With Christmas fast approaching it is nice to look back on an amazing piece of co-operation that took place nearly 100 years ago.
Imagine that it is Christmas Eve 1914 and you are a British solider sitting, cold and wet, in a muddy trench in northern France. The first World War has been raging since the summer and you have already seen many of your friends and comrades killed.
As you sit thinking about your family back in England you hear the faint sound of voices singing Christmas carols. At first you think that it must be some of the other British soldiers further down your trench, but, as you listen harder you realise that the voices you can hear are German not British.
You climb out into the cold of the night and, with other men starting to wake up, you stare at each other disbelievingly. One of the officers climbs a ladder to the top of the trench and peers over the top.
‘There’s lights on the German trenches, it looks like candles. I can’t see properly, they look like they’re just floating in mid-air. No, wait a minute, they’ve put up Christmas trees with candles on. And now they’re singing carols.’
You can’t believe what you’re hearing, Christmas trees and carols, just 60 yards away in a trench occupied by the enemy.
‘Merry Christmas’ you shout. You don’t know what made you do it, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.
‘Frohe Weihnachten, Merry Christmas’ you hear back from the German side.
The officer has now got more confident and climbed right to the top of the ladder. He can see German faces, lit up by the candles, looking back at him across the darkness. There are no shots and, pushed on by the Christmas spirit, he climbs out of the trench and starts to walk across no-man’s-land.
You feel yourself freeze and stop breathing, just waiting for the shots to start ringing out. But they never come. Then you can hear voices. The officer is talking to the Germans and they have now met in the middle. More men start climbing out of the trenches, you follow them up the ladder and join in one of the groups of men sharing cigarettes and wishing each other a Merry Christmas.
When you wake up on Christmas Day you can’t believe that it really happened, it must have been a dream, but all the other men are talking about it too. Christmas Day was agreed to be a truce, a time to bring back the dead bodies that couldn’t be collected before, and a time to enjoy a welcome break from the battle.
Days later you even hear that some men from the Bedfordshire Regiment had played football against the Germans.
Game theory is often about co-operation between people rather than competition. This is an amazing example of how extraordinary circumstances can sometimes bring about co-operation when you would least expect it. The soldiers felt that they could trust each other more because it was Christmas and once they had that trust then they could agree a ceasefire. Once the trust had gone in the following days then the battles resumed and would last for nearly another four years bringing 9 million lives to a premature end.
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.’