It was all a little overwhelming. Aunt Marti had come to me in some sort of dream and informed me that at 3:00 o’clock that afternoon, I would be given a letter explaining why she was leaving her house in Pleasant Run to me.
It was only noon. I had 3 hours before the other cousins would arrive for the reading of the will. It seemed a little strange that all of this was happening so quickly. Aunt Marti had only passed away the evening before and there had been no discussion about anything. I was guessing that the attorney arranging the meeting would also be informing us of Aunt Marti’s wishes regarding her funeral.
Since I had plenty of time before everyone arrived, I wanted to do a little more exploring. I decided to start at the top of the house with the attic. I had remembered seeing what looked like a drop-down ladder in the hallway. I pulled the cord and was excited to see a substantial ladder unfold. Halfway up, I reached the cord to the light and continued to the top. What I saw was typical attic decor. a discarded table and chair set lined one wall and some dressmaker paraphernalia was on another.
In one corner, there was an interesting looking chest. I was excited to find it wasn’t locked. Inside, there were several boxes and a long narrow tin box that had a padlock on it. I opened the largest cardboard box and pulled out a man’s army tunic and trousers. It looked to be from the WWI era. Possibly an English uniform.
There was a manila envelope under the uniform with the words, “From Bernard.” scribbled on the outside. Inside, I found several typewritten pages…
On 12/24, 1914, in the dank, muddy trenches on the Western Front of the first world war, a remarkable thing happened.
It came to be called the Christmas truce. And it remains one of the most storied and strangest moments of the Great War—or of any war in history.
British machine gunner Bruce Bairnsfather, later a prominent cartoonist, wrote about it in his memoirs. Like most of his fellow infantrymen of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, he was spending the holiday eve shivering in the muck, trying to keep warm. He had spent a good part of the past few months fighting the Germans. And now, in a part of Belgium called Bois de Ploegsteert, he was crouched in a trench that stretched just three feet deep by three feet wide, his days and nights marked by an endless cycle of sleeplessness and fear, stale biscuits and cigarettes too wet to light.
“Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity,” Bairnsfather wrote, “…miles and miles from home. Cold, wet through and covered with mud.” There didn’t “seem the slightest chance of leaving—except in an ambulance.”
At about 10 p.m., Bairnsfather noticed a noise. “I listened,” he recalled. “Away across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices.” He turned to a fellow soldier in his trench and said, “Do you hear the Boches [Germans] kicking up that racket over there?”
“Yes,” came the reply. “They’ve been at it some time!”
The Germans were singing carols, as it was Christmas Eve. In the darkness, some of the British soldiers began to sing back. “Suddenly,” Bairnsfather recalled, “we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again.” The voice was from an enemy soldier, speaking in English with a strong German accent. He was saying, “Come over here.”
One of the British sergeants answered: “You come half-way. I come half-way.”
What happened next would, in the years to come, stun the world and make history. Enemy soldiers began to climb nervously out of their trenches, and to meet in the barbed-wire-filled “No Man’s Land” that separated the armies. Normally, the British and Germans communicated across No Man’s Land with streaking bullets, with only occasional gentlemanly allowances to collect the dead. But now, there were handshakes and words of kindness. The soldiers traded songs, tobacco and wine, joining in a spontaneous holiday party in the cold night.
Bairnsfather could not believe his eyes. “Here they were—the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side.”
And it wasn’t confined to that one battlefield. Starting on Christmas Eve, small pockets of French, German, Belgian and British troops held impromptu cease-fires across the Western Front, with reports of some on the Eastern Front as well. Some accounts suggest a few of these unofficial truces remained in effect for days.
By the time winter approached in 1914, and the chill set in, the Western Front stretched hundreds of miles. Countless soldiers were living in misery in the trenches on the fronts, while tens of thousands had already died.
Then Christmas came.
Descriptions of the Christmas Truce appear in numerous diaries and letters of the time. One British soldier, a rifleman named J. Reading, wrote a letter home to his wife describing his holiday experience in 1914: “My company happened to be in the firing line on Christmas eve, and it was my turn…to go into a ruined house and remain there until 6:30 on Christmas morning. During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: ‘Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.’”
“Later on in the day they came towards us,” Reading described. “And our chaps went out to meet them…I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet it seemed like a dream.”
Another British soldier, named John Ferguson, recalled it this way: “Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”
Other diaries and letters describe German soldiers using candles to light Christmas trees around their trenches. One German infantryman described how a British soldier set up a makeshift barbershop, charging Germans a few cigarettes each for a haircut. Other accounts describe vivid scenes of men helping enemy soldiers collect their dead, of which there was plenty.
Just how many soldiers participated in these informal holiday gatherings has been debated; there is no way to know for sure since the ceasefires were small-scale, haphazard and entirely unauthorized. A Time magazine story on the 100 anniversary claimed that as many as 100,000 people took part.
The sound of the doorbell brought me back to the present. I rushed down the ladder and to the front door. When I open it, I saw Tara standing there. She was holding a leash. At the end of the Leash was a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
“Mr. Bairnsfather wanted to come home for tea.” Tara said.