The Christmas Day Truce

On Christmas Day in 1914, with the First World War barely five months old, there occurred an event that to this day many people have trouble believing.  It occurred at various points along the “Western Front” — the war zones of Northern France and Belgium — where British and French soldiers lay in muddy trenches, facing similarly entrenched German soldiers across a “No Man’s Land” of barbed wire, pock-marked ground, machine gun nests and dead bodies.

And then, just after midnight on December 25th, a message came from the German side announcing that the Germans wanted to exchange Christmas greetings with their British and French counterparts, and if the latter promised not to initiate hostilities, they — the Germans — suggested that they all meet in the middle of “No Man’s Land” to exchange presents and pleasantries.  The British and French soldiers suspected a trick, but when they spotted several Germans climbing out of their trenches unarmed — some carrying tiny Christmas trees and beer kegs, still others singing Christmas carols as they wandered toward the British and French lines — the Allied soldiers decided to join in.

Soon, up and down the lines, soldiers from both sides were fraternizing, exchanging cigarettes and food, joining in toasts, singing carols, and sharing photos of friends and loves ones from back home.  By several accounts there was even an impromptu “football” (soccer) match between a group of German and British soldiers — a game in which the Germans were leading 3-2 when the ball was accidentally kicked against some barbed wire and punctured.  In the spirit of the season there were also prisoner exchanges, as well as mutually agreed upon opportunities for each side to repair their trenches and collect and bury their dead.

It was, as one historian put it, “the last twitch of the 19th Century,” when romantic notions of humanity, chivalry and civilized behavior were commonplace. The years of total war that followed 1914 brought with them senseless slaughter, staggering body counts, technological “advancements” such as germ warfare and poison gas, and unprecedented mutual antipathy between the two sides.  As a result, at least among the main belligerents, never again would the Christmas Day Truce be observed.

Which was just fine with their leaders.  When British Commander-in-Chief Sir John French learned of the truce he was horrified. “I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct,” he later wrote, “and I called the local commanders to strict account.”

The truce ended sometime in the early morning of December 26th when, again by mutual agreement, soldiers from both sides fired rifles into the air signaling that the truce was over.  The war — with all its attendant death, destruction, savagery and cruelty — was on again.