03 January 2017

Silent Night, Holy Night - sung in the WW1 trenches Christmas Eve 1914

It was 24th Dec 1818 in the small Austrian village of Oberndorf near Salzburg in Austria, just hours before Christmas mass. The local pastor, Joseph Mohr’s (1792–1848) musical plans for the evening church service were ruined; the organ of his church, St Nich­olas Kirche, had broken down due to a recent flooding of the nearby river. In a moment of ins­pir­ation, he grabbed a Christ­mas poem he had written two years earlier (in 1816) and quickly set off to the neighbouring village, where his friend Franz Gruber (1787–1863), the teacher and church organist, lived.

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?"

Allied and German troops gathering together for Christmas 1914, 
published in the Daily Mirror in Jan 1915

The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on No Man’s Land, the ground between opposing trenches.

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.





12 comments:

Grant said...

Haunting music that will last forever.

Grant

Another Student said...

I heard the story of the Christmas Eve truce from my grandpa many years ago. He was not in France or Belgium ... he was in Egypt and Beersheba. But it must have already been a well known story. The only difference I remember was that the men played cricket.

bazza said...

The story of the Christmas truce only serves to underline the futility of that awful war where the generals viewed each action in terms of how many soldiers would be lost.
Unfortunately I find Andre Rieu a big turn-off - he just seems to be too much in love with himself!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabuous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

Grant

I think that too. I have no personal experience with Christmas or carols, but Silent Night always makes me emotional.

Hels said...

Student

assuming letters were indeed censored, then the majority of the young soldiers' stories would have come from those who survived and went home with their brains intact. I am very glad your grandfather was one of the men who shared his WW1 stories.

I did have a bit of a search for cricket, but found only images and newspaper reports about football/soccer.

Hels said...

bazza

the generals, who apparently did not sleep, eat and wear flea-infested clothes in the trenches with the ordinary soldiers, still must have been very worried about sending other peoples' sons Over The Top. Yes 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured (BBC News) but I wish they would have said to the politicians to end the war at Christmas 1914. Even if the Allies did eventually win, 17 million parents/widows never saw their men again.

Re Andre Rieu, the first part was music-only and not particularly special. But the second part, with the voices, was sublime.

CherryPie said...

Interesting post, thank you :-)

I have always know about the Christmas truce, but I didn't know so much detail about it.

I enjoyed reading about the origins of Silent Night, that was new to me too.

Andrew said...

As above, detail filled in. The filthy Hun obviously turned out to be quite nice people. Neither side was taught to hate enough. People generally don't want to kill other people without a 'very good' reason, which so often is not a good reason.

Hels said...

CherryPie

me too. I have been to Salzburg but had not even heard of the very small village of Oberndorf. Sometimes life is full of unexpected flukes. If the river had not flooded, and if the Rev Joseph Mohr had not already written the words, and if his friend Franz Gruber was not at home when Mohr came running etc etc.. we would not have heard of Silent Night. And the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf would never have been built.

A happy 2017 to you!

Hels said...

Andrew

that is so true. The Germans particularly celebrated each Christmas Eve, more than Christmas Day itself. So when the German lads crawled out of their trenches that night, they were seen to be very young, very homesick and very much missing church and family on over the religious holidays. Imagine the British, French and Australian lads seeing candles and Christmas trees in the German trenches... and having to say "maybe Germans are just like us and are not all killer thugs, after all".

Yvonne said...

Thank you for sharing the story of 'Silent Night' - my favourite Christmas carol. For those who don't want to join the Andre Rieu bandwagon, you could listen to the King Singers' version. I also prefer to listen rather than watch. It is about the words after all, not the visages of the performers.

And thank you for digging up sources about the Christmas Truce. This is just the kind of emotional story that gets embellished over the years. Your care in linking first-hand accounts is appreciated.

I am in the midst of reading letters from an Australian soldier on Gallipoli in December 1915. The soldiers were being evacuated from the Peninsula just before Christmas, so it wasn't until Christmas 1916 that the AIF were on the frontline at Christmas. There may have been a few Australians on the Western Front for Christmas 1914, but they would have been serving with the British Army.

Hels said...

Yvonne

Thank you... the King Singers' version was great to hear, even though I did notice that a few of the musical notes were different from the ones we are used to. And the German words were great to hear. (By the way, my husband's German is excellent; mine consists of a long list of nouns, limited to food, clothing and family members).

Re the Allies on the Western Front in 1914, I believe they were British, French and Belgian. But imagine the horror of fighting at Gallipoli, surviving and then being shipped off to the Western Front. I would have thought the Gallipoli survivors had "done their bit".