No memo was sent down and no order was given, but on Christmas Eve 1914 the guns silenced for many German, English and French soldiers on the Western Front in Europe. With hesitation, after many requests for the other side to come over, the bitter enemies trudged out into the infamous no man’s land to exchange holiday greetings, cigarettes and food.
This was a spontaneous, unofficial cease fire in the face of the insanity of the First World War. The event is known as the World War One Christmas Truce, and scholars continue to debate its meaning and why it happened.
Christmas Eve is the high point of the Christmas celebration for Germans and they celebrated by singing Christmas carols in the trenches. British troops could hear the singing, and so for songs that were familiar – either in the enemy’s language or in Latin – they joined in.
On Christmas Day troops gathered in the no man’s land. Bodies that had laid on the cratered battlefield for weeks finally were buried, and Allied and German soldiers celebrated memorial services together with a chaplain from each side leading the rites.
After the remembrances for the dead, the troops continued to celebrate the respite from war with song and conversation. A few soccer matches were even played between each side.
The front wasn’t completely quiet, though. The French, English and Germans still fought each other on many stretches of the front. Gun shots could still be heard by those who did celebrate – a chilly reminder that there was a war on.
The truce was a welcome break from the dreaded conditions of the trenches – mud, vermin, fear of sudden death from an artillery shell. For some, the ceasefire lasted until after Boxing Day (Dec. 26), and for others, until after New Year’s Day. Then the fighting recommenced, but for the soldiers who survived, the memory of the truce remained and it has been enshrined in our collective memory as something of a miracle.
Letters From the Front
There were numerous letters written both by the English and the German soldiers detailing the miraculous events of those few days of cease fire. The British website christmastruce.co.uk contains interesting information and letters that were published in newspapers around the United Kingdom.
Ben Calder of Bedfordshire wrote:
Dear Miss Fuller and other assistants of the little tea shop. Just a few lines to let you know how we are all keeping. The 6th have been in the trenches twice. A good few of them had to go to hospital through the cold and exposure. They are hardly fit for this work. We were in the trenches on Christmas Day. We spent a merrier day than we expected. There was a truce to bury our dead. We had a short service over the graves, conducted by our minister and the German one. They read the 23rd Psalm and had a short prayer. I don't think I will ever forget the Christmas Day I spent in the trenches. After the service we were speaking to the Germans and getting souvenirs from them. Fancy shaking hands with the enemy! I suppose you will hardly believe this, but it is the truth. I often think about the little tea shop and wonder how you are getting on.
The truce was hard to believe, and the leadership on both sides of the front were furious that their troops fraternized with the enemy. The war continued – by the end of the war there were about 10 million military deaths – and future unofficial truces were prevented either by the leadership or the bitterness that grew between the opposing sides as the fighting ensued.
For a brief few days, however, the human spirit overcame the harsh demands of war. As a new year approaches, let us remember that it is possible to make amends with our enemies – be it in war or our everyday lives – and to strive towards lasting joy and peace.
Photo: Alan Cleaver