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Christmas Truce of 1914

Christmas Truce of 1914



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The Christmas Truce occurred on and around Christmas Day 1914, when the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding faded in a number of places along the Western Front during World War I in favor of holiday celebrations. During the unofficial ceasefire, soldiers on both sides of the conflict emerged from the trenches and shared gestures of goodwill.

WATCH The Christmas Truce on HISTORY Vault

What Happened During the Christmas Truce of 1914?

Starting on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops fighting in World War I sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.

At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. Some Germans lit Christmas trees around their trenches, and there was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.

German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch recalled: “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

Some soldiers used this short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines.

World War I and the Christmas Truce

The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.

During World War I, the soldiers on the Western Front did not expect to celebrate on the battlefield, but even a world war could not destroy the Christmas spirit.

READ MORE: When WWI Paused for Christmas


The Christmas Truce of 1914

Spontaneous peace and goodwill between soldiers in opposing armies occur in all wars. At least since Troy, chronicles have recorded a pause in fighting to bury the dead, pray, negotiate peace, or to give a moment for soldiers to show respect to their enemies. However none had occurred with the scale or duration, or with the potential to change things, as that of the Christmas Truce of World War I.

Since Germany's declaration of war on August 1, 1914, hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost. An appeal for a ceasefire from Pope Benedict XV only weeks after the war had broken out was immediately rejected by leadership on both sides as "impossible." The war slogged on with soldiers dying endlessly in brutal trench warfare.

Both sides thought that the war would be over quickly. But Christmas was fast approaching with no conceivable end to the conflict in sight. Christmas was a festive time with traditions shared by all who fought in the war. Many of the most resonant symbols of the Christmas season were claimed by Germany. Gift giving, the Tannenbaum of carols sung in many languages, Santa Claus, and most of all the Christmas tree, were attributed to German custom but long celebrated by both sides. It was with despair that they realized they would probably not be home with their families by Christmas day. There was to be no Christmas for the soldiers of World War I, only continual war.

Until on the night of Christmas Eve of 1914, when an English soldier named Henry Williamson led a group of men out into no man's land to drive fence posts and lay down barb wire to advance their front a few yards forward. The moon moved slowly across the sky giving them just enough light to make their way. As they worked they noticed a strange light off in the distance towards the German front line. They began to hear cheerful voices coming from the area of the light. They crouched suddenly, ready to lay themselves flat, but no shots came.

They began to see silhouettes, and around them more lights being put up. Maddison then realized that it was a Christmas tree, and around it Germans laughing and talking together. Glancing at their watches they said to each other, "It's eleven o'clock. By Berlin time, it is midnight. A merry Christmas to everyone!" They then began to hear from the German line a rich voice singing "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht." Maddison felt at ease. The men finished their work and returned to the trenches to fall asleep. The complete lack of any of the usual sounds of war that night made the entire experience feel like a dream.

The Truce

The daylight came soon. When they looked across no man's land that Christmas morning they saw signs erected by the Germans in broken English that mostly read "You no fight, we no fight." Some British improvised signs that read "Merry Christmas." The Germans responded with a sign reading "Happy Christmas" over their trenchs. After observing heads popping up to read the signs, the Germans emerged, visibly unarmed. Advancing forward and shouting "Comrades!" Momentarily forgetting their hatred towards the enemy, rifles were set down.

Up and down no man's land, the two sides were coming together. Soldiers would cautiously advance towards their enemy's lines unarmed and smiling, often singing. In such simple ways, localized truces began. At Foucaucourt, on the Somme River, where the 99 th regiment faced the Bavarians, three hundred of the enemy, led by a junior officer, emerged from their trenches and advanced halfway towards the French line. For days thereafter a joyous exchange of bread, drinks, postcards, and newspapers took place.

There were areas where the truce would come harder. Soldiers would carry Christmas trees across the wasteland, sometimes through gunfire, and into the enemy's trenches where they were lit together. As the glow of the lit tree fell everywhere, all shooting ceased. Profoundly moved by such gestures, soldiers on both sides gathered together to celebrate Christmas, while the Germans sang "Stille Nacht."

One of the first grainy photographs of Germans and British fraternizing between the trenches
Published by The London Daily Mirror

The power of Christmas grew, and they no longer saw enemies anywhere before them. They gathered together to exchange food, addresses, and deep admiration for each other. Even spontaneous games of soccer were reported. When angry superiors ordered them to resume fighting, many men aimed harmlessly high into the air. The truce would go on for days. But eventually the grim business at hand was resumed.

