A Christmas truce

If someone talks about ‘Christmas spirit’ they usually don’t mean eating too much or hoping to receive lots of presents, but that Christmas is a time for being kind to other people, which includes trying to get on better with people we don’t have a good relationship with. There is a traditional Christmas message that expresses this very well: ‘Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men’.One of the most famous stories about Christmas spirit comes from the First World War (1914-18), in which many soldiers had to live in trenches and tens of thousands of them died in battles in which the side that ‘won’ often moved forward just a few hundred metres. At Christmas in 1914, a few months after the start of the war, the British were fighting the Germans in northern France and Belgium, with their trenches only about fifty metres apart in some places. On Christmas Eve, near Ypres in Belgium, the German soldiers started singing Christmas carols, including one called Stille Nacht (Silent Night in English) that is still very popular today. Opposite them, in the British trenches, Scottish soldiers replied by singing carols in English. Soon the Scottish and German soldiers were shouting friendly Christmas messages to each other.Next, something even more surprising happened: groups of soldiers from both sides went into no man’s land (the space between the trenches), to exchange small Christmas presents such as whisky and chocolate. Soldiers also went into no man’s land to pick up and bury the dead bodies, with British and German soldiers standing together at some of the burial ceremonies. In a letter home, one young British soldier wrote, ‘I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans … They say they won’t fire tomorrow if we don’t so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday.’News of the truce travelled quickly along the lines of British and German trenches, and other groups of soldiers decided they wanted to do the same. In one place in northern France, British and German soldiers even went into no man’s land to have a game of football on Christmas Day. Generals in both armies were angry about the truce, and ordered the soldiers to start firing again. The Christmas spirit of 1914 soon died, but it has not been forgotten.

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