It was an event unique in the annals of warfare and one never likely to happen again.
The greatest war yet seen in history broke out in August 1914, dragging all of Europe’s nations into four years of industrialized carnage. At first, the war was fluid in the west as the German army attempted to outflank the French defences and get past the small British Expeditionary Force sent out to help their allies. The German target was Paris and a quick masterstroke that would win the war in a hurry. The British and French believed they could stop the juggernaut in its tracks and send it back along its path to defeat. Neither side thought the war would last long, and most who joined to fight expected to be home by Christmas.
Instead the war intensified. The German outflanking strategy ran out of land on the North Sea coastline in the west and the Alps in the east. The only way forward now was through the enemy, preferably on a road paved with artillery fire. The bombardments began and the defenders dug trenches, at first crude temporary structures, but then more permanent arrangements emerged as realization dawned that this war would not end any time soon. Both sides dug in for the winter, the space between them coming to be known as No-Man’s-Land, an ominous and accurate description. Death came to the soldiers almost at random through shellfire and sometimes coldly and deliberately from snipers. To look over the parapet of a trench was to invite a bullet. A more melancholy place on earth than those trenches would be hard to imagine.
In bleak conditions, morale falls. Men on both sides became dispirited, fighting and living in mud amongst the rats and lice: every day the same meaningless cycle of violence and death, disease and waste. Trench foot became common and some men would have “accidents” to get out of the line. And always the relentless sounds and sights of war. Christmas 1914 promised no cheer and no respite from
Dusk fell on Christmas Eve and the moon rose, lighting a carpet of frost gashed only by the black trenches. For a moment, there was no sound, silence, no firing all along the line. Soldiers on both sides turned inwards, some starting fires to keep warm while others began to sing Christmas carols. Then the Germans could be seen putting up Christmas lights along their trench lines, some began to venture out into No-Man’s-Land. A few British Tommies went out too, tentatively shaking hands with men they had been trying to kill only a few hours before. The men exchanged songs and crossed over into each others’ line to talk. As the fog descended, they moved back to their trenches wondering what Christmas Day would bring.
Fog enveloped the trench lines in the morning and the soldiers stood-to as they did every morning in anticipation of an enemy assault. But there was no attack this morning, no random death or senseless violence. Across the icy, shell-hole strewn landscape, men emerged to exchange cigarettes, woolen hats, even uniform buttons. They shared food and chocolate. Men, British and Germans, played football, and they belted out Christmas hymns at the top of their voices. They promised not to fire on each other the next day, and they stuck to that promise. Then, as if waking from a dream, Christmas and the peace were over; the shelling and sniping began again, and men drifted back into the bottom of their muddy trenches, thinking perhaps on an alternative to this war that they had just touched but could not grasp.