PBS showed a program this evening about the Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and British troops held a spontaneous cease-fire on Christmas Day.
The truce started near Ypres, Belgium, when German troops began singing Christmas carols; the British answered by singing the same, familiar carols in English.
Then the Germans took steps into no-man’s-land in between the two frontlines, carrying small trees lit with candles. The British climbed out of their trenches, and soldiers from the two sides began greeting each other, shaking hands. During the day, the truce spread along the lines until around 100,000 men from both sides were taking part. They spent part of the day recovering the dead who they’d been unable to retrieve until then because of all the shelling—and buried them, holding joint services. They exchanged stories and gifts of cigarettes. There were a few games of football.
In some places the truce lasted for a week until New Years Day. In most places, it ended that Christmas day or the day after, when commanding officers on both sides threatened to charge the men with treason and have them shot if they did not immediately return behind their own lines.
There were repeated warnings that the soldiers must go back to their lines and resume fighting.
Under threat of being shot, they did resume fighting. The war lasted another four years until 1918, resulting in an estimated fifteen million deaths.
Photo: Redvers / Public Domain photo from Wikimedia Commons / The text on the cross reads “1914 – The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget.”