Life World War 1

Monday 15 September 2014

Making peace in no man's land – for a few days at least

Christmas 1914 truce

Published 17/05/2014 | 02:30

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British and German troops come together in a truce.

IT was one of the most extraordinary moments of the war. When fighting broke out in August 1914, most believed the conflict would be over within weeks, but by Christmas some one million men had perished and it was clear that war would go on for a long time.

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But on Christmas Eve, much of the Western Front fell silent as troops made peace with the enemy.

Late that evening, British troops heard the Germans singing carols, and spotted lanterns and small fir trees along their trenches.

Messages began to be shouted between both sides. The following day, soldiers from each side met in no man's land and exchanged gifts, took photographs, with some even playing football.

Henry Williamson, a private in the London Rifle Brigade, was on a patrol in no man's land just 50 yards from the enemy lines when it became clear that an informal ceasefire was emerging.

As he recalled in an interview conducted by the BBC in 1964: "We crept out, trying to avoid our boots ringing on the frozen ground, and expecting any moment to fall flat with the machine guns opening up. And nothing happened.

"And within two hours, we were walking about and laughing and talking, and there was nothing from the German side.

"And then about 11 o'clock I saw a Christmas tree going up on the German trenches. And there was a light. And we stood still and we watched this and we talked, and then a German voice began to sing a song – Heilige Nacht (from the carol 'Silent Night').

"And after that, somebody said, 'come over, Tommy, come over'. And we still thought it was a trap, but some of us went over at once, and they came to this barbed wire fence between us, which was five strands wire ... hung with empty bully beef tins to make a rattle if they came. And very soon we were exchanging gifts."

Some officers were concerned that the truce would undermine fighting spirit, and after four days the British and German officers ordered that fraternisation had to stop.

The 1914 Christmas Truce remained a unique event during the course of the war, never to be repeated.

See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

Irish Independent Supplement

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