The Great War resulted in the deaths of over 20 million people, with over another 20 million wounded and many more millions left with deep emotional and psychological scars which would last the rest of their lives. It is not surprising that those who experienced that war are still known as the Lost Generation.
Many of those who fought were conscripts. Others were volunteers including many from Britain and Ireland and indeed during those glorious summer days in 1914, thousands signed up in what they believed would be the greatest adventure of their lives. Everyone knew that the war would be over by Christmas – when the boys would come back home.
However that’s not how things worked out. That first Christmas of the war nobody was going home. Along the Western Front the opposing armies had dug in and occupied a series of trenches from the sea to the Swiss border with French, Belgian and British forces on one side facing the German army on the other.
This was going to be a long hard war.
Pope Benedict XV, on the 7th December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring states, asking that ‘the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.’
This appeal was rejected.
By Christmas Eve on the Western Front the weather turned bitterly cold with sharp frost and in places snow began to fall, covering the trench systems and no-man’s land between them in a soft white blanket. Those on duty in the trenches that Christmas Eve had by now, survived 5 months of war.
Then – almost spontaneously something happened…
The guns did indeed fall silent on the night the angels sang as a series of unofficial truces took place along the front lines.
On Christmas Eve 1914, British soldiers heard German troops in the trenches opposite them singing carols and saw lanterns and small Christmas trees along their trenches. As German soldiers began to sing Heilige Nacht British soldiers recognised the melody as Silent Night and they began to sing the carol also in English.
Messages began to be shouted between the trenches and soldiers on both sides stopped shooting, left their positions to meet in no man’s land and exchanged gifts and souvenirs. Photographs were taken of groups of German and British soldiers and in places there were even stories of impromptu games of football.
It took over a week for the news of the Christmas truce to reach home and in the early weeks of the 1915 scores of letters began to appear in newspapers describing what had happened.
In the Irish Independent the following account by a young officer appeared:
On Christmas Eve it froze hard and the German trenches were a blaze of Christmas trees.
On Christmas Day a truce had been arranged to bury the dead on both sides, who had been lying out in the open since the fierce night fighting of a week earlier. When I got out I found a large crowd of officers and men, English, and German grouped around the bodies which had already been gathered together and laid out in rows. I went along those dreadful ranks and scanned the faces fearing at every step to recognise one I knew.
It was a ghastly sight.
They lay stiffly in contorted attitudes, dirty with frozen mud and powdered with grime.
The digging completed, the shallow graves were filled in and our chaplain read a short service. It was one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed. Friend and foe stood side by side, bare-headed, watching the tall grave figure of the chaplain outlined against the frosty landscape as he blessed the poor broken bodies at his feet.
Then with formal salutes, we turned and made our way back to our respective trenches.