It all began when the entrenched British forces recognized the “Silent Night, Holy Night” Christmas carol coming from the German side. “Our boys said, ‘Let’s join in.’ So we joined in with the song,” Francis Sumpter told the History Channel.
Confused by the pleasant, yet awkward moment, the British troops didn’t know how to react to what was happening on the German side. So they began to pop their heads over the trench and quickly retreated in case the Germans started shooting.
“And then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms, and we didn’t shoot,” said Pvt. Leslie Wellington, who witnessed the moment.
The Germans approached the British trench calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. At first the British troops thought it was a trick, but when they saw that the Germans were unarmed, they began to climb out of the trenches. Slowly and cautiously, both sides approached each other and began to shake each other’s hands. They exchanged gifts and sang carols together, and even played soccer. For a moment, in the middle of the “Great War,” there was peace on earth.
“By Christmas 1914, every soldier knew that the enemy was sharing the same misery as they were,” Dominiek Dendooven of the Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, Belgium, told the History Channel.
The troops on both sides knew that engaging with the enemy in this manner is treason and grounds for court martial and even punishable by death. This fear alone would motivate both sides to resume fighting.
Both sides would retreat to their trenches that night wondering if they would continue to defy the war the next morning. Pvt. Archibald Stanley remembers how his officer resumed the fighting, “Well, a few of them knocking around, this fella come up the next day. He says, ‘You Still got the armistice?’ He picked up his rifle, and he shot one of those Germans dead.”
According to The History Channel’s Christmas Truce of 1914 article:
The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.
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