The Christmas truce was a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, during World War I. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides – as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units – independently ventured into "no man's land", where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another.
The truce is seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of modern history. It was not ubiquitous; in some regions of the front, fighting continued throughout the day, while in others, little more than an arrangement to recover bodies was made. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, 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 such fraternisation. In 1916, after the unprecedentedly bloody battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the beginning of widespread poison gas use, soldiers on both sides increasingly viewed the other side as less than human, and no more Christmas truces were sought.
In the early months of immobile trench warfare, the truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a growing mood of "live and let live", where infantry units in close proximity to each other would stop overtly aggressive behaviour, and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, 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. The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation – even in very peaceful sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable.
Background[edit | edit source]
The first months of World War I had seen an initial German attack through Belgium into France, which had been repulsed outside Paris by French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne in early September 1914. The Germans fell back to the Aisne valley, where they prepared defensive positions. In the subsequent Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to push through the German line, and the fighting quickly degenerated into a stalemate; neither side was willing to give ground, and both started to develop fortified systems of trenches. To the north, on the right of the German army, there had been no defined front line, and both sides quickly began to try to use this gap to outflank one another; in the ensuing "Race to the Sea", the two sides repeatedly clashed, each trying to push forward and threaten the end of the other's line. After several months of fighting, during which the British forces were withdrawn from the Aisne and sent north into Flanders, the northern flank had developed into a similar stalemate. By November, there was a continuous front line running from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, occupied on both sides by armies in prepared defensive positions.
The approach to Christmas[edit | edit source]
In the lead up to Christmas 1914, there were several peace initiatives. The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed "To the Women of Germany and Austria", signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached. Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." This attempt was officially rebuffed.
Christmas 1914[edit | edit source]
Though there was no official truce, roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The first truce started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yvon (called Saint-Yves, in Plugstreet/Ploegsteert - Comines-Warneton), where Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather described the Truce.
The Germans began by placing 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. The fraternisation carried risks; some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year's Day in others.
Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, 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 Bart reported how the first interpreter he met from the German lines was from Suffolk where he had left his girlfriend and a 3.5 hp motorcycle. Hulse Bart went on to describe a sing-song which "ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked !" Nor were the observations confined to the British. Leutnant Johannes Niemann: "grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy." 
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Adolf Hitler, then a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce.
Later truces[edit | edit source]
In the following months, there were a few sporadic attempts at truces; a German unit attempted to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but were warned off by the British opposite them, and later in the year, in November, a Saxon unit briefly fraternised with a Liverpool battalion. In December 1915, there were explicit orders by the Allied commanders to forestall any repeat of the previous Christmas truce. Individual units were encouraged to mount raids and harass the enemy line, whilst communicating with the enemy was discouraged by artillery barrages along the front line throughout the day. 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, with offers to hold a ceasefire for the day and to play a football match. It came to nothing, as the brigade commander threatened repercussions for the lack of discipline, and insisted on a resumption of firing in the afternoon. Another member of Griffith's battalion, Bertie Felstead, later recalled that one man had produced a football, resulting in "a free-for-all; there could have been 50 on each side", before they were ordered back.
In an adjacent sector, a short truce to bury the dead between the lines led to official repercussions; a company commander, Sir Iain Colquhoun of the Scots Guards, was court-martialled for defying standing orders to the contrary. Whilst he was found guilty and officially reprimanded, this punishment was quickly annulled by General Haig, and Colquhoun remained in his position; the official leniency may perhaps have been because he was related to Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister.
In the later years of the war, in December 1916 and 1917, German overtures to the British for truces were recorded without any success. In some French sectors, singing and an exchange of thrown gifts was occasionally recorded, though these may simply have reflected a seasonal extension of the live-and-let-live approach common in the trenches.
Evidence of a Christmas 1916 truce, previously unknown to historians, has recently come to light. In a letter home, 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon told of a remarkable event that occurred on 25 December 1916, when German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines near Vimy Ridge to share Christmas greetings and trade presents. "Here we are again as the song says," the young soldier wrote. "I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line. Christmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. ... We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars."