A Respectful End

The truce would eventually end by order of top generals on both sides. Even then things were cordial. One account from the 2 nd Welch Fusiliers tells of three shots being fired into the air at 8:30 AM, then posting a sign reading "Merry Christmas" above a forward trench. The Germans quickly responded with a "Thank You," and their company commander stood proudly next to his sign. The two officers bowed, saluted each other, then descended into their trenches. The German captain then fired two shots into the air. The war then recommenced.

Sometimes great beauty emerges from horrible tragedy. The Christmas truce is one of history's most inspiring moments. The men who fought and died in the war were, as usual, proxies for governments that had little to do with their everyday lives.

Although dismissed in official records as an aberration of little consequence, to many, the Christmas Truce was seen as the only meaningful event in the apocalypse that was World War I. The Great War would go on to have a profound effect on the future of Western Civilization.

A Memorial

In December of 1999, a group of nine "Khaki Chums" crossed the English Chanel to Flanders with the goal of commemorating the Christmas Truce where it might have begun, near Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium. Working in the rain and snow, and wearing makeshift uniforms, they dug trenches reinforced with sandbags and planks which "literally disappeared into the bottomless mud." For several days they recreated the experience of the trenches of World War I, cooking rations and sleeping on the ground soaking wet. They planted a large wooden cross into the quagmire as a mark of respect to the wartime dead, then filled in their trenches and returned home to England.

They were astonished to learn that after they had left, the local villagers had treated their cross with a wood preservative and set it into a concrete base. Countless monuments exist today in town squares and cemeteries across the world commemorating the Great War. However the wooden cross left by the "Khaki Chums" in the mud of Flanders is the only memorial to the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Originally published December 23, 2015
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman


Christmas Truce of 1914 - HISTORY

B y the end of November 1914 the crushing German advance that had swallowed the Low Countries and threatened France had been checked by the allies before it could reach Paris. The opposing armies stared at each other from a line of hastily built defensive trenches that began at the edge of the English Channel and continued to the border of Switzerland. Barbed wire and parapets defended the trenches and between them stretched a "No-Mans-Land" that in some areas was no more than 30 yards wide.

British troops in the trenches

Life in the trenches was abominable. Continuous sniping, machinegun fire and artillery shelling took a deadly toll. The misery was heightened by the ravages of Mother Nature, including rain, snow and cold. Many of the trenches, especially those in the low-lying British sector to the west, were continually flooded, exposing the troops to frost bite and "trench foot."

This treacherous monotony was briefly interrupted during an unofficial and spontaneous "Christmas Truce" that began on Christmas Eve. Both sides had received Christmas packages of food and presents. The clear skies that ended the rain further lifted the spirits on both sides of no-mans-land.

The Germans seem to have made the first move. During the evening of December 24 they delivered a chocolate cake to the British line accompanied by a note that proposed a cease fire so that the Germans could have a concert. The British accepted the proposal and offered some tobacco as their present to the Germans. The good will soon spread along the 27-mile length of the British line. Enemy soldiers shouted to one another from the trenches, joined in singing songs and soon met one another in the middle of no-mans-land to talk, exchange gifts and in some areas to take part in impromptu soccer matches.

The high command on both sides took a dim view of the activities and orders were issued to stop the fraternizing with varying results. In some areas the truce ended Christmas Day in others the following day and in others it extended into January. One thing is for sure - it never happened again.

"We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man's-land."

Frank Richards was a British soldier who experienced the "Christmas Truce". We join his story on Christmas morning 1914:

Buffalo Bill [the Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man's-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.

We mucked in all day with one another. They were Saxons and some of them could speak English. By the look of them their trenches were in as bad a state as our own. One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn't the only one that was fed up with it. We did not allow them in our trench and they did not allow us in theirs.

The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assured him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another's health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches.

British and German troops
mingle in No Mans Land
Christmas 1914
. The two barrels of beer were drunk, and the German officer was right: if it was possible for a man to have drunk the two barrels himself he would have bursted before he had got drunk. French beer was rotten stuff.

Just before midnight we all made it up not to commence firing before they did. At night there was always plenty of firing by both sides if there were no working parties or patrols out. Mr Richardson, a young officer who had just joined the Battalion and was now a platoon officer in my company wrote a poem during the night about the Briton and the Bosche meeting in no-man's-land on Christmas Day, which he read out to us. A few days later it was published in The Times or Morning Post, I believe.

During the whole of Boxing Day [the day after Christmas] we never fired a shot, and they the same, each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball a-rolling. One of their men shouted across in English and inquired how we had enjoyed the beer. We shouted back and told him it was very weak but that we were very grateful for it. We were conversing off and on during the whole of the day.

