Sunday, December 14, 2008

StiLle Nacht! HeiLige Nacht!

I don’t think I can ever look at those words without thinking of the Christmas stories that took place during World War I. Some people don’t believe such a miraculous thing could happen during war. Funny how distance of time can make memories fade or how those who don’t believe seem to have louder voices than those who do. Wanting to include this event, if it really happened, in my nonfiction book, The Kids' Books of World War One, I did some research. Not only did I find many accounts of that night, but even some pictures (some staged to show the event, but also newspaper photos). Since we are to soon celebrate Christmas, I thought I'd summarize what I read and also provide a website where you can read accounts of both sides by soldiers who were actually there.

Let's set the Christmas in 1914 approached, Pope Benedict XV requested a ceasefire from both the German and Allie Forces. The request was rejected. In fact, the British thought the Germans would use the holiday to launch a major assault and sent out a warning to all units to be especially watchful during Christmas.

Christmas Eve brought bone-chilling weather to the front. The ground was frozen, which was a welcome change from the mud, but now that sticky mud, which caked the soldiers’ coats, was frozen to them. That night one Allie unit was assigned to sneak out in No-Man’s Land (an area between German and Allie Forces where hand-to-hand combat took place) and dig posts in the frozen ground where they planned to add more barbed wire to help with their defenses. The men were skeptical about hammering the posts certain it would draw the attention of the Germans. But as soon as night fell, they went about their assignment.

As they crept out into No-Man’s Land the night was eerily silent, which was most unusual. By moonlight they set to work always on their guard for the enemy. Close to midnight they noticed a strange light appearing on the German parapet. Some in the Allie trenches thought it was a type of weapon and fired. But no return fire sounded.

The men working on the posts wondered if the Germans were using a new type of lantern, but the glow was most unusual. Suddenly they heard “Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!” from the German trenches. The Allies flatten themselves on the frozen ground certain they were about to be attacked.

No attack followed. Instead more lights along the German parapets appeared. As the Allies peered at the strange glow, they realized the lights were candles on Christmas trees. The Germans were celebrating Christmas! All at once on the misty threads of the cold night air a baritone’s voice was heard singing “StiLle Nacht! HeiLige Nacht!” (Silent night, holy night.) The Allies could hardly believe their ears. It was as if they’d become part of another world delivered from the nightmare they’d been living.

Christmas morning brought even stranger events. As the fog cleared soldiers from both sides left their trenches, walked past the barbed wire, and met each other in No-Man’s Land. They shook hands. A sort of unspoken truce had been called. Both sides respectful for each other set to work taking care of their dead. After their fallen troops had been laid to rest, the Germans and Allies once again came together and this time they offered each other presents of cigarettes, cigars, jams, and beer. They even played a good game of football.

Incidents such as this happened up and down the battle lines. The leaders of both sides were concerned for their men and after a while ordered them to resume their posts. They reluctantly complied. Sadly a Christmas truce was never struck again during the long years which followed.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the impossible did occur during a time of war on Christmas Eve 1914. Songs have been sung and stories have been written of this event. Check out the following sites if you'd like to learn more.

The Christmas Truce, 1914:

Christmas in the Trenches:

And remember this Christmas Eve as you celebrate with your families and friends that almost a hundred years ago an unspoken truce visited the battle front of WWI.

Do you know of another incidence during war when soldiers celebrated Christmas? I'd love to hear about it.

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