On Christmas Eve of 1914, five months into World War I, something amazing happened: thousands of British and German troops on the Western Front decided to put down their weapons, rise from the trenches, and greet each other peacefully. In fact, for the next few days, close to 100,000 men, British and German, chatted, exchanged gifts, sang carols and played football. Most importantly, they were even able to bury their dead without fearing for their own safety. On the evening of December 24th, the first day of the truce, Captain ‘Jack’ Armes of the 1st Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment wrote to his wife and described this incredible occurrence. Armes did return home to his family after the war; he died in 1948.
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I have just been through one of the most extraordinary scenes imaginable. To-night is Xmas Eve and I came up into the trenches this evening for my tour of duty in them. Firing was going on all the time and the enemy’s machine guns were at it hard, firing at us. Then about seven the firing stopped.
I was in my dug-out reading a paper and the mail was being dished out. It was reported that the Germans had lighted their trenches up all along our front. We had been calling to one another for some time Xmas wishes and other things. I went out and they shouted “no shooting” and then somehow the scene became a peaceful one. All our men got out of their trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English. I got on top of the trench and talked German and asked them to sing a German Volkslied, which they did, then our men sang quite well and each side clapped and cheered the other.
I asked a German who sang a solo to sing one of Schumann’s songs, so he sang The Two Grenadiers splendidly. Our men were a good audience and really enjoyed his singing.
Then Pope and I walked across and held a conversation with the German officer in command.
One of his men introduced us properly, he asked my name and then presented me to his officer. I gave the latter permission to bury some German dead who are lying in between us, and we agreed to have no shooting until 12 midnight to-morrow. We talked together, 10 or more Germans gathered round. I was almost in their lines within a yard or so. We saluted each other, he thanked me for permission to bury his dead, and we fixed up how many men were to do it, and that otherwise both sides must remain in their trenches.
Then we wished one another goodnight and a good night’s rest, and a happy Xmas and parted with a salute. I got back to the trench. The Germans sang Die Wacht Am Rhein it sounded well. Then our men sang quite well Christians Awake, it sounded so well, and with a goodnight we all got back into our trenches. It was a curious scene, a lovely moonlit night, the German trenches with small lights on them, and the men on both sides gathered in groups on the parapets.
At times we heard the guns in the distance and an occasional rifle shot. I can hear them now, but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German or two half way. They exchanged cigars, a smoke and talked. The officer I spoke to hopes we shall do the same on New Year’s Day, I said “yes, if I am here”. I felt I must sit down and write the story of this Xmas Eve before I went to lie down. Of course no precautions are relaxed, but I think they mean to play the game. All the same, I think I shall be awake all night so as to be on the safe side. It is weird to think that to-morrow night we shall be at it hard again. If one gets through this show it will be an Xmas time to live in one’s memory. The German who sang had a really fine voice.
Am just off for a walk around the trenches to see all is well. Goodnight.
We had an absolutely quiet night in front of us though just to our right and left there was sniping going on. In my trenches and in those of the enemy opposite to us were only nice big fires blazing and occasional songs and conversation. This morning at the Reveille the Germans sent out parties to bury their dead. Our men went out to help, and then we all on both sides met in the middle, and in groups began to talk and exchange gifts of tobacco, etc. All this morning we have been fraternising, singing songs. I have been within a yard in fact to their trenches, have spoken to and exchanged greetings with a Colonel, Staff Officers and several Company Officers. All were very nice and we fixed up that the men should not go near their opponents trenches, but remain about midway between the lines. The whole thing is extraordinary. The men were all so natural and friendly. Several photos were taken, a group of German officers, a German officer and myself, and a group of British and German soldiers.
The Germans are Saxons, a good looking lot, only wishing for peace in a manly way, and they seem in no way at their last gasp. I was astonished at the easy way in which our men and theirs got on with each other.
We have just knocked off for dinner, and have arranged to meet again afterwards until dusk when we go in again and have [illegible] until 9pm, when War begins again. I wonder who will start the shooting! They say “Fire in the air and we will”, and such things, but of course it will start and tomorrow we shall be at it hard killing one another. It is an extraordinary state of affairs which allows of a “Peace Day”. I have never seen men so pleased to have a day off as both sides.
Their opera singer is going to give us a song or two tonight and perhaps I may give them one. Try and imagine two lines of trenches in peace, only 50 yards apart, the men of either side have never seen each other except perhaps a head now and again, and have never been outside in front of their trenches. Then suddenly one day men stream out and nest in friendly talk in the middle. One fellow, a married man, wanted so much a photo of Betty and Nancy in bed, which I had, and I gave him it as I had two: It seems he showed it all round, as several Germans told me afterwards about it. He gave me a photo of himself and family taken the other day which he had just got.
Well must finish now so as to get this off to-day. Have just finished dinner. Pork chop. Plum pudding. Mince pies. Ginger, and bottle of Wine and a cigar, and have drunk to all at home and especially to you my darling one. Must go outside now to supervise the meetings of the men and the Germans.
Will try and write more in a day or two. Keep this letter carefully and send copies to all. I think they will be interested. It did feel funny walking over alone towards the enemy’s trenches to meet someone half-way, and then to arrange a Xmas peace. It will be a thing to remember all one’s life.
Kiss the babies and give them my love. Write me a long letter and tell me all the news. I hope the photos come out all-right. Probably you will see them in some paper.