As Christmas approached in the year 1914, loved ones back home and the soldiers on the front lines had thought that the war would be over by Christmas. Though, as the weeks rolled into months, since the war’s beginning in August, the reality of “home by Christmas” turned into a farce. With the realization that the war could possibly become a long drawn out conflict, Christian leaders and communities around the world prayed for peace.
Pope Benedict XV pleaded with the governments of warring nations to use Christmas as a catalyst to install a truce in the hope that a fair and honourable peace could be negotiated. Governments and commanders of the belligerent nations very quickly dismissed the sentiment as unrealistic. In London, the Reverend Henry Woods, spoke to his congregation of his disappointment of hearing that leaders had chosen to ignore church leaders pleas. The Reverend said:
“it had been found impracticable to arrange a Christmas Truce, but they (the soldiers) could at least hope that there was a lull in the trenches, so that the men might have an opportunity for a quiet moment with their God.”
Little, it seems, did the good Reverend know that soldiers on all sides on the Western front would spontaneously and quite amicably pause to celebrate Christmas on their own accord. Events like this throughout history are not uncommon as informal truces and ceasefires have allowed soldiers to fraternise with the enemy, usually to rescue or attend to wounded men. But the Christmas truce of 1914 was something entirely different. It all began innocently enough as British and German soldiers on the northern sector of the western front enjoyed a brief respite in hostilities that began sometime around the week leading into Christmas. A “live and let live” arrangement arguably allowed soldiers to cope with the appalling conditions that they had found themselves in during the winter of 1914. The weather was generally terrible that Christmas week including December 24th which was blanketed in a heavy fog, which helped facilitate the surreal feeling of quiet. Though as the British soldiers along the northern sector sat in their trenches that Christmas Eve, they began to hear the sounds of Christmas carols being sung by German soldiers opposite them across the stretch of no-mans-land. As they stuck their heads out to see what was going on many were also astonished to see German Christmas trees along their trenches. A young private by the name of Frank Sumpter from the British army recalled years later:
“We heard the Germans singing ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ and then they put up a notice, ‘Merry Christmas’. Then they started singing and our boys said, ‘We’ll join in with a song and when we started singing, they stopped. So we sang on and then we stopped and they sang.”
The singing of carols continued like this throughout the night on Christmas Eve and it was sometime in the early morning on Christmas day, that a handful of German soldiers came out of their trenches and greeted the British across no-man’s-land to wish them a Merry Christmas. In an account written by Captain Sir Edward Hamilton Westrow Hulse, he described a scene just like this:
“At 8.30 am I was looking out and saw four Germans leave their trenches and come towards us; I told two of my men to go and meet them, unarmed (as the German were unarmed) and to see that they did not pass the half-way line. (But) By the time we got to them, they were ¾ of the way over….They were three private soldiers and a stretcher-bearer and their spokesman started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce.”
German and British soldiers fraternising on the Western Front during the Christmas truce.
Scenes like this, nearly all initiated by the Germans, spread quickly to other units between the British and Germans. The British feared that it was a joke, but soon realized that the friendly sentiment was sincere. Josef Wenzl, of the Bavarian reserve Infantry Regiment 16 confirms the story from his point of view as he wrote home a few days after Christmas. He said:
“The British waved to us. Gradually, they came completely out of the trenches, our people ignited a Christmas tree they had brought, put it on the wall (parapet) and with bells ringing…Between the trenches, the hated and bitter opponents meet around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols. This once in a lifetime vision I will not forget.”
Out in the middle of no-man’s-land the soldiers would go onto exchange things like German beer and cigars for British tins of beef, buttons and plum pudding. There was even a documented case of soldiers playing football matches after the British found a ball from behind their trenches. In the Imperial War Museum is a German beer mug believed to be a make shift trophy that was presented by the Germans to a winning English side. Though more importantly, apart from the Christmas cheer, both sides also used the opportunity of the truce to retrieve the bodies of fallen combatants.
This wonderful gesture between British and German soldiers was not restricted to them alone. Along the French and German sectors near Muuhlegg’s, soldiers met in no-man’s-land. In several other sectors, French and Germans participated in competitive Christmas carol singing contests. Also along the Western sector, the Belgians convinced German soldiers to send cards to their families in occupied territories. Amazingly, this cordiality extended in sectors along the Eastern Front too. On Christmas Day in Galicia, Austrian and Russian soldiers reframed from firing at each other. Eventually, with a little bit of encouragement they too met in the middle of no-man’s-land to exchange gifts. On offer was Russian bread and meat for Austrian tobacco and schnapps.
There is no doubt that a truce took place across many sectors on the Western and Eastern Front. However they are some instances recorded where the truce was broken or never in effect. For example, near the French town of Festubert, it is believed that a German sniper fired a single shot that shattered the peace along the Rue De Bois on Christmas morning. While in some other sectors it is believed that the peace likely bypassed some regiments because they were far too professional to even consider fraternising with the enemy ?
In the end the unofficial truce on Christmas Day ended with some reluctance. No one, it seemed, who had participated in the friendly banter was prepared to recommence shooting. In some sectors the truce lasted several days and up to a week in one particular area occupied by the Scots of the 1/6th Gordon Highlanders battalion. An expression of regret was truly felt by some and others also claimed to be fed up by all the fighting. Many also wished that the promises they had made of being “Home by Christmas” was indeed true. In most sectors across the vast theatre of war, the warring parties agreed to recommence fighting at an agreed time. Captain Charles Stockwell of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers remembered how the truce ended in his sector early on December 26th:
“I fired three shots into the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it on the parapet. He [a German] 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 into the air, and the war was on again.”
As news spread back home, across Britain and Europe, through reports and letters of the extraordinary event, newspaper around the world quickly seized on it as the ‘good news’ story of the war. Though, when governments and war leaders on all sides became aware of what had taken place, measures were put in place so that it would not happen again. The following Christmas soldiers on the front lines would not be exchanging gifts but instead cannon fire. Although, it must be said that intermittently some smaller local fraternisation did still break out in the following years.
Notes and Further Reading
“I fired three shots into the air…”, Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce: The Western Front 1914, MacMillan, 2014.
“it has been found impracticable to arrange a Christmas Truce…”, Richard Van Emden, Meeting The Enemy, Bloomsbury, 2013, p.81.
“We heard the Germans singing ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’….”, Richard Van Emden, Meeting The Enemy, Bloomsbury, 2013, p.80.
Max Hastings, Catastrophe, William Collins, 2013.
“At 8.30 am I was looking out and saw four Germans…”, Jon E. Lewis (Ed), A Brief History of the First World War: Eyewitness Accounts of the War to End All Wars, 1914-18, Robinson, 2014, p.72.
Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Photo Credit: The header image is The Illustrated London News’ Illustration of the Cristmas Truce between British and German soldiers. The second image of British and German soldiers fraternising is courtesy of the IWM who own the copyright. It is used under the IWM Non Commercial License.