The Song that Stopped a War

One of the most hopeful moments in history this past 100 years came from soldiers singing on a battlefield.

It was Christmas 1914 on the Western Front. One of the coldest winters on record to that point. Germans and British soldiers were hunkered down in muddy trenches not that far from each other. They sat for hours in water and mud, trying to keep warm and not to get killed.

It was the Germans who began singing carols. The British eventually responded. Brave souls crept out into No Man’s Land, offering their song and risking lives for the cause of peace.

It worked. The New York Times reported that up to 100,000 British and German soldiers participated in that unofficial truce. Other historical sites do not estimate a number and some historians say that the Times estimate is much too high. A truce was not repeated on that scale ever again, though historians have found evidence of later unofficial truces.

One of the beautiful traditions in many places, including at Harvard Memorial Church, is singing Silent Night in both German and English. This tradition has been in place since the Memorial Church was opened, and was done so at the request of the Phillips Brooks House Association.*

Would you consider celebrating the spirit of the Christmas Truce of 1914? How? We often say we honor the individuals who were so brave, but please considering honoring this year what these soldiers were being brave about with this truce.

It’s quite difficult at times to build a bridge to the future with people who have just hurt us, especially those we trusted (such as family members who are sitting down with us to a holiday feast). We do not have to say bad actions are good actions either. But the spirit of the Christmas truce is to give ourselves and others a break, for just a moment, to the hostilities of life and remember that we are all humans with a need for heart rest, even for just a few moments.

What was it like for the person who started the truce? That must have been terrifying. What about the first follower – who said, “I too will sing above ground just for today?”

Would you consider celebrating a Christmas truce? Who will be your first follower? Consider comments below. And best wishes with your positive intentions to construct a new social imagination about how the world can be, if people make different choices.

For more information about the Christmas Truce of 1914:


Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night:

To purchase a copy of the Harvard Memorial Church choir’s annual Christmas carol service, please click here.

*The students had protested the building of Memorial Church as a church built to memorialize division. Reports at the time showed that the students thought that the war dead might have preferred a good beer or a fountain over a church.