By Nancy Karrick
Published in “atmore” magazine, December 2018
I had the opportunity to meet folk singer John McCutcheon in the late 1980s while we were living in Atlanta. I was attending a children’s literature class at Oglethorpe University and our speaker for the day was Carmen Deedy.
On that particular day, Carmen had brought along her husband, John McCutcheon, to help load and unload her boxes of children’s books she had written and brought for sale after the class was over.
I spent some time after the class, not only purchasing some of the books, but also talking to the author about her childhood in Cuba, telling her that I had been in that country in 1957.
Little did I know that our paths would cross a dozen years later at a storytelling festival in Athens, Alabama.
When I arrived in Athens in the fall of 2008, I was excited to find that Carmen Deedy would be one of our storytellers, and equally excited to see her husband on the list of presenters. When John came up to speak, he started talking about the first time he heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914. He was doing a concert in Birmingham in 1984, and during an intermissions, started talking to the janitress backstage. When he heard the woman’s story, it touched him so that he made up a character’s name and placed him from Liverpool, England, and composed the entire song during the next intermission. His intention had been to sing the song only at Christmas, but the response was so great that he now includes it in all of his presentations.
When I heard his song, like John, I was mesmerized by the story and wondered why I had never heard about this event before. Deciding that his book and the story of the truce would be interesting for my students, I returned home with his book and CD in hand, and started delving into the history of the Christmas Truce of 1914.
With all of the celebrations marking the centennial of the armistice ending World War I this year, I felt that this event deserved more coverage as well. It was indeed one of the miracles of Christmas.
World War I, or the Great War, as it became called, was well known for its trench warfare. Huge trenches were dug into the ground and soldiers from both sides literally lived in those muddy, wet, slippery, and narrow trenches. Trenches were separated from those of the enemy by
a cleared space known as no-man’s land, which was often lined with barbed wire. To enter that parcel of land meant almost sure death from an enemy gunshot. Even after only a few months of fighting, soldiers were sick and tired of trench living and the dangers it imposed. The deep mud got into their boots and clothing and caused illness and the dreaded trench foot for many.
It was indeed a pleasant surprise to see cold weather and snow arrive just before Christmas because it meant the mud would freeze and the men could walk on firm ground again.
On Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides were probably thinking about home, family, the gifts they had received, and what they would be missing on Christmas Day. For British soldiers, a gift from the Queen had been sent to each man, while the German government had sent trees decorated with candles to the men on the front lines.
As the spirit of Christmas took hold, both sides began quietly singing Christmas carols. The German soldiers began putting their lit trees up on the breastworks and started singing “Stille Nicht, Heilige Nacht.” The British thought they should respond and so began singing “The
First Nowell.” [Nowell is the British spelling of Noel.]
Singing songs went from German to British, across the trenches. When the British began singing ”O Come All Ye Faithful,” the Germans joined in singing the Latin words “Adeste Fideles.”
Image the sound and the feelings of the soldiers when the two enemies were singing the same song, but in different languages. The singing went on until midnight when the men gathered for their own midnight Christmas services.
On Christmas morning, German soldiers awoke in one section of the Front and saw a sign posted on the British line with the words Merry Christmas written on it. Several miles away, Germans held up another sign which read, You No Fight, We No Fight. Slowly, the men
peeped over the top of the trenches and waved to each other. Before long, men were coming out of the trenches and meeting the enemy in no-man’s land.
In other areas, a lone soldier holding a Christmas tree in one hand and a white flag in the other, climbed out of his trench and went into the forbidden land. He called for an officer, who came out. The two soldiers shook hands and agreed to an armistice until sundown. Similar actions took place all along the trench lines, each one planned by the men with no input from their
On that Christmas Day, peace was in their hearts.
Soldiers from both sides met in no-man’s land, shook hands, and wished each other a Merry Christmas. They shared pictures of their families, swapped buttons, belt buckles, and any other piece of uniform they could spare, and shared their Christmas parcels of sausage, cigars,
chocolates, Christmas puddings, and cigarettes.
In the spirit of true friendship, they helped each other bury their dead which littered no-man’s land. Many groups pooled their food supply and shared the noon-time meal. It was indeed a Christmas that none of those soldiers forgot.
One man even had his hair cut by the German soldier who had cut his hair in England when he was employed there. One German soldier quickly wrote a postcard to his girlfriend in England and asked a British soldier to mail it to her. Letters home were written by soldiers on both sides, telling of the wonderful peaceful day they had observed on Christmas. It was indeed a day of
peace for most of the front line.
For the majority, the truce ended with sundown. For some others, it lasted until the beginning of the new year. However, commanders on both sides issued stern warnings to their troops, commanding them to resume fighting immediately. Needless to say, many shots were
fired way over the opposing enemy trenches, simply because, as McCutcheon wrote in his song, “But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night, Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
The men found it hard to shoot men with whom they had become friendly and had met their families through photographs. Armed with Christmas trees and carols, soldiers had thrown away their weapons and walked toward the enemy with a desperate hunger for peace, if only for a few hours. The Christmas Truce of 1914.