Peace in the trenches during the Great War
Christmas Eve 1914 found the German, French and English armies in the beginning of trench warfare. The colossal Battle of the Marne had led to the geography of the Western Front that would continue to hold with slight changes through the next years of the war. Soldiers who had thought they would be home for Christmas realized that the war was going to be a long bloody haul.
As the lines stabilized, the front-line soldiers adopted a
live and let live philosophy. Throughout December fraternization between the sides happened sporadically as soldiers would meet to bury the dead and even exchange cigarettes. The coming of Christmas intensified these feelings that transcended the war if only for a few moments. The weather was chilly and slightly overcast. Lights appeared along the German lines, and British troops heard singing. The British soldiers recognized
Stille Nacht (Silent Night), and responded with carols of their own. Some soldiers applauded the singing from the other side. Soon packets of food were lobbed over the battlefield into opposing trenches.
That Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at scattered places along the lines solitary soldiers clambered out under truce flags. Soon clusters of soldiers from both sides appeared and met in no man’s land. Captain Charles Stockwell participated in one such gathering. He heard Germans say,
Don’t shoot. We want to send you some beer. He met a German officer,
Count Something or Other, who seemed to Stockwell
a very decent chap. The soldiers on both sides cheered. Soldiers exchanged food, drinks, and souvenirs.
In many places where the unofficial truce took place soldiers gathered the dead who had been left in no man’s land. They honored their dead together, reading the 23rd Psalm in their various languages. Depending on which history of the Christmas Truce you read, there may have been as many as four soccer matches between men of the two sides—although some reports in 2014 question whether the soccer games were more a matter of mythology than historical fact. One story, often repeated about the truce, claims that a ration tin was used in place of a soccer ball. Another account says a British barber gave German soldiers haircuts.
An estimated 100,000 German, British and some French participated in these informal truces.
In one place along the front on December 26th one British officer fired into the air and raised a flag that said
Merry Christmas. A German officer stood up with a flag that said
Thank you. They bowed to each other, then resumed the war.
In 1915 the high commands of both sides strongly discouraged
fraternizing with the enemy. A few informal Christmas truces were held, but not as extensive as in 1914. Artillery barrages, which were stilled in 1914, were used to discourage truces. By 1916 gas warfare and tanks had been introduced. The brutality of the fighting was so horrific that nobody would risk informal truces again during the war.
Bruce Bairnsfather, a British solider who participated in the Christmas Truce said,
I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. Henry Williamson, who later became a writer but was a 19-year old private at the time, wrote his mother while smoking a pipe of German tobacco:
Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvelous, isn’t it?
To commemorate the Christmas Truce this year the English Premier League has constructed a football (soccer) pitch in Ypres near the border of Belgium and France. The Premier League, working with leagues from Germany, Belgium, and France, established an educational program about peace and soccer for 12 year olds.
More on the Christmas Truce
Have you heard about the controversial new short film about the Christmas Truce, produced as an advertisement for the Sainsbury’s chain of stores in the UK? Stephanie Fenton’s Holidays and Festivals column has more—and she also includes links to reviews of feature films about WWI.