The Christmas truce of 1914
December 20, 2007
The year was 1914. The place? A vast wasteland of war known as “No Man’s Land.”
It was a particularly brutal winter along the Western Front, that stretch of contested frontier land that separated the Allies from the German army. The First World War was only a few months old, but the inhumane brutalities of a world war had already revealed themselves to shell-shocked troops on both sides. Life verged between massacre and misery, as men huddled, soaked to the skin, in trenches waist-high with mud, waiting for the next volley, the next round of fighting.
Friends were made in those trenches ” and, unexpectedly, acquaintances from the other side. Often an evening of singing would be followed by applause and cries for an encore ” from the opposing camp. Songs, jokes and general pleasantries were shared across the trenches as British, French and German troops reached out in the dark to their fellow man ” even if he happened to be the enemy.
This desperate camaraderie was frowned upon by army headquarters, and orders were issued from commanding officers on both sides ” no more fraternizing with the opposing forces.
That December, the German high command decided it was time to perk up morale among their troops in the trenches. On military orders, a Christmas tree was sent out to every German unit stationed along the Western Front, along with candles and decorations, all of which were enthusiastically received. It seemed such a little thing, to send candles and a Christmas tree ” such a little thing, but it sparked a gentle revolt whose import has resounded through history.
On Christmas Eve, French and British troops, perched in trenches, dugouts and huts scattered all over No Man’s Land, saw the twinkling of lights across the barricades and wondered if an attack was imminent.
And then, they heard the soft sound of men’s voices on the air, singing.
In some areas, German troops sent over white-flagged messengers with the simple request ” will you join us in a concert tonight, with no shooting? In other regiments, soldiers held up signs, written in pidgin English or German, saying, “No Shoot!” According to a London newspaper, one German troop even managed to slip a chocolate cake over the lines to the British troops stationed there.
Soon, impromptu concerts sprang up all along the Western Front, as French, British and German troops serenaded each other. In one letter home, a British soldier recounted how the two opposing sides swapped carols back and forth, his British regiment starting off with “The First Noel,” the Germans answering with “O Tannenbaum.” Midway through the concert, the British began to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful”” and were joined by the Germans, who took up the familiar carol in Latin.
For other camps, the song that brought both sides together was “Silent Night,” as soldiers sang the old carol together in their own native tongues.
After this, war and killing were ” at least temporarily ” impossible. Field officers met with their colleagues on the opposing side, and hasty impromptu truces were formed over the barbed wire.
On Christmas morning, the sounds of death and destruction were replaced by the sounds of revelry. Along the entire length of the Western Front, soldiers crossed enemy lines to light each other’s cigarettes, share gifts and stories, and toast each other’s loved ones.
From both sides of the barbed wire, men stepped over the barricades bearing cigars, cigarettes, hats and gloves, wine, cognac and beer, jam, sausages and chocolates.
And, joy of joys, a soccer ball.
According to the Christmas letters home that have survived, many of the units had a day-long soccer match, resulting not only in well-contested victories but occasional mishaps. For one group, the match ended early when their soccer ball accidentally and rather poetically got impaled on the barbed wire fencing meant to keep the soldiers apart.
There was a serious side to the festivities as well, as both sides agreed to use the occasion to bury their dead. The frontier was riddled with unburied corpses, which British, French and German soldiers sorted through together. In some fields, joint burial services were even held, as men came together to bury the same soldiers they had shot just a few days before.
In one letter home, an officer with the 6th Gordon Highlanders Regiment recounted that at four o’clock on Christmas Day, a memorable event took place in his unit, as British and German soldiers stood together, a burial trench dividing them. As the British chaplain read the 23rd Psalm and some prayers, these were repeated by a German divinity student. At the end of the service, the chaplain saluted the German commander, who in turn shook hands with him.
Some troops kept the truce going through the day after Christmas, while a few even prolonged it until the first week of January. But for many encampments, the truce lasted a bare 24 hours. According to Captain J. C. Dunn, the medical officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Christmas Day was spent in socializing and exchanging gifts between the two camps, and his men received two full barrels of beer from the German troops as a gesture of holiday goodwill. And then …
“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,” Dunn wrote. “He [a German soldier] 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.”
In the weeks that followed, the miracle of the Christmas Truce of 1914 was documented in moving letters home, written by the men and women serving on the Western Front. On such a widespread scale, it would never happen again ” either in the First World War, or in subsequent wars. The last Allied survivor of the truce was a Scotsman, Alfred Anderson, who died in 2005, at the age of 109.
Perhaps the Christmas Truce of 1914 was the last time that the common soldier could rise up and call a halt ” unsanctioned by the high command ” to the senseless slaughter taking place in front of him.
May the spirit of love, peace and goodwill that motivated the 1914 truce ” the spirit that is the true miracle of Christmas ” find a place to rest within each and every one of us.