A Day When Enemies Stopped Fighting

I thought it was particularly timely this year. and as I put it together, a quote from Margaret Mead came to mind:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  


May this holiday season find you feeling peaceful, blessed, and eager to get out and change the world.


December 25, 1914

One Day When Enemies Stopped Fighting

On New Year’s Eve 2012, I was privileged to be in the audience when a small group of performers offered a song I’d never heard. Christmas In the Trenches so moved me, I came home that night and immediately looked it up.  Google, once again, to the fore.



The song left me with the impression — and so I’ve believed for the past year — that this was a single incident. That in one trench, somewhere along the Western Front in 1914, German soldiers made an overture to their British enemies no more than 20 meters away, and they were acknowledged in a most heartwarming way.


HOWEVER, in preparing this blog, I’ve learned more. And the facts are  even more remarkable than the story conveyed in song.

  • This was not a one-time event. The song sums up the many informal cease-fires that occurred all along the 27-mile Western front. One report, later, said it was the entire Fifth Division.
  • The Pope had called for a universal cease-fire on Christmas Day. But no one knew if his call would be followed. If anyone has made a connection, I haven’t found it.
  • The British troops were professional soldiers; the Germans, were mostly conscripts.
  • Photos of these gatherings made it into newspapers throughout the Western world.

From Daily Mail

The song was written by John McCutcheon in 1989, and is sung by him in any of these YouTube videos:

Christmas In the Trenches sung twice
Posted to YouTube by RIDEM25, this 6:28 video takes us through the song twice with orchestration and pictures of WWI sites, plus a few modern era photos of those same sites.

Christmas In the Trenches sung twice, plus singer-songwriter introduction
Posted to YouTube by John Huffman, this 6:49 video gives us the composer himself telling the story of how he wrote the song and how he’d met a few German vets who specifically came to show of his to hear him sing. We hear the song twice, with scenes from a re-enactment of the day and newspaper clippings from the era.

Christmas In the Trenches sung three times
Posted to YouTube by gail242000, this 7:40 video takes us through the song three times, twice with pictures from WWI, then once again with pictures from today’s many wars.

I’ll post the lyrics at the end, FYI.


And, if you want to get a fuller sense of the story,
I recommend the documentary/re-enactment, The Christmas Truce.
It’s an hour, but hook up your Apple TV. It’s worth it.
And, unlike Miracle on 34th Street, it’s a true account of the “one day that shook the world.”

A different, seven minute documentary/re-enactment can be found here.


Additional points I learned from the documentaries:

  • Temperatures dropped below freezing; minus 4, some said.
  • In December alone, the Germans had lost nearly 6,000; British, nearly 9,000. Yet it was the Germans who initiated these truces, over and over.
  • Over a million soldiers would die on the Western front in 1914. By the end of the war, half of all soldiers would be killed or wounded.
  • In one story, the two sides used the truce to bury their dead, and they buried them together in the “no man’s land” with a joint Christian service, alternating the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer in two languages.


I also began to understand what these soldiers had to fear from their own commanders by, essentially, “fraternizing with the enemy,” a treasonable offense, punishable by death.


  • Up to half of the German front line was, at one time, “fraternizing with the enemy.”
  • It’s unclear how many Brits. But we do know that when Commander General Horace Smith-Dorrien attempted to initiate court martial proceedings against some, he found too many had been involved for him to make an example of any one. As a result, not a single court martial occurred.
  • In some quarters, the truce lasted days. In a few cases, into January. But, in the end, eventually, the war resumed when a Sgt. Collins was shot and killed on his way back from taking cigarettes to the Germans. The truce was over.


Truce 1

Here are the lyrics  and here is the recording, again

My name is Francis Tolliver. I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here,
I fought for King and country I love dear.

It was Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lyin’ with my mess-mates on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I “Now listen up me boys,” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.

“He’s singin’ bloody well you know,” my partner says to me.
Soon one by one each German voice joined in, in harmony.
The cannons rested silent. The gas cloud rolled no more,
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished, a reverent pause was spent.
“God rest ye merry, gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was Stille Nacht. “Tis Silent Night,” says I.
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.

“There’s someone comin’ towards us,” the front-line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright,
As he bravely strode, unarmed, into the night.

Then one by one on either side walked into no-man’s-land.
With neither gun nor bayonet, we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and wished each other well,
And in a flare-lit soccer game, we gave ’em hell.

We traded chocolates, cigarettes and photographs from home,
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells, we each began to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night,
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”

It was Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war,
Had been crumbled and were gone forever more.

Oh, my name is Francis Tolliver. In Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War One I’ve learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame.
And on each end of the rifle, we’re the same.

— John McCutcheon “Christmas in the trenches”       1989



May this Christmas season find you and yours at peace.


5 Responses

  1. Joan Rough
    | Reply

    Janet, I have always loved the story of this truce, but I didn’t know it was so extensive. Thanks so much for filling in some of the details. Happy Holidays to you and Woody.

  2. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, this is such a powerful story. I do remember this from last year but it is one that bears repeating. And the story behind the story is every bit as amazing as the story itself. Thanks for sharing. Wishing you and Woody a peaceful and enjoyable holiday.

  3. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Joan and Kathy,
    You might also be interested in this recent NPR story on this, the 100th anniversary of the Christmas truce.


    I think I’ll add it for next years rerun. It’s such a good reminder, I think that there is always some way to meet across differences. If we want to.

    Thanks for coming by.

  4. » Annual Christmas Eve Story
    | Reply

    […] How the year has flown.  The following story is one I’ve shared before, first in 2013 and again in 2014. […]

  5. […] A Day When Enemies Stopped Fighting (2014) […]

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