The Great War was joined in fervor. It had only been a few months, but by December 1914, soldiers of the Central Powers could see the war wasn’t going to be as short as promised. It was the rainy season in Belgium, which reduced the ground to a gluey gray mud; bad enough in itself, but worse for the men digging the trenches used to hide from machine gun fire and artillery. The land was crisscrossed with barbed wire, and the technology of warfare had evolved faster than tactics, making it an extraordinarily brutal war. No wonder why the area between the opposing trenches was dubbed “No Man’s Land”.
To ease the fighting men, the British found a way to send their men Christmas boxes, containing food and biscuits, tobacco, and the like, and provided some basic trim for Christmas trees. The Germans did likewise, sending miniature trees and boxes of various items and goodies to the front lines.
About this same time, Pope Benedict XV called for a Christmas cessation of hostilities, but both sides refuted his request, labeling it as impossible, and continued planning their engagements.
On Christmas Eve the British soldiers near Ypres were sitting it their trenches, huddling for warmth as the night set in. As usual, with sunset the machine gun fire slacked due to the lack of visible targets, and the war quieted, which revealed an unusual sound. They strained their ears to hear unfamiliar words being sung to a familiar tune: O tannenbaum. The German soldiers in their trenches only 40 yards away were caroling Christmas. The opposing soldiers joined in, with the words they knew, and the two armies sung together for a good while before any of the Brits dared poke his head over to the trench to look the enemy in the eye. It began as a few waves from across the gulf, some shouts of yule cheer, but soon degenerated into men from both sides climbing out into No Man’s Land, shaking hands, trading goodies, and even playing a game of football. (Letters confirm that the Germans won the game 3-2 after the ball was kicked into a coil of barbed wire and went flat.)
Despite the best laid plans of both armies, a Christmas Truce was on.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 wasn’t the first spontaneous truce in history, but it was undoubtedly the largest. It wasn’t relegated to enlisted men; NCOs and officers took part. Both sides aided in the removal and burial of dead men in the No Man’s Land, and sang dirges at the services. British, Belgian, French, and German solders took part. There were some notable people aware of, and even tolerant of the truce, including generals on both sides. There were also some notable people against it, including British commanders Sir John French and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien who vowed not to allow any such unauthorized armistice again (and subsequently ordered heavy artillery strikes every Christmas Eve Hence) and one particular German soldier who though it unconscionable that opposing forces should cease fighting for any reason, and spoke out against it every chance that arose; his name was Adolf Hitler.
The truce spread to cover several areas of combat. Some resumed trying to kill each other the day after Christmas, others waited until after New Years.
On 21 November 2005, Alfred Anderson, the last remaining veteran of the truce, died in Newtyle, Scotland, having reached the ripe age of 109.