How did the Christmas truce of 1914 happen?

The Christmas truce of 1914 is often celebrated as a symbolic moment of peace in an otherwise incredibly violent war between Britain and Germany.

But its first-hand testimonies can help us get closer to what really happened during World War One.

Now, over 100 years on, one of the most moving accounts of that time has emerged, in an interview with a veteran recorded in the 1960s.

Henry Williamson was a former British soldier and part of the London Rifles, which was an infantry regiment in World War One.

He later became a junior officer with the Bedfordshire Regiment.

He recalls what life was really like on the Western Front and how the Christmas truce came about.

Excitement in the air

Henry Williamson was just 17-years-old when he joined the British Territorial Army. He decided to join for the sports the army offered, such as boxing and swimming.

He describes how he felt being called up for duty,

“We were all very excited and apprehensive. The whole feeling in the air was one of anxiety and at the same time great endeavour."

In the first weekend of the war, 100 men an hour (3,000 a day) signed up to join the armed forces.

54 million posters were issued, 8 million personal letters were sent, 12,000 meetings were held, and 20,000 speeches were delivered by military spokesmen.

By the end of 1914 over a million men had enrolled. These young soldiers had thought they would be home to celebrate Christmas.

But this was not the case, as this was a new kind of war, a more complex war which included machine guns and artillery fire.

In order to protect themselves the infantry soldiers had to be able to build sophisticated and elaborate trench systems as they would soon be needing them.

Henry and his comrades saw trench warfare as a big adventure at the time and he really enjoyed his first visit to the trenches,

"The whole feeling was one of great comradeship. I can honestly say there was no fear at all, it was a picnic".

Inside the trenches

But that picnic Henry talked about was soon about to drastically take a turn for the worst.

Henry recalls how it started raining more and more,

“We walked about a lot and moved very slowly in yellow watery clay.

When the evening came it took about an hour to get out of the trenches. Some of our chaps slipped in and were drowned and weren’t seen until later.

We had a lot of men sniped. I had my friend beside me, we were trying to work a pump which wouldn't work.

Then suddenly there was this tremendous crack. The bullet hit my friend in the front of the head, and took away the back of his head and he fell down, just slipped down.”

Christmas Eve: Silent Night

On Christmas Eve the damp weather gave way to the cold, and a festive frost started to settle.

Unbeknown to Henry this would be one winter that he would remember for the rest of his life.

Henry and his team were tasked with a job to do in No Man’s Land. Henry says,

‘It put the wind up everybody.

The job was to knock in these posts into the frozen soil, whilst being 50 yards away from the Germans, so we crept out, and at the same trying to avoid our boots ringing on the frozen ground.

We were expecting any moment to fall flat and for the machine guns to open up.

But nothing happened, within two hours were walking about, laughing and talking, there was nothing from the German lines.”

Henry and his colleagues were puzzled,

“Around eleven o clock I saw a Christmas tree going up on the German trenches and there was a light.

We all stood still and watched this. A German voice began to sing the song, ‘Heilige Nacht!”

British troops immediately recognised the melody as 'Silent Night, Holy Night' and began singing in English. Henry says,

“The German troops were saying 'come over Tommy, come over'.

And we still thought it was a trap, but some of us went over at once, and they came to this barbed wire fence between us which was five strands of wire, hung with empty bully beef tins to make a rattle if they came.

And very soon we were exchanging gifts.”

The singing seemed to quickly neutralize hostilities, an undeclared truce erupted and in a shocking turn of events, peace broke out.

Fighting for freedom

Both the British and Germans started burying their dead.

Henry describes how the Germans made little crosses out of ration box wood, to create makeshift memorials which were then nailed together.

He explains how they used indelible pencils, also known as copying pencils which were very popular during World War One.

These contained graphite and clay and were used to write a few words on the crosses for their fallen comrades.

Henry noticed the Germans writing the words '‘Für Vaterland und Freiheit' which means 'For Fatherland and Freedom', so he decided to strike up a conversation,

“I said to a German excuse me but how can you be fighting for freedom?

You started the war and we are fighting for freedom! He said excuse me English comrade we are fighting for freedom for our country!

I said also put here rest in God, an unknown hero. The German said oh yes ‘God is on our side."

To which Henry replied "But he is on our side" Henry says,

"That was a tremendous shock, I began to think, these chaps who like ourselves, whom we liked and who felt about the wars we did and who said it will be over soon because we would win the war."

At this point Henry had realised that the Germans just like the British had similar feelings about the war, with both sides wanting to win.

But just as the two sides began to argue over who would win, the German soldier said to Henry,

“English comrade do not let us quarrel on Christmas Day.”

This interview is part of the series, I Was There: The Great War Interviews and is featured on BBC Teach