With the war raging for months the men in the trenches take a moment around the holidays to stop trying to kill each other and instead celebrate the Christian holidays in style. Ceasefires, truces, and fraternization abound in No Man’s Land for at least a few days.
Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 18, which just so happens to be our Christmas special. In 1914 the European countries participating in the war celebrated Christmas just as they do today. There were several different flavors of Christianity in Europe at this time, but they all had Christmas celebrations. Christmas 1914 came at an interesting time for the soldiers at the front, we will therefore start with discussing a bit about the lives of the soldiers at the front in December 1914 before we move into the Christmas truce. The truces that occurred along the lines were not official, they weren’t ordered by officers, but were instead instigated by the average soldiers on the front line. This from-the-bottom-up action resulted in the truces achieving a mythological quality that has been emphasized by the only primary sources being those of diaries and journals from the soldiers and not through official documents and records like most actions during the war. The truces did not occur along the entire front, it was mostly the German and English troops participating in the truces with some cases elsewhere on the Western front and a few reported truces happening in Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia. Most of the first hand accounts available though focus on the Western Front and specifically the interactions had between the hundreds, and maybe thousands, of German and English soldiers in Northern France and Belgium. Many of the accounts that we have were scribbled in diaries and journals at the front or written long afterwards when the temptation for exaggeration and the tendency to misremember comes into play.
December 1914 was 5 months after the beginning of the war and at this point in time the war was very different than what it was when it started. Soldiers on all sides who had believed that the war would be over in a few weeks found themselves unprepared for the realities of a long lasting conflict in the cold and mud. From the highest general to the newest private a sinking realization was present that the war wouldn’t be over soon, that they would be fighting for awhile. After 5 months of fighting on the Western Front the German and British forces had settled into poorly constructed trenches, which had a tendency to collapse during heavy rainfall, with a no man’s land between them that contained the results of previous attacks and raids, dead decaying bodies. These trenches were sometimes less than 100 meters apart. There are reports of the soldiers communicating with each other by shouting back and forth, often mocking shouts or crude jokes. There is also a change for who was in the trenches. This was especially true for the British soldiers now coming into the trenches. With the casualties experienced during the opening months of the war the British were having to scrape very deeply into the reserve pools back home which found a lot of long time reservists coming into the front line. These soldiers were often older, having been out of active service for years, and they often had families of their own back in Britain. In his book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins considers these older reservists a critical part of the truce. As a person in my mid twenties myself, the age of many of these new soldiers, when I look back at how my mindset has changed in the last few years I can’t help but to agree with Eksteins. In five years, especially for young men from the age of 18 to the age of 23 priorities in life can shift drastically.
The approach of the holiday season did not go without event for all of the armies. As the holiday approached Pope Benedict XV asked all of the nations to suspend hostilities for the holidays as a show of respect for their sacredness. Unfortunately something like this suspension never would have been possible because every side thought that the other would try to gain an advantage during the truce. Soldiers at the front were also getting a lot of packages from back home. Massive amounts of gifts poured in from the families, friends, and charitable organizations from all of the countries. The leaders would often try to get in on the gifting as well with King George V sending a Christmas card to every soldier, Princess Mary sending a gift box with goodies, and the Kaiser who sent a meerschaum pipe for soldiers and cigars to the officers. These gifts coupled with all of the other gifts flowing into the trenches gave the season a different atmosphere than what had been the norm in the previous weeks. As the holiday came ever closer more unique things began to happen. By the 23rd of December both sides were recorded as hearing the other singing hymns in the trenches. German troops were known to bring Christmas trees into the trenches and place them up above the trenches for both sides to see. December had been a very wet month but on Christmas eve the weather became a bit better with clear skies and a large drop in temperature which meant a freezing, frost covered, landscape for Christmas.
The first question I had when I first heard about the Christmas truce was how exactly did it start. These guys are on a battlefield where there is almost daily fighting and dieing and in that environment they had to somehow get a message across to the other side, without getting killed and then the other side had to trust them enough to believe that they actually wanted a truce. So what I found was the answer to my question is that when you are on a world war 1 battlefield in 1914 and you want a truce, you pretty much just go ask for one. Gervais Morillon, who was 20 years old in 1914 would write “The Boches waved a white flag and shouted Kamerades, Kamerades, rendez-vous” When we didn’t move they came towards us unarmed, led by an officer.” A French officer would say “On Christmas day the Boches made a sign showing they wished to speek to us. They said they didn’t want to shoot…They were tired of making war, they were married like me, they didn’t have any differences with the French but with English.” Captain Sir Edward Hulse would write that Four unarmed Germans approached at about 8.30 and we went out to meet them “Their spokemen, started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce.” In other areas the Germans are recorded to just come out of their trenches and begin walking across no man’s land singing Christmas carols. Regardless of how exactly the truces were initiated some of them were arranged on Christmas Eve and some on Christmas day. Some of the truces were quite formal affairs with agreed upon begin and end times while others were more spontaneous and informal.
