After the first few months of the war, the first Christmas in the trenches approached in December 1914, and both British and German armies were reconciled into having to experience thoroughly miserable conditions for their Yuletide. However, it was not to be.
On Christmas Eve, carols were heard emanating from the German trenches that began to glow as candles were placed along the parapets. The Germans sang “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night), and the British responded with the English version, and bursts of mouth organ rag time music.
Christmas Day 1914 dawned and a British officer, Captain Bruce Bairnsfather recalled the scene as it emerged across a Flanders field looking towards the German trenches:
“On Christmas morning I awoke very early and emerged from my dug – out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin, low-lying mist. It was such a day as is invariably depicted by artists on Christmas cards – the ideal Christmas day of fiction.”
As the morning wore on the British became increasingly aware of German heads appearing above their trench lines, and soon followed suit, with a sort of tacit agreement developing that the snipers would not shoot in Christmas Day. Eventually a full German figure emerged above the trenches – a suicidal manoeuvre on any other day.
The British soldiers followed suit and soon scores of soldiers, all unarmed, advanced towards each other across no man’s land. Amid surreal scenes, Germans and British shook hands, exchanged souvenirs, chatted and exchanged pleasantries.
It was later revealed that similar scenes too place across some 500km of frontal lines on that magic day, with friendships made, soccer games played and photographs taken – all men taking 24 hours out from the insanity of war.
Both the British and German High Commands were outraged by these activities for this was “fraternisation with the enemy” – a serious military offence that could mean the firing squad for any individual identified. Sensibly this was overlooked, although strict orders were issued forbidding any future repeats.