The Christmas Truce of 1914
Christmas On the Western Front 1914
It happened over 100 years ago...
Some British Officers who heard rumors about the events on the Western Front that Christmas chose to turn a blind eye, while others who were more inclined to adhere to the strict ways of the British army issued orders that the men were to get in line, pronto. The newspapers of the day picked up the story and loved ones back home started receiving letters telling them about the truce.
There are folks today who still deny it ever happened. But there are newspapers, letters, photographs, and even entries in Battalion journals from the time that note the unusual interaction, the unrehearsed intermingling of men from opposing sides in a World War whose bloodiest days were still ahead of it.
That sworn enemies could – if even just for a few hours – exchange gifts and play football at the dawn of WWI is certainly hard to imagine. The “War to End All Wars” that was supposed to be over by Christmas, the lark, the great adventure for young men looking to prove themselves in the world, looked like it was going to grind on for a bit.
Did the Christmas Truce really begin with the sweet notes of Stille Nacht coming from the German trenches and ringing out across No Man’s Land? Whatever started it, the Christmas Truce of 1914 was very real.
The Light of Peace in the Trenches on Christmas Eve
The very early days of WWI were more like those of wars that had gone before. More like 19th century warfare than 20th century, with cavalry used extensively on both sides. There was a certain chivalry, if that word can be ascribed to war, a "playing by the rules of war" that disappeared overnight when the tactics turned to include the use of new and horrific weapons like chlorine and mustard gas. In December 1914, the use of those weapons was still months away.
By December of 1914, both sides had seemingly accepted the stalemate that was trench warfare, and had dug in for the long haul. The failure of the German Schlieffen Plan, and the failure of the French Plan XVII meant that the likelihood of successfully being able to outflank the opponent was gone. When battles raged, little ground was captured, and it was usually given back soon after, and both sides realized that holding a defensive position and wearing down their enemy was the best strategy. The trenches that at first had been hastily constructed as shelter during artillery bombardments became an unbroken line of communications and other specialty trenches over 800 kilometres long. In some spots, the trenches of the opposing sides were less than 100 meters apart.
Leading up to Christmas of 1914, there had been several failed attempts to get both sides talking. Even the Pope had asked "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”
It is believed that it got rolling a few days before Christmas 1914 when both sides sent parties out to retrieve the bodies of comrades who got caught up in the barbed wire in No Man’s Land and died there, hanging in the wire, in the cold and muddy ground between the trenches that was the Western Front. Normally, the snipers on both sides would have picked off any man who dared to raise his head above the trench wall. But, for whatever reason, as small parties of men ventured out to bring back their dead, the snipers’ guns remained silent.
The Unofficial Truce Begins
The truce was unofficial, and took place at different points along the Western Front that ran through Belgium. Hostilities did not cease along the entire Front; in some areas, fighting continued unabated.
It is estimated that approximately 100,000 British and German – and to a lesser extent French – troops took part in this unofficial truce. The German troops decorated small Christmas trees in their trenches and sang Christmas carols, including Stille Nacht. The British troops, recognizing the carol, began singing carols of their own.
Eventually, verbal exchanges took place and there were some troops who even exchanged gifts – bully beef, hats, badges and tobacco. In some stretches along the Western Front the truce actually lasted about a week, right up to New Year’s Day. There was even some football played along the lines.
In 1915, there were efforts made by some troops along the Western Front to repeat the events of the previous year. British commanders warned that anyone fraternizing with the enemy would be severely punished. But it happened again – small pockets of men from the opposing sides did manage to get together to sing and exchange gifts.
In 1916, no overt efforts were made to cease fire for the Christmas period. After the atrocities of that year, neither side was willing to let up…or were they? In a letter home, one Canadian soldier told a tale of a Christmas Day truce that included the exchange of gifts. The letter writer, Private Ronald MacKinnon, died in 1917 at Vimy Ridge.
Remembering the Christmas Truce
Among the many ceremonies and events of remembrance that were planned for 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, there were also plans to commemorate the Christmas Truce, including a reenactment camp in Belgium.
In May of 2014, the British government sent education packs out to 30,000 schools in that country to encourage young people to find creative ways to remember the truce. There was also a contest to design a memorial, with the winner to be selected by Prince William.
Football played a central role in many remembrance activities, including a match that took place in Kabul, Afghanistan. There, German and British members of the coalition in the Afghan capital laid down their weapons to engage in a friendly game of football on Christmas Eve. The British won 3-0.
© 2012 Kaili Bisson