12/22/2014 03:25 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

100 Years Ago: When Battlefield 'Enemies' Refused to Fight


A century ago this week, the young soldiers shivering in the first Christmas of World War 1 had no way of knowing what the "Great War" would turn into: a tragedy lasting more than four years, claiming nearly 16 million lives in the first war using deadly modern technology. It would not be the last.

But by December 1914, four months into the war, hundreds of thousands were already dead or wounded. And for many who fought, it was a miserable existence, often in trenches where a soldier far from family was up to his knees in icy water. And of course someone might shoot you from an enemy trench nearby.

As recreated in our Humankind public radio program with Grammy-nominated folksinger John McCutcheon airing this week, a soldier could only dream of the distant hearth and home where relatives might offer a toast in your honor or a prayer for your safe return.

But that Christmas Eve on the frigid battlefield at Flanders, Belgium, a remarkable human moment occurred that briefly broke the trance of war. The story has been adapted into three movies and is memorialized in McCutcheon's hauntingly beautiful song, Christmas in the Trenches, which we hear.

Trenches occupied by opposing armies there lay close enough that enemy soldiers could hear one another's voices. This made possible the kind of communication that from time to time allowed for deviation from the normal posture of enemies.

"On one occasion," according to Penn State historian Stanley Weintraub, "the Germans called out, 'We're having a party for our commanding officer. If you stop firing during the party, we'll send you over a cake.' And they sent over a cake!"

In the land that originated the German Christmas carol O Tannenbaum, holiday trees were a deeply sentimental tradition. Small trees had been sent as a gift to German soldiers at the front. And on Christmas Eve, they began lighting candles on their trees, which caught the attention of combatants in the opposing trenches.

"At a distance of seventy-five or a-hundred yards," said Weintraub in an interview, "some of them crept closer through the mud to see what was going on and discovered that the Germans were lighting their Christmas trees. The Germans, realizing that there were troops approaching them, crawled out too. And the troops met each other. This happened in many places along the front lines, especially in Flanders."

As the enemies cautiously approached in No Man's Land, they had to navigate around bomb shells and, of course, corpses of fallen soldiers. Through broken English spoken by some of the Germans, an initial understanding then developed among opposing troops: an unofficial ceasefire would permit time for burial of the dead. The next day, the soldiers returned and, unlikely as it sounds, actually exchanged Christmas gifts, according to war diaries and other records unearthed by Weintraub for his book, Silent Night. (They drew from holiday packages received from home.)

Weintraub was able to document another amazing development - a game of football (equivalent to American soccer) between soldiers, who a few hours earlier had been shooting at each other. It certainly seemed improbable, given the setting of combat and the rough terrain. "And yet I found, in the (British) Imperial War Museum and in German documents, war diaries, that is, official documents, the daily reports, that not only talked about the football games, but gave the scores."

There was even a case where German officers provided British counterparts two bottles of beer and a German private was ordered to produce six glasses for the occasion. They all drank the beer together. The British countered with a dessert of plum puddings, which were well received.

Commanders, who were luxuriating in villas far from the battlefield, did not immediately learn of the unauthorized truce - fraternizing with the enemy technically could subject the participating soldiers to court martial. When word reached the commanders, replacement troops were dispatched (although no one was prosecuted) and within a few days the machinery of organized violence resumed humming.

From John McCutcheon's lyric:

But the question haunted every heart
that lived that wondrous night,
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"

Said McCutcheon in our interview: "You went back and you thought, 'I'm not just killing an individual, I'm killing a family here. I'm taking aim at a bunch of human beings. This is not just some two-legged mammal over there. This is someone who has connections, and who has relationships, and lots of worlds will come crumbling down.' And it's one of the realities of war.

"It becomes romanticized, it becomes trivialized. You know, I was raised with comic books, and GI Joes, and B movies. And kids today are growing up with those same things, and add video games. And it all is about a cartoonish representation of the grit of what actually goes on out there, and what you are asked to do, and what you live through, and bring home with you."

Even in the highly-controlled, awful conditions of war, the human spirit can emerge, honoring the idea of peace on earth and goodwill toward men.