On Christmas Eve 1914 in northern France a frost set in. It had been raining for weeks, filling the trenches to waist height with water, soaking spirits, drowning hope. So acute was this drop in temperature, that it froze solid the soldiers’ great coats and hardened their boots. The men themselves were “frozen to the marrow”.
Christmas morning rose foggy and then turned into a freezing day.
Along certain sections of the front, a truce was called. The Germans seemed to have made the first move.
An Irishmen from the Royal Irish Rifles wrote in his diary of the previous evening: “Nothing of importance happened until 8pm when heralded by various jovialities from their trenches the Germans placed lamps on their parapets and commenced singing.”
Soldiers from both camps rose cautiously from their trenches, climbed up and started to walk in No Man’s Land, unarmed, some bearing white flags. The frosty weather had dried the filthy mud solid. It facilitated the soldiers’ passage across the free zone.
Exiting their trenches was counter to the orders given by many, although not all, superior officers on both sides of the war – “no fraternising’ – but the men were ready for respite, a few hours of peace. It was Christmas, after all, and it seemed a perfect moment to remember those who had died or were missing and loved ones back home.
They shook hands with their enemies, then smoked cigarettes or cigars, sipped schnapps, sang songs – ragtime, Christmas Carols, Music Hall ditties, and even played football (in some cases using sandwiches for balls). Allies and Germans together. Peace for a few hours. Some exchanged gifts (chocolate cake, tobacco). One unit was offered a gift of two barrels of French beer by the Germans which they rolled back to their trench and consumed. Later, the Germans called out to the Tommies. How’s the beer? They and their enemy were in agreement that the French beer was lousy.
Some shared thoughts of their families, showed photographs of their sweethearts back home, waiting and praying for their safe return. Others enquired of the status of certain of their comrades. The Germans were able to confirm that this soldier or that officer had died and had been buried, or…
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