WW1 Christmas Truce: Silent Night – Extra History – #1


Christmas Eve, 1914. The war was supposed
to be over by now. This holiday special is brought to you
by World of Tanks. Use the invite code “ARMISTICE” if you are new player who
wants to check out the game. The Christmas Truce is one of the most
poignant events of the First World War. A time when men rose above
the madness of the conflict and, for just a moment,
saw each other as fellow humans. This is an event
that definitely DID happen. Thousands of men
laid down arms in the truce, but a century of retellings has also
kinda sanded down its rough edges and oversimplified its messy reality. Indeed, this event wasn’t just the result of
pure human spirit and holiday cheer. It was a host of unique factors
that drove these enemies to spontaneously declare peace
in no man’s land. And really, it may not have been
all that spontaneous. Small armistices
were happening every day. As frontline troops became accustomed
to the rhythms of trench warfare, they learned that looking the other way
now and then could bring a shred of safety and calm
to their lives. The armies ate meals at the same time,
which became a daily ceasefire. Patrols frequently ignored each other,
adopting a live-and-let-live attitude. Troops often shouted to each other
across the lines. After all, the Autumn battles had passed,
and both sides were waiting out the winter. In reality, the weather was
the primary enemy for both sides. The high water table at Flanders meant that the trenches
were always filling with water, sometimes collapsing
and burying men inside. Soldiers leaned against the walls to sleep,
trying to keep themselves out of the wet. Food supplies had to be hung up
on dugout ceilings. And that winter had been
particularly miserable. Weeks of rain flooded the dugouts. The mud pulled men down like quicksand. Now, British Field Marshal Sir John
French had noticed the hands-off attitude his men were developing
toward the enemy, and so he ordered attacks in late
December to boost morale. This resulted in heavy British losses. Concerned about possible fraternization
over the holiday, he issued orders that no unofficial
armistice would be tolerated. Morale was much better
over in the German trenches. After all, they were winning, but many men were also experiencing
their first holiday away from home. Knowing this would be difficult, commanders brought Christmas
to the trenches, shipping thousands of presents
to the field. Each man received a gift
from the Kaiser, cigar boxes for NCOs, a pipe with
the crown prince on it for the ranks. The British, for their part, received
a brass box from Princess Mary filled with cigarettes, tobacco,
a Christmas card, and sweets. And then there were personal packages. Enterprises sprang up on the home front, offering family members a chance
to send gift boxes to the troops. British soldiers received plum puddings
and thousand-count boxes of cigarettes. German and Austrian troops
were bombarded with chocolate, salami, and cognac. Both sides received winter clothing. In truth, though?
The gifts were kind of a nuisance. I mean, there was nowhere to put it all. Soldiers had nowhere to store
a thousand extra cigarettes. But that Christmas Eve
delivered a true gift: the rain stopped
and the trenches drained. Dry cold froze the mud into a hard surface,
almost like a floor. Snow dusted the countryside. That afternoon, the gunfire dwindled,
and in some sectors it stopped entirely. The weather just seemed too nice for it. The Germans, stuffed with Christmas
chocolate and cheered by the weather, started putting lit tannenbaum
on their trench parapets. And then,
the German line started singing. Over on the British parapets, watchmen of the Scots Guards saw lines
of lights along the enemy trench. At first, they suspected an attack.