We were relieved that evening at dusk by a battalion of another brigade. We were mighty surprised as we had heard no whisper of any relief during the day. We told the men who relieved us how we had spent the last couple of days with the enemy, and they told us that by what they had been told the whole of the British troops in the line, with one or two exceptions, had mucked in with the enemy. They had only been out of action themselves forty-eight hours after being twenty-eight days in the front-line trenches. They also told us that the French people had heard how we had spent Christmas Day and were saying all manner of nasty things about the British Army."

References:
This eyewitness account appears in Richards, Frank, Old Soldiers Never Die (1933) Keegan, John, The First World War (1999) Simkins, Peter, World War I, the Western Front (1991).


December 25, 1914: The Story of the Christmas Truce

World War I had seen its share of bloodshed and tragedy between its onset and its first Christmas. Still, around Christmas time in 1914, something miraculous happened. After violence had claimed a considerable number of lives, the German and British soldiers decided to stop killing each other for the holy Christmas day. Thus, the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 began, but what made it possible for them to start singing carols, and what is the actual story of the famous Christmas Truce? Let us find out more!

Digging Deeper

How It All Begun

British and German troops meeting in no man’s land during the unofficial truce (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector)

Before the legendary events of World War I Christmas Truce, the soldiers in the trenches were still in the middle of the war, although they had previously believed the war would be done by Christmas. Even so, something was about to happen, and it would change their mood completely.

After both sides fighting the war had suffered devastating human losses, the first Christmas of the war was approaching. Given the significance and spirit of Christmas, it was considered a day of peace. Before this holy day, Captain Arthur O’Sullivan, who led a unit of the British Army, was stationed in Rue du Bois, France however, something had grabbed his attention – on Christmas Eve he heard the sound of German accents from across the trenches. Basically, the British were being asked to not shoot after midnight, and promised they in turn would not be shot in return. Moreover, they were asked to go and have a discussion with the Germans, as they will be safe and there will be no bloodshed. Therefore, an Irish rifleman was used as a way to test whether this was true, and the British were surprised to see him return in one piece, and even more, with a gift.

Having returned with a cigar, the sight of the happy Irishman caused other British soldiers to consider going across the still battlefield to meet the Germans, and so they met halfway, making peace, despite being from opposite sides. Thus, the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 began.

Christmas Celebrations

An artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News of 9 January 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”

After the start of the truce on Christmas Eve in 1914, about 100,000 soldiers from both German and British armies started celebrating Christmas together. German troops were decorating their areas by placing candles on Christmas trees and around their trenches.

A beautiful moment of celebration was represented by the carols sung by the British and German troops. When the Germans started singing their version of “Silent Night, Holy Night”, the English did not hesitate to respond with carols of their own. Through all the carols and Christmas greetings, the two parties also started exchanging gifts in the No Man’s Land between the lines. The gifts mostly consisted of alcohol, tobacco, and food, but also included various items and trinkets such as hats.

Furthermore, this truce made room for the armies to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades, which is a huge sign of respect during wartime. It meant a lot for both armies. Some of the war zones were still quite violent despite the holiday spirit, but peace was established in most of the areas however, some generals were not fond of this kindness and forcefully ordered their men back to their trenches to resume hostilities.

Football Matches – Myth or Reality

Football Remembers memorial, designed by Spencer Turner, at the National Memorial Arboretum. Photograph by DeFacto.

According to some, there was even a football match between the troops, but it is not certain whether this was indeed true or just a myth. It has been debated by historians, and some have declared that, according to them, there might have been an attempt, which failed because of the state the ground was in.

Other people say that there’s evidence of a football game being played, only not between the opposing sides of the war, but between the British troops only however, according to Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch, a game had indeed started between the German and British soldiers as soon as the latter had brought a ball from their trenches. In his opinion, it was a strange, yet wonderful thing.

Moreover, a letter from a doctor attached to a Rifle Brigade involved with the legendary sporting event said a football game took place in front of the trenches between soldiers of the two armies. The reason why it has been negated so much is that the British officers went on about how it would not have been a wise decision to let the British and Germans play together. Apparently, if this happened, the Germans would find out about the bad conditions of the British trenches.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of evidence about football being played, and most of the stories have been told by German troops. People talking about the game between the soldiers say the game has ended 3-2 for the Germans.

Violence During the Truce

Map of the Western Front and the Race to the Sea, 1914. Map by The History Department of the United States Military Academy.

Despite the fact that peace was established in most of the areas, some were still not content with the sudden spirit of generosity. Apparently, Corporal Clifford Lane of H Company Hertfordshire said that he saw German soldiers approaching from the trenches. At their sight, he ordered his men to open fire at the long distance targets.

