German and British troops photographed near Ploegsteert, Belgium December 24, 1914. On this Christmas Eve 2014 it will be 100 years since German and Allied troops laid down their arms to meet and celebrate the holiday together. The photo and story below appeared in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic .
“In December 1914 invading German troops and the defending Allies were dug in along battle lines in Belgium and France. From sodden trenches soldiers shot at each other across a no-man’s-land strewn with injured and dead comrades. But on December 24, at points along the western front, Germans planted lighted trees on trench parapets and the Allies joined them in an impromptu peace: the Christmas Truce of World War 1, a hundred years ago this month.
The truce “bubbled up from the ranks” despite edicts against fraternization, says historian Stanley Weintraub whose book Silent Night tells the story. After shouted exchanges promising “You no shoot, we no shoot,” some erstwhile enemies serenaded each other with carols. Others emerged from trenches to shake hands and share a smoke. Many agreed to extend the peace into Christmas Day so they could meet again and bury their dead. Each side helped the other dig graves and hold memorials; at one, a Scottish chaplain led a bilingual recitation of the 23rd Psalm. Troops shared food and gifts sent from home, traded uniform buttons as souvenirs, and competed in soccer matches.
“No one there wanted to continue the war,” Weintraub says. But the trop brass did, and threatened to punish troops shirking duty. As the new year began, both sides “went on withe the grim business at hand,” Weintraub says. But they fondly recalled the truce in letters home and diary entries: “How marvelously wonderful,” a German soldier wrote, “yet how strange.” - Patricia Edmonds