The Christmas Truce

American WWII battle rifle M1 with 30-06 ammunition in en bloc clips with grease pots and nickel oiler tube

Imagine yourself in the trenches of the First World War, the cold muddy terrain of Christmas Eve, 1914. It was to be the war to end all wars, but as we all know, it was just another chapter in a long history of conflicts that Europe would face. The spirit of Christmas is something that probably seems a distant comfort to a young soldier who is shivering in a ditch, far from home. The war had just begun a few months earlier and the German Army had attacked Belgium and France. The French and British armies halted the German advance just outside of Paris at the Battle of Marne the previous September. The Germans began to set up defensive positions in the Aisne Valley. A counter attack by the allies failed to breach the German lines and the fighting quickly degenerated into a trench-filled stalemate.

On Christmas Eve night, British soldiers were building up their defensive perimeter along the western front. The soldiers, covered in mud and exhausted, received gifts from the royal family, a box of tobacco and a photograph of Princess Mary. During the evening, A British Daily Telegraph correspondent reported that the Germans managed to slip a package into the British trenches. The package contained a chocolate cake and a note requesting a temporary cease-fire. The Germans said they wanted a chance to celebrate the holiday season. The Germans also said that there would be a concert at 7:30, and they would light candles along their trench parapets.

The British, who often seem to be experts in matters of etiquette, returned a present of tobacco and accepted the proposal. That evening, at the stated time, German heads suddenly popped up and started to sing. Each number ended with a round of applause from both sides. Whether in English or German, many Christmas songs have the same tune, so soldiers could sing along with each other, despite the language barrier. In some areas, the soldiers came out of their trenches to meet the enemy, shake their hand and exchange gifts like tobacco, buttons and rations. They had been killing each other for four months with little or no rest. Somehow, for a time, all that was forgotten. The barriers of language, culture, and politics, like the great obstacle of no man’s land, suddenly disappeared. The truce spread quickly along the western front, and in one area, a war stopped, and a football game broke out. The Germans ended up winning the match 3-2.

By midday on Christmas, nearly half the British frontline army involved themselves in the truce. They were effectively committing mass treason, which is an offense punishable by the firing squad. Word started to leak back to British Headquarters, as well as the German High Command. The Generals on both sides gave strict orders to continue fighting, and reminded their officers that fraternization with the enemy would bring swift and sever punishment. Most of the officers ignored the order, and far fewer received disciplinary action.

On many parts of the line, the Christmas Day truce created an opportunity for sadder matters. Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man’s land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots, and give them a decent burial. After they services were over, the opponents inevitably began talking to one another. Several accounts mentioned that German and British troops attended one another’s services, out of respect for fellow soldiers.

As the day came to an end, the inevitable reality began to set in their minds. They knew that they would once again be shooting at their new friends. In one area of the western front, a British officer saluted his German counterpart across no man land. Each man fired two shots into the air, and signaled that the war was back on. Combat reports for that evening were lighter than usual, as were the following day, and the day after that. Eventually however, the fighting increased, and the First World War continued. When we look back on the Christmas truce of 1914, it seems like something out of Hollywood. It seems like the media made it up for the tabloids to give us a feeling of joy during the holiday season. The best part of the story is of course, that it is true. For one night of the year, bitter enemies put aside their differences, and gave the gift of joy amidst unimaginable hardships. It says a lot about the character of these men. Real soldiers who have experienced war are often the first to welcome peace, if only for a short time.

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Comments (3)

  1. The pic of the British and German soldiers talking is not from the 1914 Christmas truce. The helmets that are worn show that this picture is from 1916 at the earliest. What is likely happening here is that the Germans (who have no weapons that can be seen) have very recently been captured in an attack by the British, who have bayonets fixed.

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