The next question after how the truces were arranged, is what exactly was agreed upon. The agreement between the two sides of course varied from area to area, just like everything else, but the one thing that was pretty constant was the desire to bury the dead that was lying between the lines. With fighting happening for weeks on end the number of dead bodies all along the front continued to grow without a good way to take care of it. With constant fighting there was never time for the troops on both sides to go out and collect their dead for a proper burial. This was a problem for a few reasons, chief among them was the fact that all of the dead started to decompose and smell and also just the psychological affect it had on both sides. The men who had died were people’s friends and comrades, seeing them out in between the lines with no way to properly pay respects weighed down upon the men of both sides. So the first thing that was done by both sides during the truce was to go out and begin to collect the dead. After this burial truce was over sometimes the celebrations would begin and sometimes the truce would be over, sort of just depended on the men in the area.
I have mentioned several times that the truces didn’t happen, or were different, depending on where the troops were on the front line. The first thing that reduced the number of truces was who exactly was on that spot in the front. The French and Belgian troops were far less likely to agree to a truce with the Germans. This is understandable due to the fact that for both of these troops huge chunks of their countries were in enemy hands. Even when German and French truces did occur there was much less trust between the sides and the peace was far more likely to end right after the burying of the dead was completed. In the instances of a truce the French and German troops often recorded being a bit shocked at how human the other side seemed. Often these troops were fed stories of the monsters on the other side and when the men proved to be a lot like them, it was sometimes a shock. Another thing that affected the chance of a truce was where the German troops called home. Remember how we talked about Germany had only very recently unified itself into one country? Well there were still a lot of regional differences in the troops. There was often a much greater chance of a truce between the British and the Saxons instead of the British and the Prussians for instance. Some British soldiers even call it out in their writing, citing the differences between the two, with the Saxons being called gentleman, and “jolly good chaps.”
A lot of the traditions around the holidays begin on Christmas Eve, and so it was in 1914 as well. In many places along the front the German and British soldiers began to sing Christmas carols to each other on Christmas eve and on some parts of the line the British also were pretty sure they heard some brass bands playing on the German side with very happy singing going along with it. There is a story of a German soldier named Carl Muhlegg who walked nine miles to the town of Comines to purchase a Christmas Tree for his unit. The unit then lit candles on the tree while wishing peace to the world. Muhlegg’s area of the front was one of the few where French and German troops got together. In other places the truce was catalyzed by Germans receiving miniature Christmas Trees, called Tanenbaums, in the front line. These were often decorated with candles and then placed upon the top of the German trenches. On the 24th in one of the few recorded instances of Belgian and German cooperation Belgian troops talked with Germans across the Yser canal. They even persuaded some of them to send Christmas letters to Belgian family members that were trapped behind the German line. In one British Daily Telegraph article the story is told that a German chocolate cake somehow managed to find its way into the British lines with a note asking for a ceasefire on the night of the 24th to celebrate the season, as well as their Captain’s birthday. The proposal included a time for the ceasefire, 7:30pm, to be accompanied by candles lit on top of the trenches and a concert of classical Christmas music to be played by the unit’s band.
While troops were in the front line troops behind the line were attending church services all along the front. Usually these services were accompanied by some form of Christmas dinner, often eaten in barns and billet houses. While this was occurring truces that had begun the night before continued, and new truces appeared. In Galicia the Austrian and Russian troops were ordered not to fire unless provoked, on a front where so many men had died both sides seemed to like this idea quite a bit and followed these orders to the letter. There are some instances of Austrian and Russian troops meeting between the lines and exchanging Austrian tobacco and schnapps for Russian bread and meat. On the Western front as Christmas day dawned there were singing competitions between the trenches with all kinds of music, not just constrained to Christmas tunes, sang between the armies. Many accounts say that “O Come All Ye Faithful” was the favorite of the armies. A British officer would say of the German troops across from him on Christmas “The Germans opposite us were awfully decent fellows–Saxons, intelligent, respectable-looking men. I had a quite decent talk with three or four and have two names and addresses in my notebook. After our talk I really think a lot of our newspaper reports must be horribly exaggerated.” This in reference to the stories being printed almost daily in British papers of the horrors of the demon German soldiers that were killing women and children indiscriminately. There are many stories like those of C H Brazier who speaks of the German and British troops arranging exchanges of goods on Christmas Eve and Day with cigarettes and sweets going one way and wine and cigars going the other. Brazier would then say of the Germans “I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir.” An article published all over Britain the following days would quote a British soldier as saying “Their trenches were ablaze of Christmas trees, and our sentries were regaled for hours with the traditional Christmas songs of the Fatherland. Their officers even expressed annoyance the next day that some of these trees had been fired on, insisting they were almost part of the sacred rite.” This type of story is even more common than the ones where soldiers got out and met each other in No Man’s Land, or even got together and buried the dead. Even when no real truce was agree upon in many places along the front men just seemed to forget to fight on Christmas day.
