It was December 1914, the first night before Christmas of World War I. Troops were in high spirits. German and English soldiers were in trenches that slashed parallel lines across thousands of miles. Neither side could advance and neither side would retreat.
Across the narrow strip of no man’s land, sometimes only a matter of yards, they could hear each other sloshing about in knee-deep water. One English soldier wrote that “We used to shout remarks at each other, sometimes rude ones, but generally with less venom than a couple of London cabbies after a minor collision.”
The two sides settled down as neighbors, though they regularly took shots at each other. The Germans decorated scrawny bushes with candles and put them atop their parapets. A few soldiers on both sides poked their heads up, then shakily stood up and showed themselves to be unarmed. In spots up and down the lines in Belgium and northern France, enemy soldiers began to approach each other and unofficial cease-fires were agreed to.
Corporal John Ferguson was among the first to venture out. To find where he was in the dark, soldiers kept calling out “Fergie.” The Germans, thinking it was a holiday greeting, called “Fergie” back to them. But singing was a way enemies spoke without a common language.
When Germans finished a carol, the English sang “The First Noel”, the Germans sang “O Tannenbaum, and so it went. When the English started “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the Germans joined in with “Adeste Fideles.”
They gathered together and souvenirs were exchanged, like coins, buttons, badges and pipes. Canned beef and jam were traded for sausage and chocolate. English cigarettes bought German cigars. They raised their cups and pledged to each other’s health.
On the same day, both sides gathered their dead and buried them in one place. The joint burial service was held with prayers in both German and English as the troops faced each other. The next day, shots rang out again.