John Frederick Murray was in the trenches on Christmas Eve of 1914, with a regiment of men, mostly Welsh coal miners. Across a stretch of “no man’s land,” was an entrenchment of German soldiers. Midnight had passed, and Murray realized it was Christmas day. Out of the stillness he heard the sounds of instruments being tuned. Then there burst forth the triumphant strains of “The Soldier’s Chorus” from the opera, “Faust.” Taking it as a challenge, the Welshmen stood up and belted out “The March of the Men of Harlech,” the battle song of Wales.
Expecting a fusillade of rifle and cannon fire as the response, they instead heard loud applause from across the lines. Then, from the enemy’s band, came the music of that beautiful old German hymn, “Silent Night, Holy Night,” as their soldiers sang the words. When the Germans came to the words, “Sleep in heavenly peace,” one by one the Welshmen stepped up till their heads were above the parapets, as they joined in singing another verse.
There came a voice from the German lines, “Hey Welshmen, you sing the carols and we will accompany with our instruments!” As Murray listened to them sing the hymn, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” he later wrote, “Oh how those rough Welsh miners sang. I have heard great societies in many lands sing, but never did I hear such pathos in the words of a song as those men gave that night.”
One German climbed out of his trenches with a small Christmas tree lit up with some candles. Tied onto it were gifts of cigars. Not to be outdone, a Welsh soldier emptied a sand bag, then filled it with tobacco, plum pudding, candy, and such treats as he could scrounge up from among his men. With this, he tumbled out and began his walk across no man’s land to the German lines. These two men exchanged the gifts, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and following a hearty hand-shake, returned to their trenches.
As the dawn neared the men were melancholy in their realization that the truce would soon be past, and they would resume the grim role of war. Then out of the enemy trenches rose a great, tall fair-haired German, silhouetted against the Eastern sky. He sang those beautiful words,
“When Jesus was born in a manger,
And Shepherds came over to see,
And Angels proclaim that a Saviour,
Is born for poor sinners like me,
To save a poor sinner like me!”
As he finished, he slowly descended back into the trenches as they all began to hear and feel the rumble of the cannons of war off to their left, and to realize that the Prince of Peace still had no where to lay His head.