On a crisp, clear morning 104 years ago, thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches, and spent Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western front. In the hundred-plus years since, the event has been seen as a kind of miracle, a rare moment of peace just a few months into a war that would eventually claim over 15 million lives.
But what actually happened on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1914? And did they really play soccer on the battlefield?
To this day historians continue to disagree over the specifics: no one knows where it began or how it spread, or if, by some curious festive magic, it broke out simultaneously across the trenches. Nevertheless, some two-thirds of troops — about 100,000 people — are believed to have participated in the legendary truce.Late on Christmas Eve 1914, British men huddled in the trenches along the Western Front in France could hear German soldiers singing carols and patriotic songs in the opposite trenches.
When they looked over to the other side they saw lanterns and small fir trees along the trenches. Soon, messages began to be shouted between the two sides. The following day, Christmas Day, soldiers from both sides met in no-man’s land—the ground between the opposing trenches.
The British and German soldiers exchanged gifts, took photographs and played a few games of football.
They also used the time of brief peace to bury their dead and repair trenches and dugouts. By the next day, the truce dwindled out.
Some officers were worried that the period of peace between the troops would undermine the fighting spirit. High Commands on both sides tried to prevent any truces of a similar scale taking place again.
The following year, a few units arranged ceasefires but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the High Commands of both sides prohibiting fraternization. By 1916, the war had become increasingly bitter after devastating human losses suffered during the battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the incorporation of poison gas.
The truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a growing mood of “live and let live,” where infantry close together would stop overtly aggressive behavior and often engage in small-scale fraternization, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there would be occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades, while in others, there would be a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised or worked in full view of the enemy.
In early December, a German surgeon recorded a regular half-hourly truce each evening to recover dead soldiers for burial, during which French and German soldiers exchanged newspapers.
The proximity of trench lines made it easy for soldiers to shout greetings to each other, and this may have been the most common method of arranging informal truces during 1914. Men would frequently exchange news or greetings, helped by a common language; many German soldiers had lived in England, particularly London, and were familiar with the language.
Several British soldiers recorded instances of Germans asking about news from the football leagues, while other conversations could be as banal as discussions of the weather.
Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather described the truce: “The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols.
The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, continuing until New Year’s Day in others.”
Bairnsfather wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything…. I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons…. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange…. The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.
Captain Sir Edward Hulse described a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, [and] Prussians joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Alfred Anderson’s unit of the 1st/5th Battalion of the Black Watch was billeted in a farmhouse away from the front line. In a later interview (2003), Anderson, the last known surviving Scottish veteran of the war, vividly recalled Christmas Day and said: “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again.”
The observations were not confined to the British. French Leutnant Johannes Niemann wrote: “grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy.”
Many accounts of the truce involve one or more football (soccer) matches played in no-man’s land.
There is a German reference. Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of Germany’s 134th Saxons Infantry Regiment said that 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 events of the truce were not reported for a week, in an unofficial press embargo which was eventually broken by The New York Times, published in the then-neutral United States, on 31 December. The British papers quickly followed, printing numerous first-hand accounts from soldiers in the field, taken from letters home to their families, and editorials on “one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war.” By January 8th pictures had made their way to the press, and both the Mirror and Sketch printed front-page photographs of British and German troops mingling and singing between the lines. The tone of the reporting was strongly positive, with the Times endorsing the “lack of malice” felt by both sides.
Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticizing those who had taken part, and no pictures published. In France, meanwhile, the greater level of press censorship ensured that the only word that spread of the truce came from soldiers at the front or first-hand accounts told by wounded men in hospitals.
Not all sections of the trenches along the Western Front observed the truce however. Elsewhere the fighting continued and there were still some casualties on Christmas Day 1914.
In December 1915, there were explicit orders by the Allied commanders to forestall any repeat of the previous Christmas truce. The prohibition was not completely effective, however, and a small number of brief truces occurred.
An eyewitness account of one truce, by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day saw a “rush of men from both sides… [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 has been commemorated in numerous media:
• The 1967 song “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen was based on the Christmas truce. As in real life, it is the Red Baron, Germany’s ace pilot and war hero, who initiates the truce with the fictitious Snoopy.
• The final episode of the BBC television series Blackadder Goes Forth references the Christmas truce, with the main character Edmund Blackadder having played in a football match and being annoyed at having had a goal disallowed for offside.
• The song “All Together Now” by Liverpool band The Farm took its inspiration from the Christmas Day Truce of 1914.
• The truce is dramatized in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël (English: Merry Christmas), depicted through the eyes of French, British and German soldiers. The film, written and directed by Christian Carion.
• In 2008, the truce was depicted on stage at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis, in the radio musical drama All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. It was created and directed by Peter Rothstein, and co-produced by Theater Latté Da and the vocal ensemble Cantus, both Minneapolis-based organizations. It has continued to play at the Pantages Theater each December since its premiere.
• The British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s produced a short film for the 2014 Christmas season as an advertisement re-enacting the events of the Christmas truce, primarily following a young English soldier in the trenches.
• John McCutcheon’s 1984 song, Christmas in the Trenches, tells the story of the 1914 truce through the eyes of a fictional soldier.
• The Midway Village in Rockford, Illinois has hosted re-enactments of the Christmas Truce.
The Christmas Truce speaks to the fact that at its heart it symbolizes a very human desire for peace, no matter how fleeting.
Sources: Wikipedia.com, history.com, Time.com