During the middle of one of Europe’s darkest hours, World War I, in a lull in combat on the night of Christmas Eve 1914, the British soldiers sitting in their trenches in Fleming noticed something odd: sparkling lights coming from the other side of ‘No Man’s Land’. Their minds set ablaze. Was it a trap laid by the German to lull them into a false sense of security? A signal for a surprise attack? The confusion only worsened when they heard the notes of Silent Night crooning quietly in German over the mass of barbed wire. The British listened intently for a while, and one by one began to join in song. This continued for the rest of the night, the sides singing together in their own separate languages. Just before Christmas morning dawned, German soldiers suggested (or, rather, yelled,) a radical idea: an unofficial, unsanctioned truce.
The next morning, sleepy-eyed French and English troops wakened to see a strange sight: the enemy.
“Walking about the trench… we suddenly became aware of the fact we were seeing a lot of evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over the parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced…. A complete Boche [German] figure suddenly appeared on the parapet, and looked about itself…. This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by our men, until in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in no-man’s land.” – Bruce Bairnsfather
At any point, it would have been easy for either side to pick up their rifles, man their machine guns, and tear their enemies to shreds, but those shots never came. Instead, the troops met in ‘No Man’s Land’. For the first time in five months, they had the chance to talk to each other like human beings.
“On Christmas Day after service in the trenches, we went halfway and we shook hands, and had a fine crack with them. Quite a number of them speak English. I got one’s autograph and he got mine, and I exchanged a button with another, and exchanged cigs and got cigars galore. Altogether we spent a very pleasant two hours with them, and found them a nice lot of fellows.” -British soldier on Jan. 15, 1915
It was like this along most of the Flemish line (though in some places the fighting continued) for the better part of Christmas day. Soldiers attempted conversation, which was sometimes difficult because of the language barrier, gave gifts, and even, according to some sources, played friendly games of soccer. When the time came for both sides to return to their trenches, no shots were fired for the better part of a week. For one lone, isolated moment in the middle of one of the worst humanitarian crises ever, we finally had an answer to the question: What if they had a war and nobody came?