By Jonathon Van Maren
Two centuries ago in the little Austrian town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, a thirty-one-year-old primary school teacher and church organist composed the music to a set of lyrics written two years before in 1816 by a Catholic priest. Franz Gruber did not know it, but in doing so he became the composer of what would become the world’s best known Christmas carol, a song that would eventually be declared an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO in 2011, a seasonal ballad so ubiquitous that even those who scorn its message would recognize it instantly in the original German: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…”
Ninety-six years later, hundreds of thousands of men freezing in trenches in Northern France were just beginning to come to the dreaded realization that the war they had embarked on so enthusiastically would not be over before Christmas as had been predicted. Despite heavy fighting and the first of what would become innumerable bloody battles, all was quiet along many vast stretches of the Western Front that Christmas Eve of 1914. British soldiers and their German counterparts had already encountered each other outside of battle several times, setting up short, informal truces to collect the dead and wounded and even to swap some cigarettes.
The leaders of the doomed and embattled empires had also begun to realize that their soldiers might have to fight longer and harder than they had been told. It was decided that they should have a splendid Christmas away from home to lift their spirits. King George V sent a card to every solder, 460,000 parcels were sent out, 2.5 million letters were delivered, and General Douglas Haig wrote in his diary on that, “Tomorrow being Xmas day, I ordered no reliefs to be carried out, and troops to be given as easy a time as possible.” For their part, the Germans were given gift boxes, tabletop Christmas trees, and wreaths they could use to decorate their frozen barracks in festive fashion.
That Christmas Eve, Private Albert Moren of the Second Queen’s Regiment recalled, was “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere.” Historians are still arguing about what happened next, but some details are beyond dispute. As Christmas trees and candles glimmered in the darkness, someone started singing a Christmas carol. Silent Night was heard wafting over No Man’s Land. And then another. One historian described it as a “carol sing-off.” Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade described it like this:
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 following morning, an extraordinary scene unfolded at some places along the Western Front. German soldiers climbed slowly out of their trenches, holding up signs that read, “You no shoot, we no shoot.” At other places, Germans called out “Merry Christmas” in English to the Brits, and began to make their way into No Man’s Land. Warily, the Allied soldiers responded in kind. Throughout Christmas Day, soldiers exchanged presents, chocolates, cigarettes, and souvenirs. Those of their comrades who had not made it to Christmas and were lying dead on the frozen ground between the lines were collected and finally buried. At one location, a ball was kicked around. One story even mentions a Brit getting a haircut from his pre-war German barber.
It did not happen everywhere, of course. There were sporadic clashes, and some men in some places were shot going over the top. But some two-thirds of troops—around 100,000 men—took part in the legendary Christmas Truce of 1914 nonetheless, some as high-ranking as colonels. The generals were as worried as they were furious when they found out what was happening, especially as the truces dragged on for days in some areas. They feared mutiny. (Some soldiers also disapproved: Adolf Hitler, then part of an infantry regiment, chastised his comrades: “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no sense of German honor?”) If the rank and file were to fraternize with the men they faced—and sometimes lived only yards away from—then they might be reluctant to kill them. It was halted, with orders that anyone refusing to fight be punished severely. There was no room for brotherhood at the beginning of a bloodbath, and years of grinding, filthy warfare would ensure that such a thing could never happen again, for as one poet put it:
In years that followed no quarter was given
So bitter had our men become.
There were no songs left in our hearts.
after the slaughter of Verdun.
Since that Christmas Eve and day over a century ago, the events have been immortalized in literature, film, and song. It seems to be one shining moment of humanity in useless, years-long massacre: The glowing white moonlit night, carols wafting over the barbed wire, and the men slowly emerging to talk and laugh and give gifts before taking up arms again at the command of their superiors. UK poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy rendered it this way:
But it was Christmas Eve; believe; belief thrilled the night air,
where glittering rime on unburied sons
treasured their stiff hair.
The sharp, clean, midwinter smell held memory.
On watch, a rifleman scoured the terrain –
no sign of life,
no shadows, shots from snipers, nowt to note or report.
The frozen, foreign fields were acres of pain.
Then flickering flames from the other side danced in his eyes,
as Christmas Trees in their dozens shone, candlelit on the parapets,
and they started to sing, all down the German lines.
Men who would drown in mud, be gassed, or shot, or vaporised
by falling shells, or live to tell, heard for the first time then –
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles schläft, einsam wacht …
Cariad, the song was a sudden bridge from man to man;
a gift to the heart from home,
or childhood, some place shared …
When it was done, the British soldiers cheered.
A Scotsman started to bawl The First Noel
and all joined in,
till the Germans stood, seeing
across the divide,
the sprawled, mute shapes of those who had died.
All night, along the Western Front, they sang, the enemies –
carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems, in German, English, French;
each battalion choired in its grim trench.
So Christmas dawned, wrapped in mist, to open itself
and offer the day like a gift
for Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz …
with whistles, waves, cheers, shouts, laughs.
Frohe Weinachten, Tommy! Merry Christmas, Fritz!
A young Berliner, brandishing schnapps,
was the first from his ditch to climb.
A Shropshire lad ran at him like a rhyme.
Then it was up and over, every man, to shake the hand
of a foe as a friend,
or slap his back like a brother would;
exchanging gifts of biscuits, tea, Maconochie’s stew,
Tickler’s jam … for cognac, sausages, cigars,
or chase six hares, who jumped
from a cabbage-patch, or find a ball
and make of a battleground a football pitch.
I showed him a picture of my wife. Ich zeigte ihm
ein Foto meiner Frau.
Sie sei schön, sagte er.
He thought her beautiful, he said.
They buried the dead then, hacked spades into hard earth
again and again, till a score of men
were at rest, identified, blessed.
Der Herr ist mein Hirt … my shepherd, I shall not want.
And all that marvellous, festive day and night, they came and went,
the officers, the rank and file, their fallen comrades side by side
beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves…
… beneath the shivering, shy stars
and the pinned moon
and the yawn of History;
the high, bright bullets
which each man later only aimed at the sky.