12/30/2013 04:43 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2014

Christmas 1914: It Happened More Than Once

Although World War I was one of the most horrific wars in history, it also included a famous spontaneous event known as the Christmas Truce of 1914.

The 475 mile-long Western Front was marked with lines of trenches only 30-70 yards apart. The soldiers stood for days in waist-deep water. Their feet rotted. Rats scurried amid food scraps and bodies. Even worse, both sides could see the frozen bodies of fallen comrades impaled on the barbed wire that crisscrossed the no-man's land between them.

Henry Williamson described Christmas Eve,

Having received gift packages from home, the men of both sides were in a festive mood. That evening, along the front line, German troops sang Christmas carols. Many erected candle-lit Christmas trees on their parapets and called out season greetings to their enemies opposite them.

On his side, he said, "many troops responded with applause, holiday wishes and songs of their own." Along parts of the British, French and Belgian lines, men from both sides ventured unarmed into No Man's Land.

The First Battalion Royal Irish Rifles heard Germans calling: 'If you Englishmen come out and talk to us, we won't fire.' Scotsmen in Flanders, the 2nd Queen's Battalion near La Chapelle d' Armentieres, and the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers also reported Germans singing 'Stille Nacht' ('Silent Night') and extending invitations to meet in No Man's Land.

On Christmas Day, the soldiers helped each other bury their dead in joint memorial services. The Sixth Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders reported:

About four o'clock that afternoon took place what must remain one of the most memorable Christmas services of all time. On one side of the dividing ditch were British officers, with soldiers in rank behind them; on the other, German officers with men of their regiments about them. . . . It was an impressive sight -- officers and men, bitter enemies as they were, uncovered, reverent, and for the moment united in offering to their dead the last offices of homage and honour.

Frederick Heath described what happened next:

Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers (and no one is quite so simple as a soldier) that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans' eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends forever. Given a sufficient quantity of Christmas puddings, every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered!

The men traded beef and jam for sausage and chocolate, and British rum was traded for wine or cognac. Strangest of all, the Highlanders said, was the moment "when it was discovered that there were barbers among the enemy" Many of the British were shaved by the Germans. Then, because No Man's Land had been cleared of bodies, men from both sides played soccer. In many places, the men ate Christmas dinner together and "entertained each other with singing and instrumental music."

The truce lasted from six to 10 days. The men would warn whenever they saw a commander approaching. Then, "as soon as the [commanders] left the line, the truce revived, and friend and foe again swarmed into No Man's Land" (Highlanders).

Many hoped the truce would not end until New Year's Day or later. Sir H. Kingsley Wood said, "If we had been left to ourselves, there would never have been another shot fired. It was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again."

Henry Williamson described how the truce ended where he was:

The truce lasted, in our part of the line for several days. On the last day of 1914, one evening, a message came over No Man's Land, carried by a very polite Saxon corporal. [The message] was that their regimental . . . staff officers were going round their line at midnight; and they would have to fire their automatische pistolen, but would aim high, well above our heads. Would we, even so, please keep under cover, 'lest regrettable accidents occur.'

And at 11 o'clock -- for they were using Berlin time - we saw the flash of several Spandau machine guns passing well above No Man's Land.

I had taken the addresses of two German soldiers, promising to write to them after the war. And I had, vaguely, a childlike idea that if all those in Germany could know what the soldiers had to suffer, and that both sides believed the same things about the righteousness of the two national causes, it might spread, this truce of Christ on the battlefield, to the minds of all, and give understanding where now there was scorn and hatred.

Folksinger John McCutcheon learned the story of the truce from an elderly African-American woman in 1984, and it became the song, "Christmas in the Trenches."

Over the years, John said, veterans who were part of the 1914 truce often wanted to meet him. In 2010, between concerts in Virginia, John was taken to West Virginia to meet someone who wanted to hear "Christmas in the Trenches." That "someone" turned out to be Frank Buckles, the last surviving WWI veteran (he died in 2011, at the age 110).

Frank wanted John to sing "that song" for him. After John sang, Frank told him that he made two mistakes in the song. One was there was no gas in 1914, that came in 1915. But then Frank told John, "The biggest mistake you make is that you make it sound like it only happened once."