The World Wars

The World War i Christmas Truce of 1914

Mark Hopkins's image for:
"The World War i Christmas Truce of 1914"
Image by: 

The Christmas truce of 1914 was one of the most poignant events in a war unsurpassed in the horror and misery it inflicted upon its soldiery. By Fall of 1914 the Germans' Schlieffen Plan had failed in its objective of knocking the French out of the war by capturing Paris. The steamroller advance of the German infantry had finally been halted on the banks of the river Marne by French, British and Belgian forces. With neither side able to push forward, both sides had begun the lines of trench fortifications which were to become the hallmark of the struggle on the Western Front. Far from being 'over by Christmas' as experts had confidently predicted, the nightmare was just beginning.

On the eve of Christmas 1914 the British commander in France, Sir John French, sent the following order to each unit. ''It is thought possible that the enemy may be contemplating an attack during Xmas or the New Year. Special vigilance will be maintained during these periods.''

What followed was a remarkable testament to the humanity of the combatants on both sides, most of whom were destined to die before their countries' leaders made peace. In many places along the front line the forward trenches of the two sides were less than 100 yards apart. It was common to be able to hear 'the enemy' in the lulls between shelling and gunfire. As Christmas eve grew dark, at many points along the front line troops shouted messages to each other. In one part, the Germans sang carols, including 'Stille nacht' known to the British as 'Silent night'. The British responded with 'Oh come, all ye faithful' which the Germans joined in with using the words to 'Adeste Fideles'. In other parts of the front line ordinary soldiers exchanged suggestions to not shoot on Christmas Day.

On Christmas Day itself, along extensive lengths of the British-German front and in some parts of the French and Belgian-German front, men climbed out of their trenches to meet in no mans land. In some places jumior officers from both sides met to formalize the temporary ceasefires. Eye witnesses from the 6th Gordon Highlanders tell that both sides handed over the dead for burial. A Church Service was held in English, translated into German, and attended by soldiers from both sides. Coins, buttons and pipes were exchanged. British bully beef (canned corned beef) and jam (jelly) was exchanged for sausages and chocolate. British rum was swapped for wine and cognac, plum puddings for German beer. German barbers shaved British troops out in no mans land. In this instance the truce lasted from Christmas Day to January 3rd 1915. Both sides kept watch for Staff Officers from HQ and if any appeared began shooting, aiming high though, to make it appear as if it was business as usual. The truce ended by agreement one hour after the last meeting of officers of both sides.

In other sections of the front line the duration of the truce was less. Near Armentieres, around the Frelingen-Houplines sector, a football (soccer) match was certainly played out in no mans land between the Seaforth Highlanders and the 133 Royal Saxon Regiment. A German eyewitness was Leutnant Johannes Niemann, who recorded that the Germans won by 3 goals to 2. Other games were almost certainly played elsewhere.

The Truce had a marked impact on those involved. A British soldier wrote home, ''Just you think, that while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before. It was astounding!'' A German wrote, ''It was a day of peace in war. It is only a pity that it was not a decisive peace.'' Contrary to what many suppose, the Truce was not 'hushed up'. Many soldiers wrote home about it and the newspapers in Britain were full of it by the New Year. German papers also published accounts, to a lesser extent.

Truces were not unknown in war. During the Civil War, which was bloody in the extreme, it was not unknown for Confederate and Union forces to fish peaceably from opposite sides of the same river. In the Crimean War, British, French and Russian troops at times met and drank together. As far back as the Peninsula War of the early 1800s, British and French troops fraternized at times in between the fighting, sometimes drawing water from the same wells. However, it does seem that commanders were not happy with the 1914 Truce and made sure that there was no large scale repetition in subsequent years. The ability of ordinary soldiers to 'get along' was not in line with the official need to 'hate your enemy'.

More about this author: Mark Hopkins

From Around the Web