The Christmas Truce of WWI was an important event during the war as it demonstrated the soldier’s ability to find a way to put aside their differences in politics, ideology, and allegiance to nation and come together as human beings. Thousands of men along both sides of the Western Front laid down their arms in a temporary truce for the spirit of Christmas. However, centuries of this story being told over and over again have sanded down the edges of what actually happened.
There were a multitude of reasons that led to the Christmas truce, and while human spirit was a major factor, there were plenty of other things that created the spontaneous peace across No Man’s Land. Soldiers on patrol would sometimes look the other way when an opposing scout or patrolmen was insight, to look out for their own safety as well as endorsing a “live and let live” attitude. Often times, both sides would eat at the same times every day which created an unofficial cease fire. The high water tables in Flanders, a region in northern France and Belgium, caused trenches to flood and sometimes even collapse. Winter was also the biggest enemy of both sides in the European Winter of 1914.
German officers were making early success in the war, while British officers were upset over the ‘softening morale’ of the men. The Great War had been going on now for five months and was not as glorious as many soldiers had imagined it being. It would also not be over for quite some time. Both sides were painfully aware that for many of their soldiers this was their first Christmas away from home; so the officers tried to bring the holiday to battlefield. Thousands of presents were shipped to the front lines, on both sides, including: cigars, cigarettes, beer, cheeses, chocolates, clothing, and letters from home. As welcome as these presents were, they eventually became a nuisance due of the nature of there not being a lot of room in the trenches.
The biggest gift of all however was that on December 24, 1914 the inclement weather had stopped and the trenches began to dry out and freeze over. Many regiments on both sides of the Western Front stopped firing. The Germans began to decorate their trenches and some even began singing. Not to be outdone, English soldiers began singing Christmas carols and hymns. Eventually the two sides began to harmonize and some even shouted Christmas greetings across the battlefield. Soon small groups of officers and soldiers began breaking the line to offer Christmas salutations and a one day truce offering, in the spirt of the holiday.
While this Christmas truce was a triumph of human spirit, the sentiment was not felt all across the trenches. It is reported that one British responded to a group of Germans caroling with machine gun fire. The truce was also mainly between German and English units; French and Belgium forces refused, because their homelands had been invaded by Germany at the beginning of the war. Both sides agreed to a cease-fire long enough to allow for the burial of their dead, but that was about it. English-Indian troops did not understand all of the nuances of the Christmas spirit, but many of them began to long for their holiday: Diwali. Many of them were met with the same compassion and charitable spirit by participating German soldiers as they shared cigars and cigarettes along with laughter.
On the morning of Christmas Day, British soldiers awoke to find German soldiers walking around their parapets unarmed; a feat that was suicidal, especially during the day. This act of trust caused many British troops to once again lay down their arms and greet the other side. Many soldiers helped bury the dead of both sides and grieved with each other. Both sides continued to share and exchange food, gifts, and other surplus commodities. Some sections of the trenches even played football across No Man’s Land. Many officers that decided to partake in the truce would sit down and discuss the war with opposing officers. It is documented that many of them were perplexed about each other’s motives, as both sides believed that they were fighting for freedom.
Not every act of the Christmas truce was made with good will. Both sides had agents that repaired their trenches along with agents that would inspect the other side’s trenches for weaknesses. There are even accounts of some soldiers trying to kill members of the other side during the armistice. Some sectors were able to hold their truce until New Year’s Eve. However, this mostly peaceful and compassionate time came to an end. Many sections of the Western Front reignited the war by having officers from both sides fire their service pistols into the air.
It is understood that the top-brass on both sides were not happy at all about the Christmas truce. German forces tried to dispatch snipers to disrupt the peace and French generals ordered artillery barrages. In order to keep anything like this from happening again the following Christmas, British forces ordered a twenty-four hour barrage of heavy artillery fire. Soldiers on either side that tried to organize a new truce were court-marshalled. It is unlikely that truce would have held again anyway due to evolving circumstances with the war. In December of 1914 the war had only been going on for five months. By 1915 chemical warfare had been introduced and many soldiers had experienced gas bombs, the most noteworthy being Chlorine gas. Zeppelins had also been utilized to bomb London and other major cities. Many of the soldiers that participated in the original truce of 1914 died through the course of the following year, and would never see another Christmas.
We all fight our own wars of ideology and belief every day. But this Christmas season I would invite you to extend a truce to someone. You may be met with continued hostility, or you may be met with the same compassionate attitude. Christmas is a time of giving and peace. Family holidays can be rough but we owe it to ourselves to try to get along, at least for one day. You may discover that you have more in common with each other than you think, and that you just have different ideas on how to get to the same outcome; just like the Germans and the English.