World War I was arguably the most momentous event of the twentieth century. Old beliefs and institutions were swept away in the carnage and its aftermath, paving the way for subsequent catastrophes. In Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, Stanley Weintraub, Professor Emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, relates the events of one of history's might-have-beens.
When the Great War began in August, 1914, it was assumed that it would be over by Christmas. However, stalemate resulted, and the hundreds of miles of trenches became the sites of numerous impromptu Christmas truces. German troops generally initiated the truces by placing Christmas trees on trench parapets, singing Christmas carols, and calling to their opponents across No Man's Land. The British often responded; the French less so as German troops were occupying French territory. The opponents came together in the killing fields between the trenches, making conversation in spite of language differences, exchanging gifts (beer and cigars), and even engaging in informal soccer matches.
The truces were the actions of ordinary troops. Most front-line officers turned a blind eye, unable to stop the fraternization. The higher up the chain of command, the more the fear that even a temporary respite from combat would destroy military discipline. Silent Night includes vignettes of Kaiser William II's Christmas and of British General Sir John French's response when he learned about the truces, but it mainly relates the many incidents which took place along the front lines.
The truce was a missed opportunity, but given the demands of politicians and generals and the patriotic enthusiasm of civilians, the failure of the truce to become permanent was inevitable. It was a brief light in a dark tragedy.