sides opened their packages in the muddy trenches and wished with all their hearts to be home again. They began singing carols and making merry—as merry as one can be in a trench—when something extraordinary happened.
Someone began to sing "Silent Night" in German, or perhaps "O Come All Ye Faithful" in English. In any event, the soldiers on the other side joined in the singing. The songs of the two armies, sung in two different languages, blended together in the starry night. Soon, a German soldier emerged from his trench. Everyone held his breath, but no one fired. He had a sign that said, "Merry Christmas! We not shoot. You not shoot." It wasn't long before a British soldier made his way into No Man's Land, then another, and another. Soon all the soldiers had climbed out of the trenches and were greeting one another, enemy greeting enemy, in the middle of No Man's Land. Officers tried in vain to forbid this from happening. Embodying the Christmas spirit of peace and good will, the men traded candies, swapped buttons from their uniforms, and showed one another pictures of families back home. Someone even started a soccer game, using an old ball and helmets to mark the goal posts.
The unplanned Christmas truce happened all along the five-hundred-mile battlefront. Whether it lasted a few hours or a few days, it gave each man pause as he learned that the enemy was a human being like himself. It was a time when the spirit of love and joy reigned supreme even in the midst of the battlefield.