On Christmas Eve of 1818, in the little Austrian town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, a 31-year-old church organist sat down with a Catholic priest to compose the music to a poem the priest had written. The next day, Franz Gruber and Fr. Joseph Mohr sang Stille Nacht for the first time at Christmas Mass in St. Nicholas Church, with the choir repeating the last two lines of each verse. The two men did not know it, but they had created what would become the world’s best known Christmas carol, a song that would be declared an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO, a seasonal ballad so ubiquitous that even those who scorn its message would recognize it instantly in the original German: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht …”
Ninety-six years later, hundreds of thousands of freezing men huddled in trenches in Northern France, coming to the realization that the war they had embarked on so enthusiastically would not be over by Christmas as many of them had believed. Despite sporadic fire and the first of what would become four awful years of bloody fighting, all was quiet along vast stretches of the Western Front on the Christmas Eve of 1914.
British soldiers and their German counterparts, bored of battle, had already set up several short, informal truces to collect the dead and swap cigarettes. The stunning slaughters of later years had not yet begun in earnest, and the war seemed somehow stalled for many homesick soldiers.
The leaders of doomed and embattled empires had also begun to realize what their soldiers might face, and it was decided that they should have a splendid Christmas in the icy trenches to lift their spirits. King George V sent a card to every soldier; 460,000 parcels were sent out and 2.5 million letters were delivered. General Douglas Haig—who two years later would earn the nickname ‘the Butcher of the Somme’ for losing nearly half a million men in the bloody mud—wrote in his diary: “Tomorrow being Xmas day, I ordered no reliefs to be carried out, and troops to be given as easy time as possible.” On the other side of No Man’s Land, the Germans were given gift boxes, tabletop Christmas trees, and wreaths to add festivity to their frozen barracks. Crown Prince Wilhelm even visited the front.
It was on that Christmas Eve, on the brink of a great world war, that German officer Walter Kirchhoff, a tenor with the Berlin Opera, began to sing: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht …”
He sang it first in German, and then in English: “Silent Night, Holy Night …” His voice carried in the crisp, clear night. Soon, as Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, put it: “The shooting had stopped and in that silence he sang, and the British knew the song and sang back.” The moment crystallized the collective Christian faith of the men singing in different languages across the frozen mud, their breath puffing white into the cold air. Soldiers with guns pointed at each other, who had tried to kill each other, joined each other in song.
Private Albert Moren of the Second Queen’s Regiment recalled that Christmas Eve as “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere.” Historians are still debating precisely what happened next, but some details are beyond dispute. First, Stille Nacht and Silent Night echoed above the Christmas trees and candles glimmering in the darkness, and then someone started singing another Christmas carol. And then another. One historian described it as a “carol sing-off,” a joyous battle fought with praise to the God who had been born of a woman as a little Child to bring peace on earth. “It was impromptu. No one planned it,” Weintraub writes.
Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade was there and saw it all. “First the Germans would sing one of their carols, and then we would sing one of ours,” he recalled. “Until when we started up ‘O come, All Ye Faithful,’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles.’ And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The following morning, an extraordinary scene unfolded at some points along the Western Front. German soldiers climbed slowly out of their trenches, holding up signs that read: “You no shoot, we no shoot.” At other places, Germans called out “Merry Christmas!” in English to the Brits as they climbed into No Man’s Land. Warily, the Brits responded in kind. Throughout Christmas Day, soldiers exchanged presents, chocolates, cigarettes, and souvenirs. The dead still lying between the trenches were carried off and buried. At some locations, football games were begun (a famous Sainsbury’s Christmas ad captured one such moment a century later.) One story even mentions a Brit getting a haircut from his pre-war German barber.
It did not happen everywhere, of course. There were sporadic clashes, and some men in some places got shot going over the top. But two-thirds of the troops—around 100,000 men—took part in the legendary Christmas Truce of 1914. Some participants were as high-ranking as colonels. The generals were livid when they found out what was happening, especially as the truces dragged on for days in some places along the line. Some soldiers disapproved, too. Twenty-five-year-old Adolf Hitler, then a member of an infantry regiment, chastised his comrades: “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no sense of German honor?” If the rank and file fraternized with the men they were to face in battle, they might be reluctant to kill them.
The truce was halted and orders given that anyone refusing to fight be punished severely. There was no room for brotherhood at the beginning of a bloodbath. Commanders took measures to quash the excess of goodwill toward all men, and many troops that had met with their enemy counterparts were pulled off the front lines and swapped with soldiers who hadn’t been part of the truce. The following Christmas of 1915, Weintraub wrote that British commanders “ordered a slow, continuing artillery barrage through every daylight hour.” After all, if there were no silence, nobody would be able to hear a lone soldier singing “Silent Night.”
Since that Christmas Eve and the days that followed over a century ago, the events have been immortalized in literature, film, and song. It seems to be one shining moment of humanity in a useless, years-long massacre: a glowing white moonlit night, carols wafting over barbed wire and mortar holes, and men slowly emerging from fox-holes to talk and laugh and give gifts—before being ordered to take up arms once again. British poet Carol Ann Duffy captured it exquisitely in her 2011 poem “The Christmas Truce.” An excerpt:
A Scotsman started to bawl The First Noel
and all joined in,
till the Germans stood, seeing
across the divide,
the sprawled, mute shapes of those who had died.
All night, along the Western Front, they sang, the enemies—
carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems, in German, English, French;
each battalion choired in its grim trench.
So Christmas dawned, wrapped in mist, to open itself
and offer the day like a gift
for Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz …
with whistles, waves, cheers, shouts, laughs.
[. . .]
And all that marvelous, festive day and night, they came and went,
the officers, the rank and file, their fallen comrades side by side
beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves …
… beneath the shivering, shy stars
and the pinned moon
and the yawn of History;
the high, bright bullets
which each man later only aimed at the sky.
On a single silent night when all was still and all was bright, before millions were ground to a pulp and empires toppled, Christian Germans and Christian Brits sang together and then climbed out of their trenches to greet each other and celebrate the birth of Christ—before the carnage carried on for four long years. Some soldiers would remember, for the rest of their lives, that magical moment where another path seemed possible. This Christmas, we should, too.
Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Prairie Lion: The Life & Times of Ted Byfield.