The night the war came to a halt

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT was Christmas Eve, 1914. Germans and Englishmen had been fighting for a fierce few months in what was to become the most devastating war in history. Along the Western front in France, soldiers were lying in cold and rocky trenches. Suddenly, British sentries heard a clear German voice from across no man's land rising in song. Little by little, that voice was joined by others, all singing in harmony. The British soldiers struck up ``God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.'' The Germans sang ``Stille Nacht,'' and the Britons joined in with ``Silent Night.''

In an account of this incident in Retired Officer magazine, Gerald A. Shepherd writes, ``The British sentries ... say what appeared to be small lights, raised on poles or bayonets, waved above the German trenches, and although these lanterns clearly illuminated the German troops, the British held their fire. Even more startlingly, British officers saw through binoculars that some enemy troops were holding Christmas trees over their heads with lighted candles in their branches!'' The Germans, who celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, were extending holiday greetings to their enemies.

Then occurred one of the most unusual incidents in military history. One by one, soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons and ventured into no man's land - too many of them to prevent their superior officers from objecting.

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They traded chocolates and pictures of families. They played a flare-lit game of soccer. An Englishman brought out an accordion, a German a violin.

It was a rare and welcome moment of humanity amid conflict - an extraordinary incident that lives on in literature, theater, and song 72 years later.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of it in 1916: ``It remains one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war.'' It cropped up in the 1960s British musical revue ``Oh, What a Lovely War.'' Paul McCartney used it in his 1983 song ``Pipes of Peace.''

But nowhere has it been so eloquently immortalized as in the music of American folk singer John McCutcheon. Recorded on his ``Winter Solstice'' album in 1984, the song is still one of the most requested at his 150 or so annual concerts, even during the summer. And Mr. McCutcheon says most of the requests come from young people who know little about World War I.

McCutcheon explains how he discovered the story:

``I had heard it several times before, but when a janitor at a hall I played in Birmingham, Ala., told me it was her favorite story, I decided the time had come to write a song about it.

``It's a remarkable story; it really affected me. Here is a true [incident] that ... ground the war to a halt. It showed that people's need to connect with each other took precedence over the need to kill each other.''

McCutcheon says that ``Christmas in the Trenches'' seems to draw an incredible outpouring from people. ``One woman stood up during the concert in Santa Cruz [Calif.] saying her father was one of the German soldiers, and said that he told her that story every night.

``The first time I performed this song, a man came up weeping and said his father, one of the British soldiers, was court-martialed and sentenced to death for consorting with the enemy. He said in the end his father was pardoned because George V didn't believe it really happened!''

But the singer says he heard that this type of incident happened many times in World War I, ``when [the conflict] wasn't as clear cut. In fact, they had to move companies around because they ended up shooting over the other guys' heads.''

How did it end? The next day military activity resumed, but to a lesser degree because of bad weather. Gerald Shepherd writes, however, that the effect of the holiday truce ``was so immense that some military authorities denied that it ever happened, although it is well documented in many unit histories and personal diaries.''

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