The Carol That Stopped a War

The Carol That Stopped a War

by Victor Parachin

Soldiers from both sides exchange cheerful conversation

An artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News of 9 January 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”

When World War I erupted in 1914, soldiers on both sides thought they would be home to celebrate Christmas. But the men on the fronts didn’t get home for Christmas, and many not at all, as the war dragged on four more years, killing more than 8.5 million men. The “war to end all wars” took a horrific human toll and transformed Europe.

However, on Christmas Eve of that first year of battle one of the most unusual events in military history took place on the western front. The weather abruptly became cold, freezing the water and slush of the trenches in which the men were bunkered.

On the German side, soldiers began lighting candles. British sentries reported to commanding officers that there appeared to be small lights raised on poles or bayonets. Although these lanterns clearly illuminated the German troops, making them vulnerable to being shot, the British held their fire. Even more amazing, British officers saw, through binoculars, that some enemy troops were holding Christmas trees over their heads with lighted candles in their branches. The message was clear: The Germans, who celebrated Christmas on the eve of December 25th, were extending holiday greetings to the enemy.

Within moments, the British began to hear a German soldier (who was a tenor in Berlin Opera) singing a Christmas carol. It was soon picked up along the German line as soldiers joined in harmonizing. The words were these: “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” British troops immediately recognized the melody as “Silent Night, Holy Night” and began singing in English.

The singing quickly neutralized hostilities and, one by one, British and German soldiers began laying down their weapons to venture into no-man’s land separating the two sides. So many soldiers on both sides ventured out that superior officers were prevented from objecting. An undeclared truce erupted, and peace broke out.

Frank Richards, an eyewitness, wrote in his diary, “We stuck up a board with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy stuck up a similar one. Two of our men threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads as two of the Germans did the same, our two going to meet them. They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench and so did the Germans.” Richards explained that some German soldiers spoke perfect English with one saying how fed up he was with the war and how he would be glad when it was over. His British counterpart agreed.

That night, enemy soldiers sat around a campfire. They exchanged small gifts—chocolate bars, buttons, badges, and small tins of processed beef. Men, who only hours earlier had been shooting to kill, were now sharing Christmas festivities and showing each other family snapshots.

The truce ended just as it had begun, by mutual agreement. Captain C. I. Stockwell, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, recalled how, after a truly “Silent Night,” he fired three shots into the air at 8:30 a.m. on December 26 and then stepped up onto the trench bank. A German officer, who had exchanged gifts with Captain Stockwell the previous night, also appeared on a trench bank. They bowed, saluted, and climbed back into their trenches. A few moments afterwards, Captain Stockwell heard the German officer fire two shots into the air, and the war was on again.

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Silent Night” (German: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) is a popular Christmas carol composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria.



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