Even so, the Germans did not have any similar reaction to the fire and continued to celebrate Christmas instead. According to Corporal Lane, they were having a wonderful time, which is why they ignored the sudden violence and went on with their celebrations however, he later regretted his decision of firing and not joining the truce and celebrations. In his opinion, he would’ve had an amazing time and experience.

The Eastern Front

Rival military coalitions in 1914: Triple Entente in green Triple Alliance in brown. Only the Triple Alliance was a formal “alliance” the others listed were informal patterns of support. Map by historicair (French original) and Fluteflute & User:Bibi Saint-Pol (English translation).

One separate event that is part of the Christmas Truce happened on the Eastern front. Apparently, the Austro-Hungarian commanders made the first move and asked for a truce for Christmas. The Russians joined them and so they eventually went to the no man’s land and started having a good time.

Despite some violence here and there, the truce lasted until the first days of 1915, after New Year’s Eve. The event is of historical significance and there are even monuments and memorials to celebrate this event. One of them was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, whereas another one can be seen in Staffordshire, England.

All in all, the truce has shown that soldiers were capable of kindness, hospitality and generosity on Christmas day, even during the terrible World War I.

Question for students (and subscribers): Should Christians avoid fighting each other Christmas? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Crocker, Terri Blom and Peter Grant. The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

The featured image in this article, an artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News of 9 January 1915 showing “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches,” is in the public domain in the United States because it was first published outside the United States prior to January 1, 1924.

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History Lesson: The Story of the Christmas Truce of 1914

Sadly the 1914 truce was to be the only significant attempt at quieting the guns by the soldiers at the front lines.

On the night of December 24, 1914, the guns along the Western Front were mostly silentand fittingly Silent Night or Stille Nacht in German began to be sung on both sides of the line. World War I then known only as the war and eventually The Great Warwas less than six months old, and while soldiers were hunkered down for the holidays in trenches it was still far from the horrors to come.

This was before the gas warfare, the constant artillery barrages, the futile attacks across no man’s land, and before the trenches became as close to hell on earth as anyone could ever imagine. This is not to say that the war wasn’t still hell, for the casualties were already mounting, the line was already static from nearly the English Channel to the Swiss border. Both sides hoped for a breakthrough in the spring.

However, on Christmas Eve spring was a long time away. Despite probing of the lines and the daily attempts to disrupt the enemy, things were quiet, and then on Christmas Day soldiers waved white flags and came out of the lines. Peace didn’t break out it was just a truce for the holy day.

The scene of soldiers climbing out of the trenches even made the holidays rounds in 2014 thanks to a slick ad campaign from the British Sainsbury’s supermarket chain. The video begins on Christmas Eve as British and German soldiers begin to sing “Silent Night,” and it then proceeds to chronicle how soldiers on each side came out to shake hands, play football and stop fighting.

The sound of artillery sends the soldiers back to their trenches, where the German soldier finds a chocolate bar in his coat, a “gift” from his enemy across the lines. The video advertisement was made in partnership with The Royal British Legion, and was reportedly “inspired by real events from one hundred years ago.”

Of course, it was also made to sell chocolate barsones that look much like the one that the German Landser Otto found in his coat. In this case, all profits will be donated to the Royal British Legion, but it is still intended to get folks in the UK to head to Sainsbury's to do their holiday shopping.

Sainsbury’s is not the first to chronicle the Christmas Truce. It has been the subject of movies, TV shows and even a music video for a Paul McCartney song “Pipes for Peace.” One of the biggest misconceptions about the truce was that it was widely reported and was big news.

In fact, news of the actual truce went unreported for more than a week. It was only on New Year’s Eve that the New York Times reported that an unofficial truce had broken out. Accounts only circulated as families at home found out not through the daily newspapers from firsthand accounts in letters from the front lines. The British newspapers, the Mirror and Sketch, eventually printed front-page photographs of the soldiers mingling.

However, German coverage was somewhat muted and even criticized those taking part, while in France the press censorship all but blocked news of the truce entirely, and only confirmed in an official statement that it was limited to the British sectors and was short-lived.

The first fictionalized account appears to have been the German play Petermann schließt Frieden oder Das Gleichnis vom deutschen Opfer (Petermann makes peace) in 1933. Written by war veteran Heinz Steguweit, who was an early member of the Nazi Party, the play was far from uplifting. In it, a German soldier is shot dead by a sniper whilst singing Christmas carols!

The truce was chronicled as a sequence in the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War, and served as the backdrop for the 1983 music video of Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace,” in which the former Beatle played both a British Tommy and German Jerry who meet in no man's land. It was also the plot of the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël, which depicted the events from the perspective of German, Scottish and French soldiers.

