Although World War I ranks as one of the most horrific in history, causing about 40 million casualties and up to 20 million military and civilian deaths, it also included a famous and spontaneous peaceful interlude inscribed in chronicles as the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914.
World War I
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, plunged much of Europe into war. The Entente Powers of France, Russia and Britain stood against the Central Powers of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Empires. In mid-September, the German, British and French commands ordered their armies to entrench along a 475-mile Western Front that extended from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. Four years of brutal, stalemated trench warfare followed. Most trenches were about seven feet deep and six feet wide, topped by a parapet of sandbags. From there, barbed wire entanglements extended into no man’s land. In many places, the no man’s land separating German and British front-line trenches was only 30 to 70 yards wide.
The elements were sometimes more debilitating than the enemy. Standing in the mud and water for days often resulted in feet becoming gangrenous. Excessive exposure to wet and cold caused nephritis, which affected the kidneys. The accumulated rubbish, urine and excreta in the trenches negatively impacted on health. Food scraps and decaying corpses attracted huge numbers of disease-carrying rats. The unwashed men attracted lice that covered their bodies with bite marks and caused “trench fever.” Artillery bursts caused some men to experience shell shock.
Periodically, the aristocratic generals (safely lodged in the rear) ordered the mostly lower-class men in the trenches to make suicidal frontal assaults on enemy trenches. Machine guns and rapid fire rifles simply mowed down attacking men in no man’s land, where their bodies often remained for weeks in a decaying state. The generals never devised a sensible plan to break the cruel stalemate that trench warfare became.
On Christmas Eve, the weather cleared. Rain gave way to a clear cold that froze the mud and water, making movement easier and boots and clothing drier. Having received gift packages from home, the men of both sides were in a festive mood. That evening, along the front line, German troops sang Christmas carols. Many erected candle-lit Christmas trees on their parapets and called out season greetings to their enemies opposite them. Many Entente troops responded with applause, holiday wishes and songs of their own. Concerned, one British battalion command informed Brigade Headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs, and are wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged, but [I] am nevertheless taking all military precautions …”
Then, an amazing series of events occurred. Along parts of the British, French and Belgian lines, men from both sides went out into no man’s land unarmed to meet, shake hands and fraternize. The First Battalion Royal Irish Rifles reported Germans calling out: “If you Englishmen come out and talk to us, we won fire.” Scotsmen in Flanders, the 2nd Queen’s Battalion near La Chapelle d’ Armentieres, and the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers also reported Germans singing “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) and extending invitations to meet in no man’s land.
On the morning of 25 December, the 2nd Battalion Devons reported seeing the Germans hoist a board with the words, “You no fight, we no fight.” Opposite the 2nd Battalion Border Regiment, the process began with a German officer emerging from his trench waving a white flag. The 2nd Battalion Wiltshires reported men on both sides waving to each other, and then going out into no man’s land to meet unarmed. After initial greetings, both sides agreed to bury their dead comrades, who had been laying in no man’s land for weeks. Some Germans and British worked together in burial parties; a British soldier described a joint funeral service as “a sight one will never forget!” Members of the British Rifle Brigade gave the Germans wooden crosses to mark their graves.
The opposing sides exchanged food, drink, cigarettes, photographs, addresses and sincere wishes for peace. A British officer found the scene “absolutely astounding!” The troops found each other to be quite likable. Many men felt compelled to write home about their experience. A London Rifles Brigade officer: “They [Germans] were really magnificent in the whole thing…. I now have a very different opinion of the Germans.” A Scots Guard: “Some of them are very nice fellows and did not show any hatred, which makes me think they are forced to fight.”
Once no man’s land had been cleared of corpses, some men found areas suitable for soccer games with improvised balls. In places, British and Germans ate Christmas dinner together, sharing whatever they had. They entertained each other with singing and instrumental music.
How It Ended
Many who participated in an informal truce hoped to continue it until New Year’s Day or beyond. But the high commands sternly objected. A German Army order threatened that fraternization with the enemy would be punished as high treason. A British order warned that “Officers and NCOs allowing [fraternization] would be brought before a court martial.” In late December, the high commands ordered artillery bombardments along the front. They did the same in following years to ensure that the 1914 Christmas truce would not be repeated. Despite these measures, a few friendly encounters did occur, but on a much smaller scale than in 1914.
Soldiers Express Themselves
The Christmas truce touched the men deeply as evidenced in their letters and diaries. Various British soldiers wrote the following: “The most wonderful day on record!” “The most extraordinary celebration of Christmas any of us will ever experience!” “This experience has been the most practical demonstration I have seen of Peace on earth and goodwill towards men.”
German troops wrote: “The way we spend Christmas in the trenches sounds almost like a fairy tale.” “It was a Christmas celebration in keeping with the command ‘Peace on earth’ and a memory which will stay with us always.” “Probably the most extraordinary event of the whole year “a soldier’s truce without any higher sanction by officers or generals.”
Speaking in the House of Commons in 1930, Sir H. Kingsley Wood, a former major who had served at the front in 1914 stated: “If we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired. “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.”
Today, the Christmas truce of 1914 is regarded as evidence of men’s natural desire for peace and friendship, even in the context of a brutal and senseless conflict. However, the 1914 Christmas truce is not unique in history. During the early 19th century, Peninsula War, British and French soldiers at times visited each other, shared rations and played cards. Periodically, during the 1854-56 Crimean War, French, British and Russian troops gathered around the same fire to smoke and drink together. In the American Civil War (1880-81), Yankees and Rebels traded coffee and tobacco and peacefully fished from opposite sides of the same rivers. Throughout history, it has been rare for men fighting at close quarters not to extend friendly gestures and establish informal truces with their enemies.