On Christmas Eve 1914, Rifleman Graham Williams, of the 5th London Rifle Brigade, stood out on sentry duty staring out anxiously across the wasteland of no man’s land to the German trenches. He had already endured months of the brutal violence, bloodshed and destruction that would come to characterise World War One, when something remarkable happened.
“All of a sudden, lights appeared along the German trench. And I thought this is a funny thing. And then the Germans started singing ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’. And I woke up, and all the sentries did the same thing, all woke up the other people to come along and see this and what the Earth is going on,” he recalled, in the BBC radio show Witness History.
The voices carried across the desolation of no man’s land, familiar songs bridging the barrier of language, a musical reminder of a shared humanity. “They finished their carol and we applauded them and we thought we should retaliate in some way. So, we replied with The First Noel.”
It is hard to pinpoint the exact origins of the 1914 Christmas Truce. It seemed to emerge spontaneously in multiple locations along the Western Front. There wasn’t one uniform Christmas Truce but rather several localised events. For some soldiers in trenches, it lasted a couple of hours, in some areas until Boxing Day, and even in isolated pockets to the New Year. While in some parts of the Western Front, it didn’t happen at all. Some 77 British soldiers were still killed in fighting on Christmas Day 1914.
For Col Scott Shepherd, then a junior officer, fighting near the town of Armentières in northern France, it seemed to begin almost by accident. At dawn on Christmas morning, no man’s land was covered in a heavy fog. “The fog was so thick that you couldn’t see your hand in front of you,” he recalled when he returned to the battlefield with the BBC in 1968.