English and German Soldiers meet in No Man's Land, 1914
Every year when my students shift their focus to holiday music, I’m reminded of the Christmas Truce of 1914 and the incredible power of music. The first World War was only a few months underway, but already dragging on longer than expected. Most of the soldiers on the front lines were practically children at 18, 19, 20 years old, away from home for the first time.
Soldiers from both sides lived in muddy trenches under horrendous conditions, listening to the explosions of bombs, pops of gunfire, and whiz bullets flying by 24/7.
Pope Benedict XV had called for a Christmas truce, an idea that was officially rejected by all authorities involved with the war. Ordered to continue fighting no matter what, the young men in the trenches chose a different kind of bravery.
During a pause in the shooting, English soldiers heard singing in the German’s trenches. Their trenches weren’t very far apart - sometimes only 100 feet between them. Close enough to smell the food the enemy cooked. Certainly close enough to hear the German’s singing Stille Nacht - Silent Night. When the German’s finished singing the carol, the English soldiers sang the carol back in English.
Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade described it in greater detail:
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.”
Eventually, a few German soldiers emerged from their trench unarmed, slowly crossing No Man’s Land shouting “Merry Christmas” in English. Soon the English joined the Germans in No Man’s Land, exchanging small gifts and souvenirs. Soccer games sprang up, and the young men enjoyed a brief reprieve from the war.
Captain Robert Miles, King's Shropshire Light Infantry, who was attached to the Royal Irish Rifles recalled in an edited letter that was published in the Daily Mail and the Wellington Journal & Shrewsbury News in January 1915, following his death in action on 30 December 1914:
Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man's land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.
“I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” one veteran from the Fifth Batallion the Black Watch, Alfred Anderson, later recalled to The Observer. “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
Eventually, of course, the officers in charge won out and demanded the boys get back to the business of war. But for a brief time all along the western front of the war, unofficial ceasefires were negotiated by the young soldiers.
It’s incredible to me that simple Christmas carols could cut through the ravages of war and remind both sides of their common humanity. It was all that was needed to give soldiers on both sides the courage to defy direct orders and climb out of the trenches to greet their enemies on common ground.
This holiday season as I reflect on the Christmas Truce, I can’t help but think about how so much of our current cultural influencer (politicians, media, social media) is driving us to be at odds with each other. The powers that be want us to be in constant disagreement, focusing on the things that we don’t see eye to eye on. My hope for us all in this holiday season is that we can let the music of the season remind us to pause and greet each other on common ground.
The following video is an ad (of course), but it's also a moving recreation of what the Christmas Truce might have been like for the soldiers who experienced it. It's worth a watch, and hopefully it's a helpful reminder to pause and appreciate the power of music on a silent night.