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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

German Voices Singing "Silent Night" Sparked the Storied Christmas Truce of 1914

Exactly one hundred years ago tonight, as the atrocities we know today as the First World War were just beginning to unfold, the uneasy quiet of the bitterly cold front line was broken by the faint sound of a Christmas carol from a foxhole on the German side:

Stille Nacht,
Heil'ge Nacht.
Alles schläft, einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh . . .

The singing slowly grew louder with each familiar line, until  — softly at first, but then with growing assurance  — English voices could be heard joining in:

Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace . . .

The beautiful notes of "Silent Night" kicked-off the Christmas Truce of 1914, which has to rank among the most unusual and uplifting events in the history of modern warfare. As troops on both sides of the line continued to sing Christmas carols, some personnel lit candles and posted makeshift decorations on the edges of their icy foxholes. Others stuck their heads above ground and shouted Christmas greetings. Within a matter of minutes, German, French, English and Belgian soldiers were actually climbing above ground and extending their hands to the enemy. In time, as many as 100,000 soldiers up and down the battle front lay down their arms to share greetings, provisions, cigarettes and laughter with those they'd been trying to kill just hours before. Some soldiers used the time to retrieve their fallen comrades whose bodies lay on the enemy side. Others engaged in projects above ground, or gave letters and packages to the other side so they could be delivered to loved ones. There are even reports of friendly football games between German and Allied personnel.

Sadly, of course, the truce did not last long. Leaders on both sides sent word that fraternizing with the enemy would not be tolerated. Fighting resumed in some areas on the day after Christmas. By New Year's Day, there were few observable signs that the truce had ever taken place at all. But one can't help but wonder how difficult it must have been for the men who were actually doing the killing to shoot at those they'd been singing with such a short time before. One hundred years later, the Christmas Truce remains a powerful testament to man's innate humanity, and our thirst for peace.

Listen to the song "WWI Christmas Day 1914," by Mickey MacConnell

Watch Nuala Kennedy's Music Video, "Christmas in the Trenches"

Watch the BBC Documentary "Peace in No Man's Land"

Watch the History Channel Documentary "The Christmas Truce"

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