All of theseas well as the Sainsbury’s adare quite moving, and from a historical perspective get many details of the early part of the war correct. The German soldiers are wearing grey uniforms and the Pickelhaube (spiked helmet), while British soldiers are wearing service dress caps or glenngary caps in the case of the Scots in Joyeux Noël, with the latter film even including the early red and blue French uniforms. Rarely do the scenes suggest the latter horrors of the war with troops wearing steel helmets or gas masks.

In that regard, the makers have gotten the equipment and details quite right, even if other aspects are pure fantasyalbeit touching stories in their own right.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about the Christmas Truce of 1914 is that it was limited to the days around Christmas. In fact, fraternization had often occurred in warand it wasn't all that uncommon for soldiers who had been shooting at one another one day to wave a white flag to exchange food or drink the next. While largely discouragedeven under the threat of serious punishmentsuch activities happened all the time.

In the early stages of the Great War the British and German units tended to have moments of fraternization, but relations between the French and Germanslong-time rivalshad been far tenser. However, by the early part of December, it wasn’t uncommon for short truces for each side to recover dead soldiers for burial.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was also spurred in part by the “Open Christmas Letter,” a public message for peace that was addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria” and signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists. This followed on Dec. 7, 1914, when Pope Benedict XV called for an official truce between the warring governments, but this attempt was officially rebuffed by all sides.

How long the truce lasted is also heavily debated and misunderstood. While the film Joyeux Noël suggested that it lasted beyond Christmas Day, most other depictions including McCartney’s take and the Sainsbury’s advert suggest it was something that lasted mere minutes. The truth is murky on this because trucesrather than a single truce existed up and down the lines.

In many sectors, it is widely accepted that the Christmas Truce did in fact last just for one day, but in other sectors, it continued through New Year's Day. Part of the reason for the latter phenomenon is that as noted neither side planned major a campaign for the foreseeable future, and as a result it was just a quiet time on the line.

“There are reports of truces from the French and Belgian sectors too,” explained Chris Baker, author of The Truce: The Day the War Stopped. “It varied and in some areas went on for several days in others nearby it did not take place at all. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day appear to have been quiet pretty well all along the linebut even so more than 70 British soldiers lost their lives that day. Actual fraternization appears to have been a few hours at most.”

What is accepted is that the commanders on both sides of the lines were pretty much in the dark about the activity until after it occurred. And neither side’s leaders were particularly happywith both fearing that a widespread mutiny could ensue! The last thing the commanders wanted was for their respective soldiers to give up the fight.

The other debated issue of the truce is whether football (soccer) was ever played? While it is likely given that there were a number of cases of fraternization that some balls were kicked around, it isn't clear if there were really any “organized” matters. A number of period letters suggest that the units did kick around the ball but in many cases, it is unlikely that the soldiers used a real ballprobably tins ration tins or other similarly sized objects.

Most historians tend to agree that the football matches could have been much more than kick-about games given the terrain in no man’s land. It is also believed that most of these matches were really soldiers on the same side playing together rather than with those from the opposing side.

“The evidence for football being played is from letters and various other paperwork from individual soldiers,” added Baker. “It gets no mention in unit war diaries, regimental histories, etc., and indeed some men wrote that they simply did not believe that it had taken place.”

“The circumstances of the cratered nature of the ground, presence of barbed wire defenses and so on, plus the very short time over which fraternization occurred, make it most improbable that we are talking about a properly organized game,” Baker suggested. “A kick-about is probably nearer the mark. The only place where even two


Football

Christmas Day brought impromptu football (soccer) matches between the soldiers. This time also afforded the opportunity to bury the dead, and exchange prisoners. The first documented truce was recorded in the War Diary of the 2nd Essex Regiment on December 11, the last one ended at New Year, but it was all unofficial. Perhaps as many as 100,000 soldiers were involved in this truce. Robert Graves, the British writer — known for the novel I, Claudius and the authoritative translation from the Latin of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars — later recounted the football match, parts of which were fictional, with a score of 3–2 for the Germans. No reports were published of the truce for a week, until the New York Times broke the story, in the still-neutral at that time United States.


The Christmas Truce of 1914

At Christmas time in 1914 an amazing event occurred at numerous places along the trench lines on the Western Front. The guns fell silent soldiers declared a temporary truce and celebrated Christmas with each other. Remember, the trench lines were close enough that the opposing troops could yell back and forth. This allowed them to exchange greetings of the season. They met in No Man’s Land and shared Christmas treats and beverages. They also sang Christmas songs together. And, it is even said that the English played soccer against the Germans. The holiday truce experience was not total in some areas fighting continued. (See http://military.wikia.com/wiki/Christmas_truce.) After Christmas Day, the soldiers returned to trying to kill each other.

