‘Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.’ Kurt Zehmisch (German Lieutenant of the 134 Saxons Infantry)
It was a remarkable moment of humanity during one of mankind’s darkest hours. A short peace in a dreadful war; a conflict that eventually claimed the lives of 15 million.
On Christmas Eve 1914, a spontaneous truce erupted along lines of the Western Front. German, Belgian, French and British troops came together in No-Man’s Land in the spirit of Christmas to fraternise with one another and even kick a ball about.
The Christmas Truce, as it became known, was well documented in the British and German press at the time, but since then the event has been mythologised to the extent that some even question whether the whole thing ever took place.
Did the Christmas Truce actually happen?
Yes. Thanks to letters sent home from the frontline, soldier's diaries and photographs taken during the event itself, the Christmas Truce of 1914 is 100% fact.
Newspapers as early as 31st December 1914 were carrying headlines talking of a ‘Christmas Truce at the Front’ and published letters detailing the occasion. At first, the general feeling was of disbelief but when photos began to come in from the frontlines the evidence was clear that this event had taken place.
Although photography was discouraged in the trenches, some soldiers still carried personal cameras. Thanks to them, we have a multitude of images captured during the Christmas Truce, showing enemies standing side-by-side and enjoying a small moment of peace during a bloody war.
How did it begin?
One of the most popular sayings at the start of WWI was that the whole thing would be ‘over by Christmas’. As history tells us, this was naïve and wishful thinking, as warfare had taken a deadly mechanised turn.
By December 1914, it was clear that the soldiers on the frontline wouldn’t be home to see their loved ones for the festive period. Living conditions in the trenches were also steadily declining with mud and frost making life quite unbearable for both sides. It’s within this context that we can understand how and why the famous truce came about, as homesick, tired soldiers yearned for relief from their current situation.
With the Allies and German trenches being just 30 yards apart in some places, communication in the form of insults was often hurled across No-Man’s Land. However, on 24th December 1914, the insults were replaced by Christmas carols.
According to most accounts, German soldiers in various places up and down the frontline began singing. In some cases, the Allied soldiers began singing back. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade later documented the scene:
‘First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.’
Singing soon turned to talk as troops began suggesting, 'Come over here' and 'You come half-way. I come half-way'. In other parts of the trenches, signs were held up saying ‘You no shoot, we no shoot’.
On Christmas Day, German and Allied soldiers emerged from their trenches and greeted each other. The truce had begun.
What really happened in No-Man’s Land?
Hands were shaken and gifts of cigarettes, food, clothing and alcohol (even champagne) were exchanged as enemies fraternised in the spirit of Christmas. In one gathering hair was even cut, with one enterprising British soldier charging Germans a few cigarettes for a quick trim.
‘Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!’, recalled British soldier, John Ferguson.
Accounts also detail how many German trenches had been decorated with Christmas trees and adorned with candles.
The truce also allowed both sides to gather and bury their dead with honour. It also gave them the opportunity to repair or bolster up areas of their trenches.
Was there a football match and if so, who won?
Various accounts speak of at least one football appearing during the gatherings. Some suggest it came from the German side, others from the English. Therefore, we know for sure that football was played in No-Man’s Land during the truce.
It wasn’t, however, an organised affair. Described as more of a ‘kickabout’, with one account speaking of up to 200 people involved.
How long did the truce last?
The Christmas Truce varied in different parts of the frontline so in some cases it lasted just the day, whilst in others, it went on until the New Year.
Did everyone take part and what were the numbers?
The simple answer is no. As the truce was not a universal and organised ceasefire, it played out very differently across the Western Front. Some trench sectors saw full-on gatherings, whilst others just a ceasefire to collect the dead. And in some sectors, no ceasefire existed at all, with reports of attempts to fraternise being quite literally shot down.
As for the numbers of those who did take part, we cannot know for sure although it has been claimed that up to and around 100,000 troops may have been involved.
What did military superiors think of the truce?
High command on both sides of the conflict was reportedly horrified by the events.
‘This is only illustrative of the apathetic state we are gradually sinking into,’ wrote British General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien in a confidential memorandum.
A young Corporal on the German side of the trenches had a similar view, ‘Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honour?’ That soldier was Adolf Hitler.
Why didn't it happen again during WWI?
A couple of reasons conspired to prevent this unique coming together of enemies from reoccurring. The first was the high command, who issued orders on both sides to prevent such an event from ever happening again.
The second was the nature of the war itself. The Christmas Truce occurred just a matter of months after the war had broken out. However, as the conflict progressed, so did the ferocity with which it was fought. Artillery and mortar fire ramped up to be an almost constant affair, whilst new horrific weapons were introduced.
As casualties rose, including the lives of civilians, the desire to mingle with the enemy soon dissipated, leaving the Christmas Truce of 1914 to stand alone as a truly unique moment in history.