It was supposed to be over by Christmas, but when Christmas actually came in that first year of war in 1914, the end was not in sight by a long shot.
Yet, the troops on all fronts were more than ready to see the end, and on that Christmas Day, they tried to overcome the logic of the war on their terms. At least for a while.
When they entered the war back in August, most people were convinced that the war would be over by Christmas. Soldiers had joined, thinking they would have spent the holiday at home, their warring work done.
When Christmas actually came along, there was no end in sight.
Leading up to Christmas
By December, the soldiers on the ground were veterans who had lost any romantic ideas of honour and heroic deeds and knew very well the horrors of the industrial war. The life losses in the battles of Tannenberg, the Marne and Ypres were unthinkable only a few months before.
Neither side of the war had managed to get the upper-end. Instead, they had come to a deadlock, trapped in trench warfare that didn’t seem to move in any direction.
Among the soldiers in the trenches that Christmas, many would later become artists, novelists or cartoonists – like in the case of Bruce Bairnsfather, machine gunner. Many would later write or differently recount what WWI had been like.
Bairnsfather served in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and that December, he was stationed in a part of Belgium called Bois de Ploegsteert. In his memoir about the Christmas Truce, he wrote:
“Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity, miles and miles from home. Cold, wet through and covered with mud.” There didn’t “seem the slightest chance of leaving – except in an ambulance.”
Many of the soldiers felt that way. They only wanted an end to the bloodshed.
Besides, Pope Benedict XV himself, who had taken up office that September, called for a Christmas truce when it was clear that the war was definitely not going to be over by Christmas. The idea was officially rejected by the generals on both sides, who believed that pushing on was the only way to end the war as soon as possible, but the soldiers did know of this call.
Several weeks of mild but soaking weather led up to Christmas Eve. Life in the trenches had been more than miserable because of the living conditions. But on Christmas Eve, there was a sudden hard frost. A dusting of ice and snow covered the ravaged ground and the barbed-wired no man’s land. It was kind of supernatural, and many soldiers felt something spiritual was taking place.
These may have been exceptional conditions. They certainly gave birth to an exceptional event.
On Christmas Eve
The Christmas Truce wasn’t a general event. It happened spontaneously because of the soldiers’ initiative, and as such, it isn’t easy to quantify. It was unofficial, unauthorised and basically illicit.
In fact, it happened only in some sectors, mainly on the Western Front. There is only small evidence that anything happened on the Eastern Front too.
It appears to have been more common in the sectors presided by Saxon troops, who had shown to be particularly easygoing. And mainly in the British-held part of the Western Front. It occasionally started even before Christmas. The first documented truce took place on 11th December 1914, when soldiers of the 2nd Essex Regiment fraternised with soldiers of the 19th Saxon corps.
But it was mostly on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Box Day that most of the truce happened, and it is known that in some sectors, the soldiers tried to make it last as long as possible, even into the new year.
According to Private Albert Moren, of the 2nd Queens Regiment, who was stationed near the French village of La Chapell d’Armentères, on Christmas Eve night, German soldiers started to sing Silent Night.
Rifleman Graham Williams, of the 5th London Rifle Brigade, later wrote:
“Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently makeshift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burned steadily in the still, frosty air. First the German would sing one of their carols, and then we would sing one of ours. The Germans immediately joined in, and I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
“We are Saxons, you are Ango-Saxon,” a German shouted across no man’s land. “What is there for us to fight about?”.
Bairnsfather recalled, “Suddenly, we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shouting came again.” The voices spoke in English with a heavy German accent. “Come on over!”. And on the British side, sergeants answered, “You come halfway. I come halfway.”
Slowly, hesitantly, soldiers on both sides started to climb out of their trenches and met in no man’s land, until – Rifleman Oswald Tilly told his parents in a letter – “literary hundreds of each side were out in no man’s land shaking hands.”
Another soldier later recalled, “In five minutes the ground between the opposing trenches was full of Germans and Highlanders exchanging cigars for cigarettes, and many other small luxuries.”
Bairnsfather wrote, “Here they were – the actual, practical soldiers of the German Army. There was not an atom of hate on their side.”
Communication could be difficult. German-speaking British troops were scars, but many German had worked in Britain before the war, mostly in restaurants, and could speak some English.
They first took a chance to bury their fallen comrades. Unofficial, gentlemanly cease-fire sometimes happened to allow both sides to retrieve their fallen from no man’s land. That day not only did this happen, but many battalions held funerals just like it would happen in a church.
And sometimes, it is thought to be just a myth, but football matches seem to have actually happened in no man’s land. Mostly among men of the same nationality, but occasionally between impromptu teams of the opposing nations. It may be only a legend, but it is a widespread belief that a match took place between the British and the Germans – which the German claimed to have won 3-2.
It should never happen again!
The Heads of the military were beside themselves when they heard of it. They had rejected the idea of a Christmas truce, and still, the troops on the ground appeared to have indulged in it nonetheless.
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrin, commander of the British II Corps was furious.
“I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse.”
Some accounts of the Christmas Truce hold that soldiers were punished for fraternisation. Some battalions were transferred to other sections of the front.The Western Front, December 1914: The Christmas Truce – A magical event of WWI not destined to happen again #WWI #Christmas Click To Tweet
Fraternisation had always been a great concern for the high brasses. The trenches of the opposing sides sometimes stood so close together that the troops could hear what the enemy was saying and smell their cooking. In these conditions, it was easy to see that the ‘enemy’ wasn’t so very different from them and was going through the same awful experience. In the subsequent years, the heads of the military on both sides did all they could to prevent fraternisation. And in fact, no Christmas truce ever happened again.
The magic of the truce
But it did happen, if just once. And after that exceptional event, the news started to filter through at home, through letters to friends and family, and even the newspapers.
A British soldier wrote home:
“During Christmas Day our fellows and the Saxons fixed up a table between the two trenches and they spent a happy time together, and exchanged souvenirs and presented one another with little keepsakes.”
“I had a most extraordinary Christmas, and I have come to the conclusion that I would not have spend it outside of the trenches.”
A British soldier posted a letter to the Carlisle Journal that was published on 5th January 1915:
“All this talk of hate, all this firing at each other that has raged since the beginning of the war quelled and stayed by the magic of Christmas. It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.”
On his part, Bairnsfather wrote, “Looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.”
It was not going to happen again. Not only because of the precautions all armies took. Some historians have argued that war conditions would not have allowed it anyway. A few months into the conflict, the opposing armies still thought about each other as foes and honourable opponents. Basically as equals whose circumstances had put one against the other.
But as the war wore on, each nation started to perceive their opponents as a true enemy. As someone ‘other’, a demon, a monster capable of anything. Propaganda made sure of it.
The soldiers of this new phase of the war would never imagine shaking hands with their enemies.
Still, on Christmas Day 1914, something unexpected happened. The soldiers showed what they thought of that nonsensical war, though they did not betray their nations. As they would have done for the rest of the war.
As a German artilleryman said to George Eade on that day,
“Today we have peace. Tomorrow, you fight for your country, I fight for mine. Good luck.”
Insider –The incredible true story of when WWI stopped for enemy armies to celebrate Christmas together
The Gazette – World War 1: the Christmas truce of December 1914
Time – Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914
History – WWI’s Christmas Truce: When Fighting Paused for the Holiday
Smithsonian – The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce