Christmas Eve, 1914
“It must have been sad do you say? Well I am not sorry to have spent it there and the recollection of it will ever be one of imperishable beauty. At midnight a baritone stood up and in a rich resonant voice sang, Minuit Chretiens. The cannonade ceased and when the hymn finished applause broke out from our side and from the German trenches! The Germans were celebrating Christmas too and we could hear them singing two hundred yards from us. Now I am going to tell you something which you will think incredible but I give you my word that it is true. At dawn the Germans displayed a placard over the trenches on which was written Happy Christmas then, leaving their trenches, unarmed they advanced towards us singing and shouting “comrades!”. No one fired. We also had left our trenches and separated from each other only by the half frozen Yser, we exchanged presents. They gave us cigars and we threw them some chocolate. Thus almost fraternizing we passed the morning. Unlikely indeed, but true. I saw it but thought I was dreaming.” -Letter from a Belgian soldier printed in The Times, 1915
World War I began in July of 1914 with the expectation on both sides that it would be a quick victory. Over the course of 51 months the war would bring a devastating death toll of 15 to 19 million soldiers and civilians. This tragic event would practically destroy a whole generation and cause much pain to the families that had to endure. It is easy to remember the death and destruction this war brought, but it is also just as important to remember the positive points. There were moments that showed there was still hope, kindness, and generosity despite differences. In the spirit of Christmas, I wanted to dive into the unusual occasion of the Christmas Eve truce in 1914. This was truly brought on by the common soldier and the truce itself was unofficial and spontaneous. The men found that despite the death, destruction and bad feelings that had surrounded them since the summer; they could take the opportunity to still share a common experience with their enemy. It seems unbelievable to us now (and definitely to the soldiers then) that Christmas Carols were sung with their enemies. These were the same enemies that had fired shoots at them the day before. This is the story and experience of the Christmas Truce 1914.
Trench warfare was the most common tactic during World War I, yet it was a technique that really only gained inches of territory. For the soldiers on both sides, life in the trenches was traumatizing. Not only were the physical conditions absolutely disgusting (the constant stench and wetness, rats, mud, disease, etc.), but the toll on the soldiers mental health was detrimental. Living in the trenches caused extreme boredom and to fill this void one’s anxiety would kick in. Daily, the soldiers spent most of their time sitting and worrying about when the next fight was going to happen. The attitude became acceptance that each soldier was going to die here in the mud. They just existed for now, but knew a day would come when a bullet would have their name on it. It turns out that disease killed even more soldiers due to the conditions on the front. It was not just the constant wetness and rats, but also the bodies of the soldiers who had already passed on. Some were buried in the sides of trenches and others remained out in “no man’s land” for days on end. These conditions definitely had an impact on why this truce was so appealing.
During this first Christmas season of the war, the governments on both sides attempted to bring some cheer to their men fighting at the front. During the Boer War in 1899, Queen Victoria dispersed brass tins filled with chocolate all enclosed under the profile of their Queen, the symbol of Britannia, which served as a reminder of what they were fighting for. In 1914, gifts were shipped to their soldiers in the name of Princess Mary. This contained cigarettes, a pipe, tobacco, and a “personalized” note in the Kings handwriting that stated, “may God protect you and bring you home safe.” The German side received similar packages (known as the Kaiserliche), which included either a pipe with Prince Friedrich Wilhelm printed on it or a box of cigars. Many probably enjoyed these gifts, as they felt acknowledgment by their monarch and a renewal of patriotic spirit. But, some felt these were a waste of time, Major J.D. Jeffrey’s stated, [it was] “rather ridiculous to hold up rations and ammunition when, after all, our first business is to beat the Germans. Our enemy thinks of war and nothing else, whilst we must mix it up with plum puddings” (Weintraub, pg 17).
Yet, the Germans did not just think solely of war and the troops on both sides were to experience a different side to their enemies.
“Climbing the parapet, I saw a sight which I shall remember to my dying day. Right along the whole of their line were hung paper lanterns and illuminations of every description, many of them in such positions as to suggest they were hung upon Christmas trees.” (Sergt A Lovell, A Company, 3rd Rifle Brigade, http://www.christmastruce.co.uk).
As described above, the soldiers were witnessing lights flicker across no man’s land. The Germans had taken it upon themselves to either carry literal Christmas trees or lights (such as lanterns or candles) that illuminated their whole line.
Just imagine the scene. It would have been just after dark on Christmas Eve and the soldiers are cold and miserable in the trenches. The constant worry about when the next shot would fire haunted their thoughts. They are missing their families on this first Christmas away. Then, hearing Christmas carols, they would look up across the dead zone and notice beautiful lights. Albert Moren of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment would report that “there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and then there were those lights–I don’t know what they were. And then they sang “Silent Night”–”Stille Nacht” I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life.” It seems that it was more important to the German troops to keep the traditions of Christmas alive despite the war (possibly for religious tradition) and they showed no fear as they sang loudly and used lights that illuminated their position. Amazingly, in most sectors the British soldiers would also begin to participate in the German’s concert. They responded through song, applause, and cries for an encore. Friendly competition would spawn from this; who could sing the best and loudest? The Germans would call out, “ A Happy Christmas to you, Englishmen!” and the British would respond in turn (Weintraub, pg 50).
