When Europe marched to war in the summer of 1914, both sides thought the fighting would be over in a few weeks. Instead, by the close of December, World War I had already claimed close to a million lives, and it was clear the fighting would go on for a long time.
Yet on Dec. 24, much of the Western Front fell silent as ordinary soldiers made temporary peace with the enemy. This was the remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914.
It's estimated that about 100,000 men, mainly British and Germans, took part. In fact, the sheer magnitude of the event led many to doubt that it ever happened. As late as 1983, one veteran called the truce a "latrine rumor."
Today, however, it is often seen as one of the few bright moments amid the slaughter of the Great War, in which 14 million people were killed.
The last survivor of the truce, Sgt. Alfred Anderson of Scotland's Fifth Battalion Black Watch, died last month at the age of 109. Here are excerpts from letters, journals and memoirs of some of the other participants.
The truce broke out spontaneously in many places. Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment recalled the scene on Christmas Eve near the French village of La Chapelle d'Armentières:
It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights -I don't know what they were. And then they sang "Silent Night" - "Stille Nacht." I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.
Rifleman Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade recalled how the mood spread:
Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air! … 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.
The shared carols inspired Capt. Josef Sewald of Germany's 17th Bavarian Regiment to make a bold gesture:
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!
The enemies quickly became friends, as Cpl. John Ferguson of the Second Seaforth Highlanders recalled:
We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans - Fritz and I in the center talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street corner orators. … What a sight - little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman's cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs.
On Christmas Day, some Germans and British held a joint service to bury their dead. Second Lt. Arthur Pelham Burn of the Sixth Gordon Highlanders was there:
Our Padre … arranged the prayers and psalms, etc., and an interpreter wrote them out in German. They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared.
According to several accounts, soccer games were played in no man's land with makeshift balls that Christmas. Lt. Kurt Zehmisch of Germany's 134th Saxons Infantry Regiment witnessed a match:
Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as our friends for a time.
Second Lt. Bruce Bairnsfather of the First Warwickshires saw an even more unusual fraternization:
The last I saw of this little affair was a vision of one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civilian life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground while the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.
Not everyone was so charitable. Cpl. Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarians lambasted his comrades for their unmilitary conduct:
Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?
When Gen. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, learned of the consorting, he was irate:
I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse.
Inevitably, both sides were soon ordered back to their trenches. Capt. Charles "Buffalo Bill" Stockwell of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers recalled how the peace ended early on Dec. 26:
At 8:30, I fired three shots into the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it on the parapet. He [a German] put up a sheet with "Thank You" on it, and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots into the air, and the war was on again.
World War I
Thomas Vinciguerra is deputy editor of The Week.