Was There Really A Christmas Truce Declared During World War I? [Video]
'Belleau Wood' by Garth Brooks is the story of a Christmas truce between soldiers in World War I. A beautiful idea, but did it really happen?
Yes, though perhaps not exactly as in Garth's song.
'Belleau Wood,' co-written by Joe Henry and Garth Brooks for his 1997 album Sevens, tells the story of the World War I Christmas truce in 1914. As snowflakes fall silently over Belleau Wood, France, German and British soldiers hide in trenches less than fifty feet from each other. The silence is broken by a German soldier signing 'Silent Night.' One by one each soldier climbs out of their trench and joins in.
As the Christmas truce ends, the fighting resumes and the moment of peace and understanding is lost. It's a beautiful, but ultimately tragic Christmas song. Did it really happen?
1914 Christmas Truce
On Christmas of 1914 an unofficial cessations of hostility along was declared by the German, French, and British armies along the Western Front. Some historians estimate that as many as 100,000 soldiers that participated in the truce. While fighting didn't stop everywhere, something incredible happened. From Wikipedia:
German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. Men from both sides mingled, exchange food and souvenirs, and often sang carols together.
It's remarkable to me that German and British soldiers climbed out of their trenches, put down their weapons, sang Christmas carols, talked, exchanged gifts, and even organized games of Football together. Just days before they had been eagerly trying to kill each other.
That's the part of the song that Garth got right.
While it's true that Belleau Wood in France was the site of several significant battles, the Germans didn't fighting the British there and they probably weren't signing Christmas carols in the middle of summer.
As part of a massive offensive on the Western Front in March of 1918, the Germans hoped to defeat the Allies before United States forces could be fully deployed. Just ahead of the U.S. 2nd Division—which included a brigade of U.S. Marines—German forces marched into Belleau Wood in June of 1918.
On June 26th, the United States Marines led a decisive strike on the German occupied Belleau Wood which has been called "one of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles U.S. forces would fight in the war." Despite being told to turn back by retreating French forces, the Marines reclaimed the Woods, often with nothing but their hands and bayonets.
So Garth Brooks got it half right: There was a Christmas cessation of hostilities declared in 1914, but it didn't happen at Belleau Wood. Still, it's a beautiful song and an ode to an amazing triumph of the human spirit.