THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914: A SPARK OF HOPE IN WAR
World War 1, also referred to as the Great War or the war to end all wars, was a global conflict which lasted from 1914 to 1918, and is now regarded as one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. It resulted in the estimated deaths of nine million soldiers in combat, 5 million civilians due to hunger, disease and military action, and the wounding of 23 million people. When it ended, it left nothing but a trail of blood, despair, and helplessness in its wake.
However, just five months after the First World War began, a strange phenomenon began to take place that made soldiers and civilians question the purpose of the conflict altogether. Widespread unofficial ceasefires began to emerge along the Western Front of the First World War in the week leading up to 25th December. British, French and German soldiers, despite the encroaching threat of war, despite the fact that they were facing people who were meant to be their enemies, crossed trenches to exchange informal greetings and conversations with each other. Occasionally, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial creations and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol singing. These spontaneous, impromptu celebrations are now known as the Christmas Truce of 1914. The Truce was a brief spark of hope in the deadly fires of war, but it left a radiant impact on all those who partook in it.
There had been several previous pleas for peace. The Open Christmas Letter, signed by 101 British women and responded to by 155 German women, wished for “Pity and Peace and Love among the good and free”. Pope Benedict XV begged the warring governments to come to an official truce towards the end of 1914, desperately hoping that “the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”. These individual initiatives, regardless of their unsuccessful outcomes, perhaps reflected the yearning for harmony that was present in the hearts of the soldiers, leading to the astonishing truce that was soon to come.
In the frontlines, bad weather was a prominent cause for brief, unexpected truces, as they caused the trenches to flood and enabled mutual cooperation until the weather had subsided. Another potential cause was the proximity of the trench lines, which made it easy for soldiers to shout greetings to each other, and was the most common method of arranging informal truces. Men would frequently exchange greetings or news, aided by a common language, and discussions could be as cavalier as the weather or romantic messages for their sweethearts. Many accounts of the truces also recollect impromptu football matches played in no-man’s land, invoking a spirit of friendly rivalry rather than horrifying violence.
Truces between British and German units perhaps began as early as November 1914, just after the war of manoeuvre ended and the no-man’s land was strewn with corpses. Quiet began to descend across the battlefields, and while collecting their rations from the frontlines after dusk, soldiers on both sides noticed a period of mutual peace and affability. By 1st December, a British soldier recorded an amiable visit from a German sergeant one morning ‘“to see how we were getting on.’’. Relations between the French and the Germans were generally tenser, but the same phenomenon began to emerge. A German surgeon recorded a half-hour truce between soldiers each evening to recover the dead bodies of their comrades for a proper burial, and a regular exchange of newspapers during that time.
Several commanding officers heavily disapproved of this: Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle was deeply vexed by the ‘’lamentable’’ desire of French soldiers to leave their enemy in peace, and Adolf Hitler, who was a corporal at the time, viewed it with deep contempt, claiming that “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor left at all?”. Despite these stark objections, mutual camaraderie persisted.
One unusual phenomenon that developed across the month of December was a vibrant emphasis on music. In peaceful areas, it was not uncommon for units to sing in the evenings, often to entertain each other in harmonious coordination. This soon transformed into an inclination for more festive activities. In early December, Sir Edward Hulse of Scotland wrote that he wished to organise a concert party for Christmas day, which would “give the enemy every conceivable form of song in harmony’’.
As Christmas day drew closer, the Germans placed candles on their trenches, set up Christmas trees, and began singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. Soon, artillery stopped completely and there were excursions across no man’s land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, alcohol, and souvenirs such as hats and buttons. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night and continued till New Year’s Day.
Henry Wiilliamson, a nineteen-year-old boy in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother in disbelieving joy: “Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches … In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary … In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh, dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes, a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met and shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”
The Christmas Truce was not the only temporary truce of World War I, it was not universally followed across all regions at the time, and an attempted follow-up the next Christmas met with failure. Despite this, it remained vividly embedded in the minds and hearts of soldiers and civilians alike as one of the few moments of radiant peace in an otherwise brutal and bloody war.
The Christmas Truce can be interpreted as part of the extensive spirit of non-cooperation with the war. Tony Ashworth, in his book on trench warfare, believed that local truces often began with the agreement not to harm each other during specific instances, often extending for long periods of time. This Truce, despite its varying levels of intensity across different areas, is therefore probably the most vibrant and celebrated example of a pattern of strikes, mutinies and peace protests that continued throughout the war, which “gave soldiers some control over the conditions of their existence.”
But it went further than that. More than 100,000 people participated in the Christmas Truce of 1914, each and every one of them engaging deeply and passionately with the spirit of “live and yet live”. For a brief period of time, borders and alliances vanished as people came face to face with their common desire for peace. Despite the horror of the trenches and looming threat of war, humanity broke in through the cracks and hope burned bright amid despair.As Alfred Anderson, last surviving Scottish veteran of the Great War, recalled: “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”