Although similar isolated truces occurred in 1915, this phenomenal event, as experienced in 1914, was never repeated because of the very negative reaction of the officer corps. Officers on both sides made it clear that a repeat would be met with the strictest punishment. The following year, the British infantry was ordered to “maintain a slow gun fire on the enemy’s trenches” during the holiday. After 1915, due to the increasing death tolls and the use of poison gas that caused the belief that the other side was less than human, there were no similar efforts. (Id. Jennings and Brewster, The Century, p. 51.) For an in-depth narrative about the Christmas Truce, see Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of The World War I Christmas Truce.)

The Christmas Truce is memorialized in the following songs:

“Belleau Wood, sung by Garth Brooks songwriters Joe Henry and Garth Brooks (1997). (http://youtu.be/kjXa7DnaGjQ)

Oh, the snowflakes fell in silence
Over Belleau Wood that night
For a Christmas truce had been declared
By both sides of the fight
As we lay there in our trenches
The silence broke in two
By a German soldier singing
A song that we all knew

Though I did not know the language
The song was “Silent Night”

Then I heard my buddy whisper,
“All is calm and all is bright”
Then the fear and doubt surrounded me
‘Cause I’d die if I was wrong
But I stood up in my trench
And I began to sing along

Then across the frozen battlefield
Another’s voice joined in
Until one by one each man became
A singer of the hymn

Then I thought that I was dreaming
For right there in my sight
Stood the German soldier
‘Neath the falling flakes of white
And he raised his hand and smiled at me
As if he seemed to say
Here’s hoping we both live
To see us find a better way

Then the devil’s clock struck midnight
And the skies lit up again
And the battlefield where heaven stood
Was blown to hell again

But for just one fleeting moment
The answer seemed so clear
Heaven’s not beyond the clouds
It’s just beyond the fear

No, heaven’s not beyond the clouds
It’s for us to find it here

“Christmas in the Trenches” was written and sung by John McCutcheon (1984). (http://youtu.be/B5on4WK1MpA)

My name is Francis Tolliver. I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here,
I fought for King and country I love dear.
It was Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen field of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lyin’ with my mess-mates on the cold and rocky ground
when across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I “Now listen up me boys”, each soldier strained to hear
as one young German voice sang out so clear.
“He’s singin’ bloody well you know,” my partner says to me.
Soon one by one each German voice joined in in harmony.
The cannons rested silent. The gas cloud rolled no more
as Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished a reverent pause was spent.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was ‘Stille Nacht.” “Tis ‘Silent Night'” says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
“There’s someone commin’ towards us,” the front-line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
as he bravely strode, unarmed, into the night.

Then one by one, on either side walked into no-mans-land
with neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and wished each other well
and in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ’em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes and photographs from home
these sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin
this curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
It was Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
had been crumbled and were gone forever more.

My name is Francis Tolliver. In Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War One I’ve learned it’s lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
and on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

“Christmas 1914, written and sung by Mike Harding (1977). (http://youtu.be/LRaLGq3F2_4)

Christmas Eve in 1914,
Star’s are burning, burning bright,
And all along the Western Front,
Guns were lying still and quiet,
Men lay dosing in the trenches,
In the cold and in the dark,
And far away behind the lines,
A village dog began to bark,

Some lay thinking of their families,
Some sang song’s while others were quiet,
Rolling fags and playing bragg,
To pass away this Christmas night,
As they watched the German trenches,
Something moved in No-Man’s-Land,
And through the dark there came a Soldier.
Carrying a white flag in his hand,

Then from both sides men came running,
Crossing into No-Man’s-Land,
Through the barbed wire, mud and shell holes,
Shyly stood there shaking hands,
Fritz brought out cigars and brandy,
Tommy brought corned beef and fags,
Stood there talking, laughing, singing,
As the moon shone down on No-Man’s-Land,

Christmas Day we all played football,
In the mud of No-Man’s-Land,
Tommy brought some Christmas pudding,
Fritz brought out a German band,
When they beat us at the football,
We shared out all the grub and drink,
And Fritz showed me a faded photo,
Of a brown haired girl, back in Berlin,

For days after, no one fired,
Not one shell disturbed the night,
For Old Fritz and Tommy Atkins,
They’d both lost the will to fight,
So they withdrew us from the trenches,
Sent us far behind the lines,
Sent fresh troops to take our places,
Told the guns, prepare to fire,

And next day in 1914,
Flares were burning, burning bright,
The message came, prepare offensive,
Over the top, we’re going tonight.
And men stood waiting in the trenches,
Looked out across our football park,
And all along the Western Front,
The Christmas guns began to bark,
Men stood waiting, in the trenches,
Looked out across our football park,
And all along the Western Front,
The Christmas guns began to bark.


