Conditions on the Western Front were as bad as they had ever been during the first Christmas of the First World War in 1914. The bitter cold had iced the top layer of mud, though once a boot broke through the crust it might sink a foot or more in sludge. The carnage and suffering on both sides remained inhumane.
Christians believe this is a time of the year for miracles. Yet the spontaneous truce that took place, sporadic and temporary, was all too human.
An evocative letter about the fleeting respite, dated Boxing Day, 26 December 1914, was sent by a British soldier to his family in East Finchley and published in London’s Evening News four days later.
‘I’ll tell you about a thing that I couldn’t imagine happening until it did,’ he wrote. ‘We have actually met the Germans half-way between our trenches and exchanged cigarettes, buttons &c.!
‘On Christmas Eve we were shouting across to each other, “A Merry Christmas” &c., and they shouted back “Don’t shoot till New Year’s Day!” and all that.
‘On Christmas morning it was a bit foggy, and as there was no shooting we got out at the back and had a game of rounders. Getting tired of this, we got out the front and started wandering over to the Germans.
‘When the mist had cleared a bit we saw that the Germans were doing the same thing, of course unarmed. We got so close that five of us and five of them met and had a talk – they nearly all talked English.
‘After dinner nearly all our boys went out, and we found the Germans had also turned up in force. The result was a huge mixed crowd of men, swopping buttons, cigarettes, &c. Then some German officers came up and actually took our photos, all sitting on the ground.
‘I wouldn’t have missed the experience of yesterday for the most gorgeous Christmas dinner in England.’
Another British officer reported similar events. ‘At 11pm on December 24 there was absolute peace, bar a little sniping and a few rounds from a machine gun, then no more. “The King” was sung, then you heard, “To-morrow is Christmas: if you don’t fight, we won’t”; and the answer came back: “All right!”
‘One officer met a Bavarian, smoked a cigarette and had a talk with him about half-way between the lines. Then a few men fraternised in the same way, and really to-day peace has existed.
‘Men have been talking together, and they had a football match with a bully beef tin, and one man went over and a cut a German’s hair.’
It is clear the 1914 Christmas truce was observed to varying degrees along the Western Front, and perhaps according to who faced whom across No Man’s Land.
Shivering with his comrades in the French trenches near the forest of Argonne was a tenor from the Paris Opera. As a nearby village church bell announced the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, he began singing the carol ‘Minuit, Chrétiens, C’est l’Heure Solenelle’, with its line, ‘the world trembles with hope on this night’.
The Germans a few hundred yards away joined the singer’s compatriots in rapt silence at the beauty of his voice. When he finished it was the thunder of applause from both sides that resounded over fields more used to ugly slaughter.
‘A quarter of an hour later,’ reported the Daily Mirror published on New Year’s Day, ‘a furious fusillade was in progress, and before the night was over the French had carried the enemy’s first lines.’
A second lieutenant in one victorious French section then addressed his men: ‘Now we’re going to celebrate Christmas Eve!’ Minutes later ‘they were feasting off oysters, cold chicken and champagne’ that had been prepared before the attack.