Franz Gruber was able to produce, in just a few short hours, the first version of the Christmas hymn Stille Nacht, written for a guitar. Later hand-written arrangements by Gruber appeared, one for a full orchestra in 1845 and another for organ in 1855. The English version sung today was written by the Episcopal cleric John Freeman Young, then serving at Trinity Church in New York. Note that the standard English version is shorter than the original German version.
Here is a fine version of the carol sung in English (3.44 mins).
Silent Night Chapel, Oberndorf
It stands on the site of the St. Nicholas Church,
where the carol was first played in 1818.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm; all is bright
'Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Now leap forward almost a century after Mohr and Gruber. On a crisp, clear morning in 1914, thousands of Germans, British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches and spent Christmas mingling together along the Western front. This event has been seen as a kind of miracle, a rare moment of peace and religious spirit in the first year of a war that would eventually massacre millions.
Pope Benedict XV, the man who had become pope only two months earlier (September 1914), had called for a Christmas truce, an idea that was rejected by both sides. Yet it seems the sheer misery of daily life in the cold, wet, dull trenches was enough to motivate troops to initiate the truce on their own. Historians did not know where it began or how it spread, but they understood the quiet religious spirit that was growing. Eventually some two-thirds of troops along the Western front participated in the renowned truce.
On Christmas Eve the weather became very cold, freezing the water at the bottom of the trenches in which the soldiers lived. It was “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere”, as Pvt. Albert Moren of 2nd Queens Regiment recalled. Accounts suggested the truce began when the leading carol, Silent Night, was at first heard coming quietly from the German trenches. When the Allied troops realised what was happening, they applauded and cheered, calling for more. Soldiers on both sides began to sing in unison, trading verses in alternating languages. “Silent night, holy night… All is calm; all is bright”.
Graham Williams, 5th London Rifle Brigade wrote: “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next day Regimental Sgt Major George Beck wrote: Germans shouted over to us and asked us to play them at football, and also not to fire and they would do likewise. At 2am on Christmas Day a German band went in their trenches playing Home Sweet Home and God Save the King which sounded grand and made everyone think of home.
In some but not all places along the Front, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out Merry Christmas in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs asking for no gun shots from either side. Troops began to give each other gifts in the form of mementos, cigarettes and foodstuffs like bully beef, wine, cognac, black bread, biscuits, ham and beer. They showed each other photographs of family and loved ones back home. Private Henry Williamson of the London Rifle Brigade sent a letter from the front to his mother saying: "In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is German tobacco. Ha ha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench, Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Marvellous, isn't it?"
published in the Daily Mirror in Jan 1915
British Colonel George Laurie gave orders not to fire on the enemy the following day, unless the enemy fired first. He signalled brigade HQ: "Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and are wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions." No shots had been fired since 8pm, he added. Col Laurie went on to describe how soldiers from both sides were mingling. The Germans, he wrote, were "fine men, clean and well clothed. They gave us a cap and helmet badge and a box of cigars. One of them states the war would be over in three weeks as they had defeated Russia!"
However the commander of the British Second Corps, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, believed proximity to the enemy posed the greatest danger to the morale of soldiers and told Divisional Commanders to explicitly prohibit any friendly intercourse with the enemy. In his memo he warned that: “troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a Live And Let Live theory of life.”
The General was probably correct. As the war progressed, politicians and military leaders could no longer tolerate such fraternising - it was an issue of total control. So the men's letters from the trenches and diaries back in 1914 said very little about spending Christmas with the enemy; were they afraid of being seen by their commanders as traitorous? But British soldiers speaking after the war openly said that, if they had been left to themselves, there would never have been another shot fired.
Commemoration of the World War One Christmas truce,
sculpted by Andy Edwards
and dedicated in Dec 2014 in Liverpool
in front of a bombed-out war memorial church.
Though the Christmas Truce of 1914 may have been a rare event in the War To End All Wars, the fact that it remained so widely commemorated showed it symbolised a very human desire for peace and religious spirit. Appropriately Silent Night, the carol that briefly stopped WWI, is now the most recognisable Christmas songs and one of the most popular pieces of holiday music in the Christian world.