The story of enemies putting down their weapons to sing carols and celebrate Christmas on a World War I battlefield has with time cycled through fact, legend and myth, much like the holiday itself.
On this Christmas, we embrace the message: Peace on earth.
Retired Penn State professor Stanley Weintraub captured the remarkable moment in his book “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce,” charting the story through newspaper reports of the time, military logs and letters from soldiers who were there.
In an interview with National Review Online just after his book was released in 2001, Weintraub recalled uncovering a powerful narrative.
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“I dipped into files of newspapers for January 1915, as troops mesmerized by the miraculous Christmas peace, a sort of waking dream they could hardly believe, wrote home about it,” he said. “In those pre-censorship days, the letters were often sent on to local newspapers, which printed them.”
As Weintraub and others have reported, the German troops sang songs and lit Christmas trees that had been sent to the front lines in Belgium. Some believe the move began as a taunt, a military strategy of sorts, but brought a surprising outcome.
British and French troops across the way recognized the tune of “Silent Night” — although sung in German — and responded with carols of their own.
Soldiers soon gathered in the area between their lines, known as No Man’s Land, and declared an impromptu Christmas truce. They buried their dead and held memorial services. And some even engaged in soccer games once the field was cleared of bodies.
“This was the only Christmas in the history of warfare in which there was a truce,” Weintraub said in a 2004 interview with National Public Radio.
Weintraub told NPR he’d learned of a French soldier who happened to be an opera singer, who walked onto the battlefield on Christmas eve and sang “O Holy Night.”
Conditions were in place for such an amazing event, he said. There had been a stalemate in fighting, and with trenches only about 6o yards apart, troops often shouted taunts back and forth.
This was early in World War I — “after four months of a war that would last four years,” Weintraub said — so many held out hope for peace rather than the carnage and deaths of millions that would follow.
As in the days of the first Christmas, forces worked to squash the story quickly. Fresh troops were rotated to the front lines, because good tidings were bad for the business of war, and attempts were made to keep word from spreading.
“The British reported it as a minor, scattered, phenomenon, quickly over. The French and Germans claimed it didn’t happen, although their own unit reports (contradict) that,” Weintraub said in his NRO interview. “No reporters were then at the front to observe the truce. And no photographers. But the news leaked back anyway.”
Nearly a century later, Weintraub’s work was followed by another book from a German author and a documentary by a French film company about that battlefield Christmas in 1914.
Weintraub, a native of Philadelphia, taught at Penn State from 1956 until his retirement in 2000. A decorated Korean War veteran, he was one of the world’s leading scholars on the works of literary figure George Bernard Shaw. An Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus, he lives in Newark, Del.
Each December, we are surrounded by stories of those whose cold hearts are warmed by the spirit of Christmas.
From the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge to more modern pop-culture images such as Dr. Seuss’ Grinch and Walter Hobbs of the movie “Elf,” we are reminded that embracing the message of Christmas can be a transforming experience.
We thank Weintraub for helping keep the story of that World War I holiday truce alive.
And for reminding us of the transforming miracle of Christmas, which can overcome human differences and hatred and bring us together on common ground — even on a blood-stained battlefield.
We wish you peace this Christmas.