It was actually the German side who brought forth the idea of the truce in the first place. There are many accounts that state the Germans beckoned the British soldiers over with suggestions of a ceasefire. Lance-Corporal Henderson, of the Royal Engineers remembered:
“To our surprise, as soon as we could see across the German lines we perceived dozens of the enemy on and about their parapet; they were shouting and waving for some of us to go over. Some of them could speak broken English, and were shouting “we no shoot, and no work to-day”. We had got the order not to fire unless the Germans started, and from day-break on Christmas morning up till late on Boxing Day not a shot was fired by either side. Towards 8.30 a.m. two German soldiers came up within 50 yards of our lines, and kept on shouting “no fire, no work”. They came up without rifles or equipment” (www.christmastruce.co.uk)
Despite the language barrier between the two sides, soldiers would walk across the dangerous no man’s land and meet together to talk, give well wishes for the season, and trade items. Weintraub quotes a soldier, Frank Richards, who had set up a “Merry Christmas” sign pointed towards the German side. He was testing how the Germans were going to react, but the expected gunfire never happened. Richards and his comrades decided to cross no man’s land and meet with the Germans. They met and shook hands, to the fury of their commanders, but there was nothing that could stop the young men.
“A German started to walk down the tow-path towards our lines and Ike Sawyer went to meet him. The Germans handed over a box of cigars. Later the Germans came boldly out of their trenches, but our men were forbidden to leave ours, so they threw tins of bully and plum and apple jam.” -Frank Richards 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers
Food exchanges were very common during the truce. Captain Stockwell recalled trading plum pudding for beer with the Germans who crossed no man’s land to meet with them.
“Me and the five German officers and a barrel of beer in no man’s land…He said “You had better take the beer, we have lots”…We had lots of plum puddings so I sent for one and formally exchanged it for the beer. He then called out “Waiter,” and a German private whipped out six glasses and two bottles of beer, and with much bowing and saluting, we solemnly drank it, amid cheers from both sides. We then all formally saluted and returned to our lines. Our men had sing songs, ditto the enemy” (Weintraub, pg 108).
Besides beer and plum pudding, other common food trades included different meats, sauerkraut, cakes, and jams. Cigarettes and cigars were also common. All of this barter depended on the sides supply and what goods they had access too.
The truce gave the soldiers the opportunity to barter for souvenirs. Every soldier wanted to bring home something to prove that they had met the enemy. Some of the most popular trades included uniform buttons, belt buckles, and other uniform accessories. Some of the most prized trades for the British was obtaining a German Pickelhaube or the German uniform belt. Even autographs were traded. It would become a momento to remember the significance of this Christmas and the new friend they had made. A Maryport private wrote, “On Christmas Day after service in the trenches, we went halfway and we shook hands, and had a fine crack with them. Quite a number of them speak English. I got one’s autograph and he got mine, and I exchanged a button with another, and exchanged cigs and go cigars galore. Altogether we spent a pleasant two hours with them, and found them to be a nice lot of fellows” (www.christmastruce.co.uk). Despite leaderships attempts to stop this fraternization, they were unable to control it. On that Christmas day the men spent time eating and making merry with their German counterparts.
Many of the Germans had worked in England for a time, so English was a way the two sides communicated. Some of the Germans even had family that were still living in England and used the truce to get into contact with their loved ones.
“Finally, they [The Germans] got a man out of the trenches who had lived for some years in America, and he acted as interpreter. the officers were little more than boys, and one of them had already been wounded. They were intensely polite, and there was any amount of clicking of heels. The soldiers all seemed rather young, but they did not appear very despondent or underfed. One man informed us that they had been told that Russia had been defeated and that the war would be over in three weeks.
Another begged an officer on our side to send him photograph to his sister, who lives in Liverpool. I know that is true, because the officer showed me the photo. Seems a strange idea to take a stock of one’s photos on active service, but there you are! One thing we did notice was that some of them were shy of uniforms, but that may have been merely owing to the fact that they were in the trenches and trying to save their uniforms. The Germans were all for the truce lasting for 48 hours, but we stuck out for midnight on Christmas” (The Times, christmastruce.co.uk)
To the soldiers on the front the truce was held for a more important reason than just play. When the sun rose on that Christmas Day, it was clear to see the carnage that lay across the field of no man’s land. These bodies had been laying there for days after the last battle and were badly decomposing. It was believed that they would never be recovered as everyone knew that venturing out into no man’s land was certain death. The Christmas Truce was used to negotiate the time to bury their dead respectfully. Both sides agreed to no firing and using the day to properly lay to rest their soldiers. On Christmas day, men on both ends of the spectrum took up shovels.
