The World War I Christmas Truce of 1914

The First World War was less than five months old. Already, at battle like the Marne, soldiers had gotten a taste at how the machine gun and rapid firing artillery had changed the face of war, making it even more monstrous and bloody than it had even been. Even so, the true carnage of the war, four more years of blood letting on a scale never before seen, during which battles like the Somme and Verdun would take young lives in the millions, lay in the future.

By Christmas Eve, 1914, the front in the west had ossified into opposing series of trenches that ran from the Swiss frontier to the English Channel. The high commands on both sides thought that this stalemate was temporary, that in the spring the final, decisive battle would be fought. They were wrong. Until 1918, oceans of blood would be spilled to pay gains of yards.

For the soldiers who had to man the trenches, it was cold, wet, and miserable. Yet, they shared their officers confidence that with the new year there would be victory and then a return home. At Christmas, the trench systems were somewhat less elaborate than they would be in the future. No mans land which lay between the trench systems on the front occupied by the British Army rarely exceeded seventy yards. Tommy and Fritz could easily yell greetings or insults across at one another.

Most accounts of the 1914 Christmas truce agree that it started with the appearance of little Christmas trees decorating the German trenches. The German soldiers started singing their own Christmas carols in celebration of the season. Not to be outdone, the British soldiers replied with their own carols.

Both the British and the German soldiers had received little parcels of Christmas good; chocolate, tobacco, and other confections. No one can agree when the first exchange of gifts took place across No Mans land. One newspaper account tells of the Germans bringing across a cake and getting tobacco in return. In any event, by Christmas day, soldiers from both sides started to cross the line to greet each other and exchange gifts.

In some parts of the line, things started to get surreal. Men who had been barbers started giving free haircuts and shaves. There’s one story of a German juggler giving an impromptu performance in the middle of No Mans Land. On other parts of the line, the truce took on a more practical, sadder aspect as both sides took the opportunity to recover the bodies of their slain comrades that had been languishing in No Mans Land.

There were many recording instance of football (soccer to Americans) matches breaking out spontaneously. Some of these were mere kick abouts, but others were full fledged games. One game ended with a 3 to 2 victory for the German side.

On most parts of the line, the truce lasted merely through Christmas, though some observed it well into January. At first, the High Commands on both sides took a relaxed attitude toward the truce. It was seen as a good morale booster and as an opportunity to strengthen defenses without interference.

The truce usually ended just as it began, by mutual agreement. On one part of the line, a British officer raised a makeshift sign which said Merry Christmas. His German opposite number raised his own sign which said Thank You. The British officer fired three shots in the air, the German two shots. The war was on again.

The fraternization that happened during the Christmas truce was not something unknown to military history. During the American Civil War there were numerous instances of Union and Confederate soldiers, taking an advantage of the lull in the fighting, to meet each other to exchange gifts, Union coffee for Confederate tobacco usually, and just talk to one another as fellow Americans and not enemies.

It can be said that the 1914 Christmas truce was the last gasp of that 19th Century chivalric attitude. Belatedly alarmed at what had happened, at the implications of their soldiers seeing the enemy that they must try to kill as human beings, the British High Command vowed that there would not be a repeat of the truce on subsequent Christmases. Artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to make sure that there would be no lull in the fighting and troops were rotated to different sections of the line to prevent them from becoming overly friendly with the enemy.

The 1914 Christmas truce was perhaps the last large scale event that humanized an institution, war, that is all too often very dehumanizing. It is a paradox, as well, that men could greet each other has brothers for one day and the next try their utmost to kill one another.

The last surviving veteran of the Christmas truce, Alfred Anderson, died on November 21st, 2005, at the age of 109.

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