Christmas Truce of 1914

Christmas Truce of 1914

Christmas Truce of 1914 is one of true yet hard to believe war stories. In the midst of heavy fighting during World War I, there was a brief time of “peace on earth and good will toward men”. This event happened on the battlefields of Flanders, where German Imperial Army faced its British and French counterparts in long lines of trenches on the Western Front.

On Christmas Eve, German troops began decorating the are around their trenches in the region of Ypres in Belgium. They placed candles on trees, and then began singing Christmas carols (specifically, “O Come All Ye Faithful”). Scottish troops in the opposing trenches responded by singing English carols. Soon, signboards calling for a truce and congratulating Christmas sprung up on both sides. A spontaneous truce resulted, and soldiers started leaving their trenches and meeting in the middle. The truce was further spurred on with the arrival of more Christmas trees, and the British reciprocitated with expressions of goodwill.

Two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other, and soon thereafter there were calls for visit across the “no man’s land” where small gifts such as whiskey, cigars and chocolate were exchanged. Artillery, too, fell silent so as to make the visits possible. The impromptu ceasefire was also used as an opportunity to perform proper burials for fallen soldiers of both sides. There were also reports of spontaneous football matches between the two sides, though the only photo of such appears to show the match that had happened behind the front lines. Accounts that exist suggest that while there were football matches beyond the trenches, Germans did not participate except as observers.

Descriptions of the truce appear in numerous diaries and letters of soldiers. A rifleman J. Reading described in a letter home:

My company happened to be in the firing line on Christmas eve, and it was my turn…to go into a ruined house and remain there until 6:30 on Christmas morning. During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: ‘Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.’

Later on in the day they came towards us. And our chaps went out to meet them… I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet it seemed like a dream.”

British private Marmaduke Walkinton also describes how the truce started:

“We were in the front line; we were about 300 yards from the Germans. And we had, I think on Christmas Eve, we’d been singing carols and this that and the other, and the Germans had been doing the same. And we’d been shouting to each other, sometimes rude remarks more often just joking remarks. Anyway, eventually a German said, ‘Tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot.’ And the morning came and we didn’t shoot and they didn’t shoot. So then we began to pop our heads over the side and jump down quickly in case they shot but they didn’t shoot. And then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms and we didn’t shoot and so on, and so it gradually grew.”

This description is likewise echoed by Colin Wilson of the Grenadier Guards, for whom the truce started with carols followed by an invitation by the Germans:

“We heard a German singing Holy Night of course in German, naturally. Then after he’d finished singing there were all sorts of Christmas greetings being shouted across no man’s land at us. These Germans shouted out, ‘What about you singing Holy Night?’ Well we had a go but of course we weren’t very good at that. Anyway they said, ‘Meet us and come over in no man’s land.’ Well after a time we were allowed – a limited number of us – our officers allowed a limited number of us to go into no man’s land.”

One German soldier described how a British soldier set up a makeshift barber shop, charging Germans a few cigarettes each for a haircut. Men helped enemy soldiers collect their dead. Rifleman J. Reading, writing to his wife, provides the following account:

During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: “Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.” At 4 a.m part of their band played some Christmas carols and “God save the King”, and “Home Sweet Home.” You could guess our feelings. Later on in the day they came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them. Of course neither of us had any rifles. I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars.”.

Soldiers decorated the trenches with lights and Christmas trees, and even went and visited each others’ trenches. A British medical officer received two barrels of beer from the opposing Saxon troops. The truce lasted through the Christmas Night, and in some sectors continued until New Year’s Day.

British commanders eventually ordered their troops to resume firing, and the higher-ups woved that no such truce would be allowed in the future. In the subsequent years of World War I, artillery bombardments were ordered on the Christmas Eve to ensure that there were no further lulls in combat.

The soldiers did resume shooting at each other eventually, but only after a few days of wasting ammunition shooting at stars in the sky.

The truce was not limited to British positions either. Starting on Christmas Eve, small pockets of French, German, Belgian and British troops held an impromptu ceasefire across the Western Front, and some were also held on the Eastern Front as well. Some of these impromptu cease-fires remained in effect for days. German artillery officer Mr Rickner described celebrating with French soldiers:

“I remember very well Christmas, I remember the Christmas Day when the German and the French soldiers left their trenches, went to the barbed wire between them with champagne and cigarettes in their hands and had feelings of fraternisation and shouted they wanted to finish the war and that lasted only 2 days 1 and a half really and then strict order came that no fraternisation was allowed and we had to stay back in our trenches.”

In some places however the truce went bad. Private Percy Huggins was killed by a German sniper while relaxing in the no-man’s land at Rue De Bois in France. His commanding Sergeant, Tom Gregory, killed a sniper, but was himself killed by a second German sniper. Such cases were nevertheless a massive minority. In total, 149 Commonwealth servicemen lost their lives on Christmas, many if not most of them dying of the wounds sustained in previous days’ fighting.

Private Huggins’ Hertfordshire regiment likely suffered because they were with the Guards Brigade, who were extremely professional and thus unlikely to have fraternized. Germans at their section of the front in fact hoisted lanterns above the trenches and called out to the British as an overture for a temporary truce, but the British responded by shooting out the lanterns. This put an end to any prospect of a Christmas Day ceasefire along that section of the front, and the Germans carried on partying in their trenches while ignoring the British. There were other such cases as well. Soldier Pat Collard wrote to his parents that “Perhaps you read of the conversation on Christmas Day between us and the Germans. It’s all lies. The sniping went on just the same; in fact, our captain was wounded, so don’t believe what you see in the papers.”.

High echelons of the armies, safe a long way behind the front lines, were generally horrified by the truce. British General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien wrote in a confidential memorandum that “this is only illustrative of the apathetic state we are gradually sinking into.” And the generals did their best to start the war again, as described by George Ashurst:

“We got orders come down the trench, ‘Get back in your trenches every man,’ by word of mouth down each trench; ‘Everybody back in your trenches,’ shouting. The generals behind must’ve seen it and got a bit suspicious so what they did, they gave orders for a battery of guns behind us to fire, and a machine gun to open out and officers to fire their revolvers at the Jerries. ‘Course that started the war again. Ooh we were cursing them to hell, cursing the generals and that, you want to get up here in this stuff never mind your giving orders, in your big chateaux and driving about in your big cars. We hated the sight of the bloody generals.”

Some accounts of the Christmas Truce hold that soldiers were punished for fraternization, and top command issued orders that it should never happen again. And it did not: next year, and until the end of the war, no such Christmas truce occured ever again.

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