“On Christmas Eve it froze hard, and Christmas day dawned on an appropriately sparkling landscape. The dead on both sides had been lying out in the open since the fierce night fighting of a week earlier. When I got out I found a large crowd of officers and men, English and German, grouped around the bodies, which had already been gathered together and laid out in rows. It was a ghastly sight. The digging parties were busy on the two big common graves, but the ground was hard and the work was slow and laborious. In the intervals of superintending it we chatted with the Germans, most of whom were quite affable. The digging completed, the graves were filled in, and the German officers remained to pay their tribute of respect while our chaplain read a short service. It was one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed. Friend and foe stood side by side, bare-headed, watching tall, grave figure of the padre outlined against the frosty landscape as he blessed the poor broken bodies at his feet. Then with more formal salutes we turned and made our way back to our respective ruts.” (Letter posted in the Essex Chronicle 1915, http://www.christmastruce.co.uk).
It is amazing to see that both sides respected the losses and even helped each other out in the burial and service for the deceased. These were men who were just shooting at each other the other day, yet on Christmas they had empathy for each other. In this event it seems to become clear that they both were going through the same struggles and dying for a war they they truly did not know what they were fighting for. This is one of the more sad, but beautiful parts of the truce in 1914.
The most common story from the Christmas truce was the infamous football (soccer) match between the Germans and the British troops. In most cases football was played amongst those of the same side, but there were a few cases of enemy vs. enemy. Most accounts highlighted the game that was played between the 133rd Royal Saxons (German) and the Scottish troops. Lieutenant Johannes Niemann (served in the 133rd Royal Saxons) remembered: “Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goal with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact it only lasted an hour and we had no referee. A great many passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm” (Smithsonian Magazine). Supposedly, the game ended 3-2 (Saxons) with other accounts from soldiers on the British side along with publication in The Times, but it is not known for sure. The football match was so legendary that there were many fictionalized stories written about it. Niemann’s account is likely the most accurate. He continued to write about his Scottish opponents and received an interesting culture shock, “Us Germans roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts-and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of one posterior belonging to one of “yesterday’s enemies.” But, after an hours play, when our Commanding Officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it.”
Leadership and officers, in general, did not like the idea of this truce. This was common to see on both sides of no man’s land. First, it was something that was out of their control; the whole truce was organized and put into practice by the men. Nothing had come from the command side to condon such actions. In some cases orders were just ignored. Second, the idea of fraternization with the enemy was appalling to leadership. It could be seen to take away the soldiers focus from the important matter at hand, winning the war. The men could not be off making friends with their enemies, which could affect their ability to shoot to kill the next day. In Germany, the Taegliche Rundschau published, “War is no sport and we are sorry to say that those who made these overtures , or took part in them, did not clearly understand the gravity of the situation” (www.christmastruce.co.uk). The journal went on to announce that an Army Order was issued that forbid any future fraternization and those who broke this order would be charged with high treason. This was not just the German side though, as British leadership also took steps to ensure this truce would not be repeated in the future. It worked because there was never again a truce until the end of the war in 1918.
Despite the opinion from high command, the people at home were extremely interested. The newspapers were frequently publishing articles about the unusual and astonishing cease fire. They would publish letters that were sent in from loved ones, so everyone could hear firsthand what had happened. Was this done to give the families comfort that their loved ones at the front spent a peaceful Christmas? It is important to note that while the Christmas truce was very spontaneous and spread far, it was not completely universal. There are reports of fighting in other sectors during the holidays, especially in the French and Russian sectors. For the most part, the truce took place between the British and the Germans.
Naturally, the fighting did not end with the truce of 1914, as the war would go on for four more years before ending in November of 1918. Yet, this unofficial event brought light in a time of great darkness. It was important and, for the men who survived to the end the of war, it would not be forgotten. This event was a contradiction to all the hate that had spread throughout the war. It shows that the common soldier out on the front line everyday did not hold hatred in their hearts. All were experiencing the same conditions and dangers. There was sympathy for their fellow soldiers, no matter what side. It was understood that they were all are doing what they had to do because society was telling them that this was their duty. It was their duty to fight and win the war. This event really shows a disconnect between the common soldier and the leadership. The men are fighting a war where the true purpose is unclear, all they know is that their country needs them. They are not invested in the need for power, yet continue to die for it. This event shows what happened when the common soldier truly took matters into their own hands. They used the Christmas season for what is symbolized, a time of peace and joy. They shared, communicated, laughed and forgave their enemies. It was as joyful Christmas season as they could have had despite being forced apart from their loved ones. This was such an interesting event to research and it truly shows the goodness that is in the world even through times of darkness.
Merry Christmas everyone! I am looking forward to creating more history posts for you in 2019!
Food for Thought:
Why do you think the Christmas truce began? Why did it not continue in the following years?
Do you think the Christmas truce could have ended the war?
Featured photo depicts the sculpture, “All Together Now” by artist Andrew Edwards. Located in Liverpool.
Silent night : the remarkable Christmas truce of 1914 by Stanley Weintraub
http://www.christmastruce.co.uk (a collection of letters from the front all describing the events of the truce)
History Channel’s Life in A Trench| World War I| History https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_G4ZY66BG38
If you are interested in photos and the myths surrounding the truce visit stevensmith1944.wordpress.com as he has a good article discussing this topic.
Please note that most of the photos used are more for illustration purposes, but are not actually from Christmas of 1914.