Christmas in the Trenches, 1914 (by Bob Jones)

Like many other teachers, I like to do Christmas related activities with my students at this time of year. One thing I want them to know is that Christmas is not just about cake and Santa Claus, but is also a season of goodwill. So, I sometimes tell them the story of what happened in France and Belgium during the first Christmas of World War I.

In August 1914, the nations of Europe went to war. Many young men rushed to join their countries’ armies and were sent to fight on the Western Front, a long battle line stretching from the Belgian Coast to the French-Swiss border. On one side were the armies of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and on the other the French, Belgian, and British forces. The two sides had dug trenches in the ground, and that was where the soldiers lived. Between the trenches was the area known as “no man’s land.” In some places no man’s land was several hundred yards wide, in others less than 30 yards. In any case, it was a dangerous place. Any soldier who left his trench and ventured into no man’s land would be dead in two or three seconds.

The young British soldiers had been told that the war would only last a few months. “Home by Christmas, lads,” they were told. But now it was Christmas Eve, and the war was still going on. That night, the young soldiers lay resting in their trenches. It had rained very heavily for much of December and the trenches were dark, cold, and muddy. Many of the soldiers had received packages from home with presents of warm socks, woolen gloves, chocolate, and even Christmas pudding. They sat quietly thinking of their families and loved ones, and wishing they were back home.

Suddenly, they saw lights appearing on the parapet of the German trenches. The Germans were putting up Christmas trees. Then they heard singing,“Stille nacht, heilige nacht…” The British soldiers listened and then applauded their enemies. They sang an English carol, and the Germans also applauded. For a moment it seemed that the war had been forgotten. Some of the Germans shouted across no man’s land, “Hey, Englishmen, come over here.” “What!” they thought, “Walk across no man’s land? No way. This has to be a trick.”

Weihachtsfriede

Everything went quiet, and then some of the British soldiers saw something moving in no man’s land. They nervously reached for their rifles. As the “thing” came closer, they realized that a couple of German soldiers were walking across no man’s land carrying a white flag. The British soldiers were confused but one or two of them climbed out of the trenches and started to walk across no man’s land. The others took aim with their rifles and the Germans shouted, “Don’t shoot, Englishmen. We wish you merry Christmas.” The British and German soldiers slowly walked towards each other. They stopped for a moment and then they shook hands. Suddenly, from both sides, men put down their rifles and soon there were British and German soldiers shaking hands and exchanging Christmas greetings in the middle of no man’s land.

Christmas Truce 1

The next day, Christmas Day, was unusually bright and sunny. British and German soldiers left their trenches and chatted with each other in no man’s land. Some of the Germans had worked in England before the war as hotel staff, barbers, taxi drivers and other jobs, and could speak good English. They showed each other photographs of their families, and took photographs of each other. The British soldiers swapped tins of corned beef, chocolate, and cigarettes for German cigars and brandy. Some soldiers swapped badges and buttons from their uniforms with each other. One German lieutenant wrote a letter home and told his family about a football match with about 50 players on each side, which the Germans won by 3 goals to 2.

Christmas Truce WWI

In many parts of the Western Front, war continued as normal that day and men on both sides were killed or wounded, but in several other places along the Western Front there were temporary truces like the one described above. When the senior officers in the High Command heard about this, they were extremely unhappy and ordered that no more fraternizing with enemy troops was to take place. However, in some places the truce continued until after the New Year. Soldiers on both sides had been ordered to resume firing against the enemy, but fired their rifles into the sky where no harm would be done. On December 30th, one British soldier even wrote this in his diary:

The other day the German CO (Commanding Officer) opposite expected a visit from a general, and said he would be opening fire between 11 and 12, and we had better keep our heads down.”
(From the diary of Lance Corporal Bell, quoted in Christmas Truce by Malcom Brown and Shirley Seaton, Pan Books, 1984)

Fighting resumed in earnest soon after New Year but in one place, Ploegsteert in Belgium, the Christmas truce didn’t end until early March.

By A. C. Michael – The Guardian. Originally published in The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915.

The First World War l continued until November 11, 1918. More than 17 million people were killed and 20 million wounded. Christmas 1915 saw several short truces but nothing on the scale of the 1914 truce. In fact, the High Command issued strict orders in December 1915 that any soldiers fraternizing with the enemy at Christmas or any other time would be severely punished. However, the events of Christmas 1914 will always be remembered as a time when two groups of enemies laid down their arms and, for a short time, saw each other as fellow human beings and friends.

Note for teachers

If you type “Christmas 1914” into YouTube or Google, you will find many links to accounts of the Christmas truce of 1914. One I particularly like is this short film clip, which was produced as a TV commercial by the Sainsbury supermarket group.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KHoVBK2EVE

Another is a song by British songwriter and comedian, Mike Harding called simply “Christmas 1914.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqaCSnyRMO8&t=1s

 

Bob Jones

About Bob Jones

Bob Jones is from Liverpool in England. He has been in Japan since 1990 and runs his own small school, the REJ English House, in Ena City, Gifu. He also teaches part-time at Sugiyama Women’s University, Nagoya. He has co-authored two EFL textbooks, Tell Me Your Stories (Macmillan Language House), and Eatwell: An Introductory English Course for Nutritionists (Perceptia Press). Before coming to Japan, he taught in Spain, Sweden, Malaysia, and the UK. In his free time, he enjoys playing with his newly acquired digital SLR camera.

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6 Responses

  1. Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto says:

    I fell in love with this story when I heard you share it at JALT. I told it to my adult students, and they loved it, too. With all of the hate in the world these days, it’s wonderful to have a reminder that even in the middle of a war, individuals have the capacity to offer goodwill, and peace. Thank you for making my holiday season brighter.

  2. Bob Jones Bob Jones says:

    Thank you, Barbara. I was very honoured when you asked me to write up the story for “Teaching Village.” I hope your readers will enjoy it.

  3. Alison Miyake says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I never knew. Sometimes the ordinary people have so much more sense than the people in charge.

  4. Mark Kulek says:

    Thanks for sharing that Bob. It was nice reading especially because of what is going on in the world today. Merry Christmas Bob.

  5. Bob Jones Bob Jones says:

    Hi Alison and Mark. Thank you for your kind comments. Have you had a look at the two links I posted under “Note for Teachers”? One idea with the first link is to pause it just as the British soldier comes out of his trench, and ask the students what they think will happen next. They can then view the rest of the clip and compare it to their guesses.You can then ask them if they think it is a true story and give the background information adapting your language to suit their level.
    After that you could play the Mike Harding song (second link). You may need to pre-teach some words: e.g. Western Front, trenches, barbed wire.
    Anyway, I hope you’re able to use it.

  6. Adam says:

    I’m a big fan of this story – I love to teach it as a reminder that even in the worst of situations, humanity can prevail.

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