My dear sister Janet,
Flanders Christmas Ballad
It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their
dugouts — yet 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 hadn’t 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 sniper’s bullet.
And the rain — it 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 mud — a 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 out — just like in that American story of the tar baby!
Through all this, we couldn’t 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. What’s more, their first
trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Man’s Land,
bordered on both sides by barbed wire — yet 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 morning — Christmas Eve Day — we 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 didn’t count on it. We’d 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
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….”
This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it
and translated: “Silent night, holy night.” I’ve never heard one
lovelier — or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark
softened by a first-quarter moon.
When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes,
British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started
singing, and we all joined in.
“The first Nowell, the angel did say….”
In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their
fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their
own and then began another.
“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum….”
Then we replied.
“O come all ye faithful….”
But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin.
British and German harmonizing across No Man’s Land! I would have
thought nothing could be more amazing — but what came next was more
“English, come over!” we heard one of them shout. “You no shoot, we no
There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then
one of us shouted jokingly, “You come over here.”
To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb
over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Man’s Land.
One of them called, “Send officer to talk.”
I saw one of our men lift his rifle to the ready, and no doubt others
did the same — but our captain called out, “Hold your fire.” Then he
climbed out and went to meet the Germans halfway. We heard them
talking, and a few minutes later, the captain came back with a German
cigar in his mouth!
“We’ve agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow,” he
announced. “But sentries are to remain on duty, and the rest of you,
Across the way, we could make out groups of two or three men starting
out of trenches and coming toward us. Then some of us were climbing
out too, and in minutes more, there we were in No Man’s Land, over a
hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men
we’d been trying to kill just hours earlier!
Before long a bonfire was built, and around it we mingled — British
khaki and German grey. I must say, the Germans were the better
dressed, with fresh uniforms for the holiday.
Only a couple of our men knew German, but more of the Germans knew
English. I asked one of them why that was.
“Because many have worked in England!” he said. “Before all this, I
was a waiter at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps I waited on your table!”
“Perhaps you did!” I said, laughing.
He told me he had a girlfriend in London and that the war had
interrupted their plans for marriage. I told him, “Don’t worry. We’ll
have you beat by Easter, then you can come back and marry the girl.”
He laughed at that. Then he asked if I’d send her a postcard he’d give
me later, and I promised I would.
Another German had been a porter at Victoria Station. He showed me a
picture of his family back in Munich. His eldest sister was so lovely,
I said I should like to meet her someday. He beamed and said he would
like that very much and gave me his family’s address.
Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts — our
cigarettes for their cigars, our tea for their coffee, our corned beef
for their sausage. Badges and buttons from uniforms changed owners,
and one of our lads walked off with the infamous spiked helmet! I
myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt — a fine
souvenir to show when I get home.
Newspapers too changed hands, and the Germans howled with laughter at
ours. They assured us that France was finished and Russia nearly
beaten too. We told them that was nonsense, and one of them said,
“Well, you believe your newspapers and we’ll believe ours.”
Clearly they are lied to — yet after meeting these men, I wonder how
truthful our own newspapers have been. These are not the “savage
barbarians” we’ve read so much about. They are men with homes and
families, hopes and fears, principles and, yes, love of country. In
other words, men like ourselves. Why are we led to believe otherwise?
As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and
then all joined in for — I am not lying to you — “Auld Lang Syne.”
Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some
talk of a football match.
I was just starting back to the trenches when an older German clutched
my arm. “My God,” he said, “why cannot we have peace and all go home?”
I told him gently, “That you must ask your emperor.”
He looked at me then, searchingly. “Perhaps, my friend. But also we
must ask our hearts.”
And so, dear sister, tell me, has there ever been such a Christmas Eve
in all history? And what does it all mean, this impossible befriending
For the fighting here, of course, it means regrettably little. Decent
fellows those soldiers may be, but they follow orders and we do the
same. Besides, we are here to stop their army and send it home, and
never could we shirk that duty.
Still, one cannot help imagine what would happen if the spirit shown
here were caught by the nations of the world. Of course, disputes must
always arise. But what if our leaders were to offer well wishes in
place of warnings? Songs in place of slurs? Presents in place of
reprisals? Would not all war end at once?
All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I
wonder if we want it quite enough.
Your loving brother,
John McCutcheon’s Carol