In the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to try to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. Troops were also rotated through various sectors of the front to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy. Situations of deliberate dampening of hostilities still occurred. For example, artillery was fired at precise points, at precise times, to avoid enemy casualties by both sides.
French-German truce[edit | edit source]
Richard Schirrmann, who was in a German regiment holding a position on the Bernhardstein, one of the mountains of the Vosges, wrote an account of events in December 1915: "When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over." He was separated from the French troops by a narrow No Man's Land and described the landscape as: "Strewn with shattered trees, the ground ploughed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms." Military discipline was soon restored, but Schirrmann pondered over the incident, and whether "thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other." He went on to found the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.
Public awareness[edit | edit source]
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 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 8 January 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 and the Mirror regretting that the "absurdity and the tragedy" would begin again.
Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticising 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. The press was eventually forced to respond to the growing rumours by reprinting a government notice that fraternising with the enemy constituted treason, and in early January an official statement on the truce was published, claiming it had happened on restricted sectors of the British front, and amounted to little more than an exchange of songs which quickly degenerated into shooting.
Legacy[edit | edit source]
- In the 1933 play Petermann schließt Frieden oder Das Gleichnis vom deutschen Opfer (Petermann makes peace: or, the parable of German sacrifice), written by Nazi writer and World War 1 veteran, Heinz Steguweit(German), a German soldier, accompanied by Christmas carols sung by his comrades, erects an illuminated Christmas tree between the trenches, but is shot dead by the enemy. Later, when the fellow soldiers find his body, they notice in horror that enemy snipers have shot down every single Christmas light from the tree.
- The video for the song "Pipes of Peace" by Paul McCartney depicts a ficitionalized version of the Christmas truce. The song was released in 1983.
- John McCutcheon's song "Christmas in the Trenches," from his 1984 album Winter Solstice, presents a composite account of attested events of the truce from the perspective of a fictitious English soldier. (Mike Harding's song "Christmas 1914", from his 1989 album Plutonium Alley, and Garth Brooks's song "Belleau Wood", from his 1997 album Sevens, contain similar depictions of the truce.)
- The truce is dramatized in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël (English: Merry Christmas), depicted through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers. The film, written and directed by Christian Carion, was screened out of competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
- In 2011, the Premier League established the Christmas Truce Tournament in 2011, a football tournament for youth players from England, Belgium, France, and Germany. The tournament will be played annually until at least 2014, the centennial anniversary of the original Christmas truce.
- Silent Night, an opera based Joyeux Noël, received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012.
- Snoopy's Christmas, performed by The Royal Guardsmen which is still a holiday favorite on some American radio 'oldies' stations and on many radio stations in New Zealand, depicts Snoopy and the Red Baron, who was Snoopy's in-universe archenemy, taking part in the Christmas Truce of 1914 somewhere behind the Rhine in German territory. The song depicts the Baron— who was a German war hero— as being the one to initiate the friendly contact once the pair had landed. The two part ways amicably, knowing they are destined to meet in combat again eventually.
- The song "Let the Truce Be Known" by Orphaned Land takes inspiration from the event, but refers to it with Jewish and Muslims soldiers rather than British and German.
Monument[edit | edit source]
A Christmas truce memorial was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, on 11 November 2008. Also on that day, at the spot where, on Christmas Day 1914, their regimental ancestors came out from their trenches to play football, men from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers played a football match with the German Battalion 371. The Germans won 2–1.
Notes[edit | edit source]
- Eksteins, Modris. The Rites of Spring. 2000. New York, NY: Mariner Books. p. 113.ISBN 978-0395937587'
- Brown (2005), pp. 13–15
- Oldfield, Sybil. International Woman Suffrage: November 1914 – September 1916. Taylor & Francis, 2003. ISBN 0-415-25738-7. Volume 2 of International Woman Suffrage: Jus Suffragii, 1913–1920, Sybil Oldfield, ISBN 0-415-25736-0 p. 46.
- Patterson, David S. The search for negotiated peace: women's activism and citizen diplomacy in World War I. Routledge, 2008. ISBN 0-415-96142-4 p. 52
- "Demystifying the Christmas Truce", Thomas Löwer, The Heritage of the Great War, retrieved 27 December 2009.