One of the most persistent stories, and maybe the most famous, is of a soccer match taking place between the German and British soldiers. This seems to pop up in several different reports but it is hard to nail down if it ever happened. Many of the first hand accounts are somewhat ambiguous and contradictory and the number of stories that seem to recount such a game grew in the years after the war. A common theme in the stories is that the Germans ended up winning it 3-2, which may just be a commentary on the state of the war at the time. Even if it wasn’t an organized game there are many reports of soccer balls finding their way into the space between the trenches and it was undoubtedly kicked back and forth a bit in good fun. Kurt Zehmisch, a Saxon soldier opposite some British troops would write “The English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.” Just as Christmas itself cannot last forever, neither did the truces along the front, and as Christmas day began to come to an end, so to did most of the truces along the front.
While the men were at the front fraternizing with the enemy the leadership of both sides was a bit mixed on what their reaction was. Both the German and British headquarters had issued strict orders forbidding any form of truce with the enemy. On some parts of the line these orders were followed to a T, with the shooting of any enemy that attempted to initiate a truce. A British Officer, Bruce Bairnsfather wrote “We have issued strict orders to the men not to on any account allow a truce, as we have heard rumours that they will probably try to. The Germans did. They came over towards us singing. So we opened rapid fire on them, which is the only truce they deserve.” The stance of the commanders was mostly out of concern that any extended contact with the enemy would reduce the men’s fighting resolve, you see this all time when studying military history, the goal of propaganda is in a lot of cases to get the soldiers to start seeing their enemies as less than human. If you let your soldiers get to know their enemies a bit too much it could result in them being more sympathetic with their enemies than with their commanders, or that is the theory anyway. There were officers on both sides that didn’t really have a problem with the truces as they were occurring. Some saw it, as we have discussed, as a way to bury the dead with dignity which is always good for morale, but also as an opportunity to strengthen the trenches and defensive measures while not under the threat of shell and gunfire. The German high command for the most part did not care one way or the other. After Christmas day some fears proved to be valid as the truce stretched for many days after the 25th on some stretches of the front. There were even pieces of territory that maintained this unspoken agreement to limit aggressive actions well into 1915.
While there were a few pieces of the front where the truce continued for several days, in most areas it was over with the stroke of midnight on the 25th. I really like this little story that I found on firstworldwar.com where they quote Captain J C Dunn, whose unit had ended up with two barrels of beer from the German troops opposite of them during the festivities, when he discussed how the truce came to an end on his section of the front. “At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with Merry Christmas on it, and I climbed on the parapet. The Germans put up a sheet with Thank You on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.” By Early January everything was back to normal. There also wouldn’t be any widespread truces for Christmas 1915. There would always be some small local, completely unofficial, truces throughout the war but what was seen in December 1914 would prove to be a one-time occurrence. The commanders on both sides would take pre-emptive measures to prevent the events from happening again. In some areas they ordered artillery bombardments to occur throughout the day, the artillery being detached enough from the front line that they usually weren’t involved in the truces anyway. The conditions were also very different in the later years that made it more difficult to have both sides come together in any large scale way. Poison Gas, air raids against civilian targets, and a greater ferocity of action in 1915 and onward all made it difficult to sustain any type of goodwill amongst participants. The small truces that did occur in 1915 and beyond became even more unofficial and rarely resulted in any gatherings between the trenches but instead just became short periods of “live and let live” mentality where both sides stopped trying to actively kill each other, at least for a bit.
The Christmas truce would grow in stature as time went by. Newspapers would run stories not long after Christmas with some information that would be met with a positive response by the home fronts, although later the event would be demonized a bit with the soldiers being blamed for not being hard enough on the Germans or British, depending on which newspaper you read. Regardless of what exactly the Truce would mean at the time for generations after the war it has been seen as an odd occurrence in a war known for its inhumanity and destruction. I think the Christmas truce is the great turning point in the war, it was the last spasm of the great heroics of war and the European idea of chivalry and gallantry in conflict. I like those quote from Catastrophe 1914, “The spasms of sentimentality and self-pity displayed in December 1914, almost all initiated by Germans, reflected only the fact that at Christmas almost every adherent of a Christian culture yearned to be at home with loved ones, while now instead millions found themselves huddled shivering in the snow and filth of alien killing fields. The emotionalism generated by such circumstances caused some men to make brief gestures of humanity before resuming the routines of barbarism willed by their national leadership.” For the soldiers who experienced the truce it was often something that they remembered with fondness. A British officer would right 1915 that “It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.” With that, I will wish all of the listeners a Happy Holidays. I hope you will spend at least a moment thinking of the men in the trenches exactly 100 years ago who even in the mud and the killing found a way to celebrate the joy, happiness, and peace of the holidays.