A bullet split through the frozen ground and ricocheted into the trench. The British soldiers shifted position, their feet stirred the sloppy straw-laced mud as they found their footing to return fire. None of the World War I soldiers wanted to spend their Christmas Eve dodging bullets. They preferred thinking about their loved ones back home and the traditional celebrations handed down through previous generations.
Lifting binoculars to his eyes, Captain Sir Edward Hulse kept a keen eye on the Germans. The 350-400 yard no-man’s-land between the British and German trenches reduced the number of casualties and made any form of pursuit suicidal. Captain Hulse knew the battle would be drawn out and slip into Christmas Day.
When the British soldiers stood for arms at six o’clock that prominent morning, the number of shots taken were greatly reduced from the previous day. By eight o’clock, only a few scattered, single shots could be heard off to the side where the border patrol stood watch. The main fighting zone held a natural truce that was neither dictated by the British or the Germans. The eye’s of the soldiers reflected a sense of peace that morning, allowing each one to ponder gratitude for the good within the lives of their families.
Germans Extend Grace
Captain Hulse was startled by movement out of the corner of his eye. He lifted the binoculars and spied four Germans who had climbed out of their trenches and headed toward the British. None carried weapons. He watched as they slowed to a stop in the middle of no-mans-land, making sure not to cross into British territory.
Captain Hulse wondered what message they might have carried and quickly ordered two men to meet the Germans in the middle unarmed. None wanted to take such a risk on Christmas, forcing Captain Hulse to climb out of the trench and traverse the frozen ground alone. The walk felt longer than it was, knowing that 100,000 or so men from both sides were watching every step he took.
The Captain was greeted by three privates and a stretcher bearer. One German shared how they felt compelled to wish the Captain and his men a happy Christmas. The four Germans had put their lives on the line, trusting the British to keep the unstated truce. The German spokesperson shared that the men personally had no feeling of enmity against the British, but they were soldiers who had to obey their superiors.
The conversation became complex as the Captain and soldiers discussed the terrible wounds made by the rifle bullets. They all agreed that the high-velocity bullets with a pointed nose were designed to inflict wounds at short range. They also agreed that the old South African round nosed bullets made a cleaner hole. The conversation continued for a half hour, at which time a German, who saw great similarities between men, suggested that both sides return unarmed in the afternoon to the no-mans-land to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas Party for All
Later in the afternoon, a large group of unarmed Germans entered no-man’s-land. One of the German snipers led his fellow soldiers in the singing of Christmas carols, while they watched the unarmed British move toward them. Soon they sang a chorus or two of O Tannenbaum and the British joined in with the English translation of O Christmas Tree. The men marveled at their unified ability to sing the same song with different words. Laughter and handshakes followed.
The party lasted a couple hours and many exchanged gifts, based on what they had on them at the time. Some exchanged pipe tobacco, cigarettes, pens, pins, alcohol, and other small paraphernalia. Everyone had a merry time.
A 19-year-old private named Henry William Williams smoked a pipe during the party that was given to him by Princess Mary. In the pipe was German tobacco gifted to him from one of the enemy soldiers. They had met after a joyous chorus, shook hands and exchanged gifts or souvenir trinkets. Both gifts were heartily received.
When the day grew short, Captain Hulse ordered his men back to the trenches.
An Extended Truce
The Germans promised that they would maintain the truce indefinitely. Captain Hulse said that the truce had ended, but the Germans persisted that they would not continue the fight unless the British fired first. The Captain clarified the end of the truce and continued walking back to the trenches. A short time later a few British soldiers took plum pudding to the Germans, received thanks, and returned to their trenches. Not a single shot was fired for the rest of the evening. Neither side wanted to fire on the men that they had met personally.
The night watch hours were also silent. Not a single weapon was raised against the opponent. The men were comfortable in the aura of peace that had befallen all soldiers. Several men wrote letters to their mothers during the still of the night, speaking highly of the men they had met and the miracle truce that transpired. Those writing letters never fathomed how their letters, years later, would testify to the Christmas miracle—thanks to World War I historians that documented the war efforts.
Not a single man was willing to break the miraculous gift of the truce that surpassed their understanding. They embraced the silent night with thankfulness in their hearts.
Quietness filled the wore-torn battlefield late into the evening. The Grenadiers arrived and relieved the British soldiers. By first light, the Grenadiers stood and fired upon the Germans. A new battle had broken out and thousands of lives were lost. But the miracle story of the truce was remembered and retold every year by those who understood the power of Christmas and the joy of those who participate.
Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers
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