My dear sister Janet,
It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their dugoutsyet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadnt been through it myself, I would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy soldiers here on the battlefields of France!
As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed in our trenches and waited.
But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench, killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our heads above ground, for fear of a snipers bullet.
And the rainit has fallen almost daily. Of course, it collects right in our trenches, where we must bail it out with pots and pans. And with the rain has come muda good foot or more deep. It splatters and cakes everything, and constantly sucks at our boots. One new recruit got his feet stuck in it, and then his hands too when he tried to get outjust like in that American story of the tar baby!
Through all this, we couldnt help feeling curious about the German soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we did, and slogged about in the same muck. Whats more, their first trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Mans Land, bordered on both sides by barbed wireyet they were close enough we sometimes heard their voices.
Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common. And now it seems they felt the same.
Just yesterday morningChristmas Eve Daywe had our first good freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather.
During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might promise a peaceful holiday, but we didnt count on it. Wed been told the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard.
I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, Come and see! See what the Germans are doing! I grabbed my rifle, stumbled out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.
I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far as the eye could see.
What is it? I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, Christmas trees!
And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will.
And then we heard their voices raised in song.
Stille nacht, heilige nacht . . . .
There was a great movie made about this, “Joyeux Noel.”
I remember seeing a program on TV about the battle of Monte Cassino. One German soldier who was interviewed many years later said the British troops were trying to attack them by climbing the nearly vertical mountain.
He said the Officer who ordered the attack must have been crazy. A large number of British troops were killed. During a lull in the battle the Germans offered them a truce to collect their wounded and dead. The program said the German medics and soldiers even helped collect them and temporarily treat them.
I think the fact that both sides were largely Christian played a part in it.
During the battle of Fredricksburg, the Union attack at Mayre’s Heights was repulsed with the attackers suffering 8,000 casualties.
During the night, the Confederates could hear the wounded Union soldiers lying in front of their lines crying out for water. A Confederate soldier finally couldn’t stand it and went around and gathered canteens from his fellow troops.
He then went out in the dark and began trying to help those dying of thirst etc. The Union troops saw him and began firing but they quickly realized what he was doing and stopped the shooting.