Resuming Hostilities

In some places hostilities resumed immediately after the truces. One example of this can be found in Trench Warfare 1914-1918 — The Live and Let Live System by Tony Ashworth, where he quoted one of the participants:

At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He put up a sheet with “Thank you” on it and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the war was on again.

Resuming hostilities was generally not so easy. Some of the units continued or renegotiated their truces. One of the tactics used by the high command to restart the hostilities was to put a combat unit on relief and replace it with a different unit that hadn’t participated in a truce. In some cases the outgoing unit would inform the incoming unit that the Christmas Truce was still on in that location. This appears to have happened at least a few times and on both sides. Exactly how many times this happened is not known. It was all done on the sly.

In his book Truce, Jim Murphy quoted Major Murdoch McKenzie Wood about the truce in his area, which lasted two weeks:

I … came to the conclusion that I have held firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would have never been another shot fired. For a fortnight that truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again.

There was a near mutiny when one of the regiments in the XIX Saxon Corps was ordered to resume hostilities. Robert Cowley wrote of this in his book The Great War — Perspectives on the First World War. An Australian expatriate named Ethyl Cooper was told about this by a German soldier named Vize-Feldwebel Lange while on leave in Leipzig. Cooper kept it concealed until after the armistice was signed.

The difficulty began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck. Herr Lange says that … he had never heard such language as the officers indulged in, while they stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer, “We can’t — they are good fellows, and we can’t.” Finally, the officers turned on the men with, “Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!” Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. “We spent that day and the next,” said Herr Lange, “wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.”

In some truces the soldiers on each side agreed to warn each other if a high-ranking officer was planning a visit. In such cases a warning would be sent to the other side to keep their heads down during the staff visit. The troops on that side would be seemingly firing at the enemy positions but actually firing slightly over their heads.

The truce in the Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium area was probably the last to end. It reportedly lasted through the month of March. Reports say all the truces were ended by Easter, which in 1915 fell on April 4.


The Christmas Truce of 1914

On December 24, 1914, exactly 100 years ago today, British and German soldiers facing each other across No Man’s Land in the trenches of World War I confounded their superiors by leaving their trenches and walking out to meet and greet their enemies in the spirit of Christmas brotherhood.

Digging Deeper

Not only did the soldiers shake hands and converse but they even exchanged presents! When they sang carols together, it just about gave the generals on both sides fits. In some cases, football games (soccer) were played between opposing forces as well.

French troops were a bit less eager to join in the festivities, but in some cases they did. The camaraderie shared by the British and Germans was almost universal along the front they shared with an outpouring of troops from each side who had more in common with their supposed enemies than they did with their aristocratic superiors. Co-national burial parties and services were also held.

The superiors were outraged, and strict orders were given down the chain of command to forbid a repeat of such a Christmas Truce in the remaining years of the war. Still, it was repeated on a much smaller scale in 1915, but by 1916, the carnage had become so great and the terror of massive artillery bombardments and the barbaric use of poison gasses had hardened the wornout soldiers into outright hatred for one another. There would be no further Christmas Truces. Perhaps the annual Christmas bombardments ordered by the generals on each side had something to do with the men preferring to stay in their trenches.

The generals making these decisions were almost universally located well rear of the fighting in luxurious accommodations in appropriated chateaus and mansions. Unlike the men who fought, these high-ranking officers mostly came from rich, aristocratic backgrounds and ate well, not starving and freezing in the mud as their troops did. World War I was one of the worst cases of “ivory tower syndrome” by those running the war in comparison to those fighting it. General officers who cared about and empathized with the men were the exception rather than the rule. This was one of the not so “great” aspects of the “Great War.”

For now though, Merry Christmas, Happy Winter Solstice, Festivus, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, or whatever your winter holiday is!

Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite winter holiday? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Crocker, Terri Blom and Peter Grant. The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.


The Real Story of the Christmas Truce

Late on Christmas Eve 1914, men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) heard German troops in the trenches opposite them singing carols and patriotic songs and saw lanterns and small fir trees along their trenches. Messages began to be shouted between the trenches.

The following day, British and German soldiers met in no man's land and exchanged gifts, took photographs and some played impromptu games of football. They also buried casualties and repaired trenches and dugouts. After Boxing Day, meetings in no man's land dwindled out.