But then, they heard an ethereal sound
drifting across no man’s land: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. The original,
Austrian version of Silent Night. Sensing a challenge, Guards officer
Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse decided they should drown this out
with their own carol. The sides went back and forth, but soon, the competition
merged into a harmony of Good King Wenceslaus
and Auld Lang Syne. Men began shouting Christmas greetings
across the line, jokingly, at first. A few even stepped out to talk. Hulse didn’t know it, but the same thing was happening
up and down the entire British line. Agreements formed. In some sectors,
the officers met at the wire and shook hands, agreeing to cease hostilities
the next day. In other areas,
the ranks took the lead, Germans shouting across no man’s land, “English! Tomorrow if you no shoot,
we no shoot!” At times,
it was just one brave soul, walking into no man’s land
waving a newspaper. These overtures
were extremely dangerous. Though peace was breaking out in certain
areas, it didn’t happen everywhere. One British regiment responded to German
carolling with a machine gun blast. Some unarmed soldiers were gunned down
trying to broker this holiday armistice. But in most sectors,
the ceasefire held. This truce mostly happened between
German and British units. The French and the Belgians, whose
countries were under German occupation, were… less inclined. There were agreements to bury the dead
and cease hostilities, but not as much fraternization. Yet a Bavarian unit held fire
during a French mass, and both sides halted fighting
long enough for a guest, a soloist from the Paris opera,
to make a performance. British Indian troops, who were unfamiliar
with this whole “Christmas” deal, saw the lit German trees and thought
of their own holiday of Diwali. They held fire but also held position… until some Germans tempted them out of
the trench with cigars and cigarettes. Soon, the men were smoking together
on the parapet. That Christmas night,
the troops slept in sublime quiet. Christmas Day dawned bright and cold, the sky clear for the first time in weeks. To their shock, British troops looked
across no man’s land to see the Germans walking around
on their parapets. Such a thing was suicidal in daylight, and that gesture of trust, more than
anything, lured a few British out. It was heaven to at last stand up straight
and walk on solid earth. Some had ventured into no man’s land
on Christmas Eve, but in daylight, it was impossible to ignore
the bodies lying between the trenches. The two sides buried their dead
in common graves, grieving side-by-side in joint services, listening to the faraway sounds
of battle from other sectors. And that shared experience
broke down the wall. Soldiers milled about together
in no man’s land, swapping overabundant gifts from home. British beef for uniform buttons. Chocolate cake for barrels of beer. They exchanged hats.
One German barber gave haircuts. The men chatted. After all,
they shared so much in common. They’d lived in the same fields under the
same rain, and were equally sick of war. Besides, they were curious. What was life like on the other side?
Who were these enemies? One British officer was perplexed to learn that his new German friend believed the
armies of the Kaiser fought for freedom. That was impossible, the officer responded,
we’re fighting for freedom. Amid this,
Lieutenant Hulse found himself talking to Lieutenant Thomas
of the 15th Westphalians, who had something to pass on:
a Victoria Cross and a packet of letters. An English officer had died in the German
trench during the last attack. Perhaps he could give these
to the man’s family? Touched, Hulse removed
his own silk scarf, a gift from home,
and presented it in thanks. Thomas, embarrassed that he had
nothing to give in return, sent a soldier to fetch the fur gloves
his family had sent. Up and down the line,
men started bringing out footballs. Kickabouts broke out, with men
from both sides chasing the ball among shell holes
and sliding on the frozen ground. In one sector, a group of Highlanders
challenged a Saxon regiment, who burst out laughing whenever
a kilt flew up during play. But not all this activity was goodwill. On both sides, a few used the gatherings
to reconnoiter enemy trenches, and both sides used the time
to repair dugouts. Of course, for some,
this fraternization appeared false. One British soldier flashed his squadmate
a hidden dagger, while another refused to smoke German
cigarettes, fearing they might be poisoned. When one squad of Bavarians discussed
whether to meet the British, their corporal snapped at them. “Such a thing should
not happen in wartime.” “Have you no German sense
of honour left at all?” They weren’t surprised. The night before, this same soldier had
refused to join the unit’s Christmas service. Corporal Hitler was odd like that. But his disapproval
reflected the generals’ view. This was exactly the situation that
Field Marshal French had feared. Commanders dispatched senior officers
to threaten disciplinary action and insist the men restart the war. In some sectors, the armistice
came to an orderly close. Officers from both sides saluted
and fired revolvers into the air, signaling that the war was back on. In a few places, troops resisted
until nearly to New Year’s Eve. But the generals would not have it. German command dispatched snipers
to break the ceasefire. French ordered an artillery barrage, letting the machinery of war roll over the
human connections of the frontline troops. Nothing like this Christmas Truce
would happen again. The generals wouldn’t allow it. On Christmas Eve, 1915, British officers
ordered a 24-hour artillery barrage. Men who tried to form a truce
were court-martialed. Machine guns
drowned out German carols. The generals needn’t have bothered. The spirit of that truce was unique to 1914,
a symptom of a young war. By Christmas 1915, those troops
had experienced chlorine gas, and creeping bombardments.
Zeppelins were bombing London. The Battle of Verdun would end
just before the holiday, leaving 750,000 casualties. Indeed, many of the men who celebrated
in no man’s land that day would never see another Christmas. One of those unlucky ones was
Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse, who had sung carols and given a
German officer his silk scarf. He died three months later while trying
save a wounded comrade. He was 25. Yet, Hulse is not remembered today
for his military achievements, or even the book of letters his friends
published after his death. He, and so many others, are remembered
for a victory entirely their own, when a group of brave men ventured
into the line of fire, trusting their enemies not to shoot, and believing that humanity was better
than the bonfire it had built for itself. Happy Holidays, everybody.

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