With the war a little less than 6 months old and following months of bitter fighting in rain filled muddy trenches, a most remarkable event occurred. In the midst of war we were given a stark reminder that humanity still existed. It started with an exchange of Christmas carols, and after a while a few curious soldiers from either side began to emerge from the trenches, giving assurances that they would not shoot each other. Over the course of the next few hours the two sides walked together, chatted, and exchanged gifts as though they were old friends strolling through the park.
In a letter to a local newspaper, Sergeant Mervyn Powell of the Royal Berkshire Regiment takes up the story.
“Well Christmas has come and gone by once more, and I don’t suppose I shall experience another one like this. To start with Christmas Eve, it was a nice frosty night, and about 11pm we heard singing in the German trenches only about 250 yards away. I went to the listening post and the sentries told me that the Germans were having a good time singing carols etc. I was so interested that I stopped up an extra hour on duty to listen to them, instead of having a sleep (We work more by night than by day, as it is impossible to get up on top in daylight). At daybreak and as soon as we were able to see the outline of the trenches and have a good look round, we heard the Germans on our left shouting. “Happy Christmas, Englishmen,” Which our chaps answered by looking over the top and wishing them the same. Then they shouted, “We no shoot, Englishmen, we no shoot.” I can hardly say how it came about, anyway our chaps got out of their trenches, then the Germans got out of theirs, then followed more waving of arms and shouting to one another, and then to cap all a couple of our fellows went a little way towards their trenches and they came a little way towards us, with the result that an hour after this we were exchanging bully beef for black bread, and we gave them fags, etc. Not a shot was fired, it was a proper local armistice. Don’t think we left anything to chance, far from that.
I was very glad myself we came to the understanding we did, as the roof of my “funk-hole” was just beginning to come in, so I set to work and re-roofed it, made it a little bigger, and fixed up a chimney with biscuit tins etc. It is difficult to believe that we were friends at Christmas now for on the night following boxing day, after coming into billets, we had to go back to our trenches, and our artillery was soon whizzing shells right over us, right into their trenches.”
These localised and unofficial truces took place all along the front line. In Rue Du Bois, France the 1st Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment got to know the Saxon Regiment opposing them. Private Oakes described his conversations with the Germans.
“They were a Saxon regiment and they told us their regiments had been in Kiel Harbour for three months waiting to go to England before they had been sent to the fighting line. They all seemed anxious for a speedy termination of the war, and one fellow said both sides ought to stand back to back and advance.”
The encounter was also recorded in the official regiment war diary:-
24th December 1914
“Quiet. Germans ask for armistice for Christmas. Sing songs in turn from opposite parapets.”
25th December 1914
“Not a shot fired. Germans bury their dead and we go and help. Baccy and cigars exchanged, and Germans and our men walk about together in the open together!! Return to trenches at 4am. Peace Reigns till midnight.”
Sent to war by their political masters, the soldiers on opposite sides of the divide showed us that despite the politics and rhetoric, at the end of the day, we are all human and share more in common than what divides us.
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