The truce was not observed everywhere along the Western Front. Elsewhere the fighting continued and casualties did occur on Christmas Day. Some officers were unhappy at the truce and worried that it would undermine fighting spirit.

After 1914, the High Commands on both sides tried to prevent any truces on a similar scale happening again. Despite this, there were some isolated incidents of soldiers holding brief truces later in the war, and not only at Christmas.

In what was known as the 'Live and Let Live' system, in quiet sectors of the front line, brief pauses in the hostilities were sometimes tacitly agreed, allowing both sides to repair their trenches or gather their dead.


Essay: The Christmas Truce – World War I

The Christmas truce which was a not official truce. The truce occurred along the Western Front. The truce occurred during the Christmas of 1914. World War 1 had been going on for many months but the soldiers on both sides stepped out of their trenches. They walked across no mans land which is where they shook hands and agreed to have a truce so that any of the dead from either side could be buried. As well some of the soldiers also used the truce as a way to chat with each other. Some of them even claim to playing a football game. Still today unofficial truces between opposing forces occur and some more happened at other times during World War One but never on the scale of that first Christmas truce. Similar events have occurred in other conflicts that happened in history history and continue to occur.
The assassination of heir to the Austrian throne. Then Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 29 1914 sparked a rapid sequence of events which led to the outbreak of World War One. In early August. Germany swept past Luxembourg and Belgium on their way into France. That at first made rapid progress. The Allies and Germans tried a series of trying to out flank the movements which eventually led to a battle line the Western Front stretching from Lorraine in the south into the English Channel into the north. Soldiers dug trenches and erected barbed wire to hold their positions the nightmare that was to become trench warfare had begun. In places the trenches were just yards apart. Then as the soldiers realized that neither side was going to make any rapid victories or progress, the trenches became more fortified. The opposing forces now had time to regroup and strengthen their lines with more men but it soon became apparent to the Generals and to the men on the front line that this was going to be a war of attrition the only way a winner would be decided would be when one side ran out of men or out of bullets. As Private .R. Fleming of the 2nd Durham Light Infantry put it. It is not war. It is who can kill the most enemies in the shortest time possible.
The proximity of the enemies also allowed men to shout out to their opponents or stick up signs on wooden boards. After a particularly heavy barrage of missiles or bullets. The soldiers might shout out Missed or Left a bit. This black humour was the start of a conversation between the troops that would hasten the on set of the Christmas truce. Another factor that assisted conditions for an unofficial truce between the men was the weather. For much of December it had been wet but on Christmas Eve the temperature dropped and a sharp frost enveloped the landscape. A White Christmas as depicted on all traditional Christmas cards would provide the backdrop to one of the most remarkable Christmas stories in 2,000 years. Shouting between troops was turned into something way more Christmas Eve. Germans celebrate Christmas on December 24 more than they do on the day itself in Britain and France, December 25 is the main day of celebration. It is on the 24th that the Germans have a large meal with family and Father Christmas delivers his gifts. So on the Western Front on Christmas Eve. German soldiers began to sing carols and place Christmas trees lit with lanterns above the trenches. As a subaltern told the Press Association and it was then published in numerous UK newspapers. In their trenches were a blaze of Christmas trees. Some of the sentries were regaled for hours with the traditional Christmas songs of their Fatherland. Their officers even showed annoyance the next day that some of these trees had been fired on.
A white Christmas singing of carols shouts of good wishes. These shouts were coming from both side the trenches. The erection of illuminated decorations. The truce which days earlier had seemed impossible was now possible and happing. The night before Christmas. A British captain serving at Rue du Bois heard a foreign accent from across the divide that said. Do not shoot after 12:00 and we will not shoot at you either. Then if you English come out and you talk to us we will not shoot. Commonwealth troops fighting were in Belgium as France started hearing some odd sounds coming from across no mans land. German soldiers were singing Christmas carols like Silent Night and Holy Night. Allied troops applauded and cheered. They were shouting out for more. Soldiers on both sides began to sing in unison, trading verses in alternating languages.Then very cautiously and with great courage, unarmed German and Allied soldiers climbed out of their trenches to stand atop their defenses. As well as near the Neuve Chapelle. Which is where a Irish soldier had got up and started to walk across no mans land. Thats where he was greeted with a cigar instead of a bullet. This act of bravery on his part inspired other people that were in his troop to do the same thing. More things similar to this event began to repeat in other places as well. As soldiers got up and walked towards the opposing trench and some just met halfway.

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Watch the video: Ein Zeichen der Freundschaft inmitten des Krieges I DER WEIHNACHTSFRIEDEN 1914 (August 2022).