- "Miracles brighten Christmas", Harrison Daily Times, 24 December 2009.
- "Remembering a Victory For Human Kindness – WWI's Puzzling, Poignant Christmas Truce", David Brown, The Washington Post, 25 December 2004.
- "The Truce of Christmas, 1914", Thomas Vinciguerra, The New York Times, 25 December 2005.
- Bridget Harris (27 December 2009). "All Together Now for England". The Epoch Times. http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/27080/. Retrieved 7 January 2010.
- "Bullets & Billets by Bruce Bairnsfather", Project Gutenberg, retrieved 31 December 2009.
- Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) p. 139, Guiness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
- Reagan, pp. 140-142
- Reagan, p. 111
- Weintraub (2001), pp. 194–195
- Brown (2005) pp. 75–76. The unit in question was the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, a battalion of the volunteer New Armies, which were just arriving in France for the first time in late 1915 and early 1916. Griffith mentions Christmas Day was "the first time [he] had seen no-man's land"; his men were, quite possibly, also on their first tour in the front lines this day.
- "Bertie Felstead The last known survivor of no-man's-land football died on July 22nd, aged 106". The Economist. 2 August 2001. http://www.economist.com/obituary/displaystory.cfm?story_id=718781.
- Weintraub (2001), pp. 194–195; Brown (2005) p. 75
- Weintraub (2001), p. 198
- Cazals (2005), p. 125
- "New evidence of First World War Christmas truces uncovered". University of Aberdeen. http://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/archive-details-9508.php. Retrieved 27 October 2011.
- Axelrod, Robert. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
- Richard Schirrmann: The first youth hosteller: A biographical sketch by Graham Heath (1962, International Youth Hostel Association, Copenhagen, in English).
- Weintraub (2001), pp. 179–80. The "greatest surprises" quote is from the South Wales Gazette on 1 January 1915.
- Weintraub (2001), p. 179
- Weintraub (2001), pp. 73–75
- Grunberger, Richard (1979). The 12-year Reich: a social history of Nazi Germany, 1933-1945. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. p. 349.
- Holden, Stephen (3 March 2006). "Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) (2005) A Christmas Truce Forged by Germans, French and Scots". New York Times. http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/03/03/movies/03noel.html. Retrieved 31 December 2009.
- "Joyeux Noël (2005)". IMDb. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0424205/. Retrieved 11 November 2009.
- "Festival de Cannes: Joyeux Noël". festival-cannes.com. http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/archives/ficheFilm/id/4283384/year/2005.html. Retrieved 12 December 2009.
- "Premier League commits to run Christmas Truce Youth Tournament". Premier League. 29 November 2012. http://www.premierleague.com/en-gb/news/news/premier-league-commits-to-run-christmas-truce-tournament.html. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
- "Pulitzer Prizes 2012". http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2012-Music.
References[edit | edit source]
- Brown, Malcolm (2004). 1914: The Men Who Went to War. London: Sidgwick & Jackson. ISBN 0-283-07323-3.
- Brown, Malcolm, ed (2007). Meetings in No man's Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in the Great War. London: Constable. ISBN 978-1-84529-513-4. Originally published in French as Frères des Tranchées, 2005; containing:
- Brown, Malcolm (2005). "The Christmas truce 1914: The British Story".
- Cazals, Rémy (2005). "Good Neighbours".
- Ferro, Marc (2005). "Russia: Fraternization and Revolution".
- Mueller, Olaf (2005). "Brother Boche".
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- Brown, Malcolm; Seaton, Shirley (1984). Christmas Truce: The Western Front, 1914. New York: Hippocrene Books. ISBN 0436071029.
- Michael, Jürgs (2005). Der kleine Frieden im Großen Krieg: Westfront 1914: als Deutsche, Franzosen und Briten gemeinsam Weihnachten feierten. München: Goldmann. ISBN 3442153034.
- Snow, Michael (2009). Oh Holy Night: The Peace of 1914. ISBN 9781616230807.
- Weintraub, Stanley (2002). Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. New York: Plume. ISBN 9780452283671.
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