The Christmas truce has become one of the most mythologized and romanticized memories of the First World War. It was an unofficial and widespread ceasefire across the trenches between the Allied Powers and the Central Powers at Christmas of 1914.
The war had only begun in the summer of that year but by the winter, sporadic lulls would occur as men both sides ran out of men and munitions. This led to a strange yet beautiful exchange between the two sides.
The war was not expected to last for as long as it did. The German Kaiser claimed that his side would be home for autumn. It soon became clear that this was not the case and as autumn faded to winter, soldiers struggled in the field leading to one of the most iconic moments of the war and of world conflict.
Fraternizing with the Enemy
In the early weeks of the war, British and French troops stopped a German army from advancing through Belgium into France at the First Battle of Marne in early September. The Germans retreated from here and dug into the Aisne Valley.
In turn, this led to The First Battle of Aisne, which saw the Germans repulse the French and British. They decided to adopt the same tactic as the Germans and dig in. It led to a “Race to the Sea” in which both sides tried to outmaneuver and flank their opposition.
This push parallel to the enemy positions by both sides led to long trenches being dug and separating the opposing forces, with the defenders on either side having a distinct advantage in repulsing any attack. By November both sides had almost parallel trenches running continually from the Swiss frontier to the North Sea.
Even Pope Benedict XV begged for a truce to be created between the warring governments. He asked if this would be possible even just over Christmas but the governments were not for stopping the war.
It may be surprising to note but many recollections from the First World War reveal that there were often peaceful and friendly interactions between the opposing sides in the quieter areas of the Western Front. It could often lead to regular conversations and in rare scenarios visits to the trenches of the enemy.
On the Eastern Front, this was less regular but it has been recorded that in the early weeks of the war, fraternization would happen between the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians. It seems that the soldiers found there was much more to unite them than divide them.
These fraternizations can be dated to at least early November between German and British troops. Rations were often brought up to the front and soldiers from both sides collected their food in peace.
One record from the 1st of December even recounts a British soldier being visited by a German officer to ask how he was getting on. However, this was not the case for all of the Allied Powers.
Relationships between French and German soldiers were noticeably frosty. These did ease as the weeks went on. A German surgeon recorded that there was a truce that would last half an hour so that both sides could collect their dead.
This was not to the liking of the hierarchy of both armies. Charles de Gaulle, brutally bellicose as ever, wrote that it was lamentable that the French infantry would leave the enemy in peace. Victor d’Urbal, another commander, wrote that there were unfortunate consequences when men became familiar with their neighbors opposite in the trench. Other reasons for the truces included bad weather as well.
Jumpers for Goalposts
Because the trenches were so close together, many men remembered that they were able to shout greetings to each other. This is likely to be the method of how the informal truces were arranged. Soldiers would often exchange news and greetings in English.
Many German soldiers had lived in England previously, especially in London, and had become familiar with the cultural norms and interests. Conversations would vary between small talk about the weather and the discomforts of the trenches, to thoughts of home and of loved ones.
Interestingly, the German soldiers often asked about the English football leagues and how the results looked. Additionally, the two sides would play music to each other which helped to create the festive spirit as Christmas rolled in during 1914.
It is approximated that around 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the informal truce along the Western Front that marked Christmas 1914. German soldiers placed candles in their trenches and on Christmas trees.
A back-and-forth of carol singing led to seasons of greetings being exchanged by both sides. Small gifts were exchanged in the middle of No Man’s Land between the trenches. These included things like food, alcohol, and tobacco. The two sides exchanged stories of their homes and gave their views on the war. A sharing of cigarettes and drinks happened across the lines.
The most memorable moment of this truce that has been encapsulated on screen and in the hearts of many around the world though was the football matches that took place. Records are unclear but there was at least one, if not multiple matches between the two sides.
Historians have investigated whether there is any truth in this story, and it seems likely that there was football played. Most of it seems to have been between men of the same nationality but there is little evidence of matches between nations.
One such story claims that the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment pitched against Scottish Troops from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The Scots ran out 4-1 winners, a rare international victory. It is unsure whether a similar event happened on the Eastern front but it does seem likely that if there was not a football match, there was at least a small ceasefire.
Today, there is a memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum in England. However, to gain a more visceral understanding of the truces in 1914, one should seek out the diaries of the soldiers who were there.
Memories from both sides of the war give a real insight into the thoughts of the men. None more so than the German soldier who said “Today we have peace. Tomorrow, you fight for your country. I fight for mine. Good luck!” recorded by a 3rd Rifle Brigadier.
Top Image: The Christmas Truce of 1914. Source: Frederic Villiers / Public Domain.
By Kurt Readman