The 105th Anniversary Of “The Christmas Truce”

One hundred and five years ago today, one of the weirdest events in world history took place at the very beginning of the five year, pointless and stunningly destructive carnage of The Great War, what President Woodrow Wilson, right as usual, called “The War to End All Wars.”

World War I, as it was later called after the world war it caused succeeded it,  led to the deaths of more than 25 million people, and if anything was accomplished by them, I have yet to read about it.

The much sentimentalized event was a spontaneous Christmas truce, as soldiers on opposing sides on the Western Front, defying orders from superiors, pretended the war didn’t exist and left their trenches, put their weapons and animus aside, sang carols,  shared food, buried their dead, and perhaps, depending on which source you choose to believe, even played soccer against each other.

The brass on both sides—this was a British and German phenomenon only—took steps to ensure that  this would never happen again, and it never did.

It all began on Christmas Eve, when at 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters that “The Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” The two sides progressed to serenading each other with Christmas carols, with the German combatants crooning  “Silent Night,” and the British adversaries responding with “The First Noel.“ The war diary of the Scots Guards reported that a private  “met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.”

The same deal was struck spontaneously at other locales across the battlefield. Another British soldier reported that as Christmas Eve wound down into Christmas morning,  “all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’” He wrote in a letter home that he heard,

‘Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.’ For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the Germantrenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines, laughter…

A Smithsonian article opines that several factors worked together to produce the conditions for the strange spontaneous ceasefire:

By December 1914, the men in the trenches were veterans, familiar enough with the realities of combat to have lost much of the idealism that they had carried into war in August, and most longed for an end to bloodshed. The war, they had believed, would be over by Christmas, yet there they were in Christmas week still muddied, cold and in battle. Then, on Christmas Eve itself, several weeks of mild but miserably soaking weather gave way to a sudden, hard frost, creating a dusting of ice and snow along the front that made the men on both sides feel that something spiritual was taking place.

The phenomenon was far from uniform, for fighting continued throughout Christmas in many areas. Just to show how quickly things change, it was German troops, then regarded as “easy-going,” that are acknowledged to have made the first friendly overtures, shouting to their British adversaries, “We are Saxons, you are Anglo-Saxons! What is there for us to fight about?”

It would have been a most effective dastardly trap, but the trusting British were soon leaving their trenches, and as one British soldier wrote  in a letter home—”literally hundreds of each side were out in no man’s land shaking hands.”

The “Christmas Truce” was only between the British and the Germans. On the Eastern Front, the Russians  still used the old Julian calendar, so for them, Christmas was almost two weeks away. As for the French, they were less likely to be charmed by “the Hun,”  since the Germans occupied  a third of France.

In maybe two-thirds of the British-held trench line that ran across southern Belgium, however, Christmas was all fun, and just maybe, games. Both Germans and British soldiers reported that soccer games took place, mostly between pick-up teams of the same nationality, but in a few places, perhaps there were a few Krauts vs. Limeys contests. Some historians are dubious, but it makes a good story.

Apparently it was understood that the truce was only going to last through Christmas, and many officers on both sides were furious that it lasted that long. Most soldiers were determined to practice Peace on Earth at least until midnight. In one spot, it is documented that presents were exchanged between the enemies. Then, on December 26, the fighting and killing resumed.

There would be no further truce until the Armistice of November 1918.

I was moved to write about this event after reading one article that said  that it demonstrated “the importance of choosing to see past our momentary hatreds.” How does it demonstrate that? The “truce” saved no lives; it didn’t shorten the war, lead to more mercy and compassion, orpromote understanding. The victors in the First World War still enacted such punitive measures against the Germans that it seeded World War II.

Soldiers who operate under the delusion that warfare is a noble pursuit tempered with honor and mutual respect are deluding themselves. The idea is to kill people, and to end the war as quickly as possible. The “Christmas Truce” was incompetent and naive.

I should  add that my attitude toward this famous tale was greatly influenced by an episode in my father’s World War II memoirs. He was relieving Allied troops that had taken a town, and was startled to see that the area appeared to be partitioned, with American soldiers on one side, and German soldiers going about their business on the other. “Oh, yeah,” he was told by the commanding officer he was relieving. “We made a deal to let Jerry alone on that side of the town, and they promised not to bother us. It’s great.”

My father had his troops march in and capture the peaceful Germans as soon as he took over. “The German commander was furious,” Dad wrote. “He said this proved you couldn’t trust Americans.”

My father told me that his duty was to kill or capture Nazi soldiers, and to keep up the pressure until the war was over, holidays notwithstanding.

World War I troops had the same duty.

21 thoughts on “The 105th Anniversary Of “The Christmas Truce”

  1. Thanks for this, Jack. Whenever someone says any aspect of American culture or polity is inferior to that of Europe, all we need to say is three words: “World War One.”

    Merry Christmas.

    • From David Fromkin’s “In the Time of the Americans” –

      MAGNIFICENCE SUGGESTS a polished style and culture, but these were not the traits
      that Europeans discerned in their liberators. The GIs were friendly, open, generous, and
      decent; but the peoples they freed, and who by and large had cut a poor figure in the war,
      salvaged some of their pride by looking down on the Americans for lack of manners,
      learning, and breeding.
      This European sense of superiority was not easily supportable—even though it
      continued to be maintained—once the troops had seen the death camps. True, the
      immensity of the horror made it not at first comprehensible—not, at least, as a whole;
      that took time. And it was only over time, too, that the true story came out, that the
      Germans were not alone in the genocide; that French, Polish, and other enthusiastic
      assistants joined in consigning millions to flames.
      But to see the ovens into which humans were fed was enough to implicate the
      high culture of Europe; its value was drawn into question once it was suspected that such
      a culture had culminated in Dachau and Auschwitz. And by way of contrast, how could
      one look down on the typical GI who showered gifts on little children—without regard to
      whose little children they were?*
      Observing the works of Nazi Germany and her willing aiders and abettors in
      German-occupied Europe had the effect of reminding the United States of what it stood
      for. Americans told themselves, and others, that theirs was a country in which every
      person was as good as everybody else—a land tolerant of differences but conscious that
      beneath surface differences all were children of one God.
      Those who lived through the 1940s will remember the motion picture films then
      and afterward about the war and the names of the men in a typical army platoon—as the
      movies had it: Smith, O’Brien, Campbell, Kozlowski, Jones, Giannini, Suarez, Cohen.
      That was the way the country wanted to be seen: as a spacious, liberal-spirited New
      World that had risen above the hatreds that had destroyed the Old.

      *Yet a generation of postwar European intellectuals grew up in the cafés of Saint-
      Germain-des-Prés and elsewhere defining their literary and artistic superiority by a
      deliberate anti-Americanism.

      • MAGNIFICENCE SUGGESTS a polished style and culture, but these were not the traits that Europeans discerned in their liberators. The GIs were friendly, open, generous, and decent; but the peoples they freed, and who by and large had cut a poor figure in the war, salvaged some of their pride by looking down on the Americans for lack of manners, learning, and breeding.
        …..This European sense of superiority was not easily supportable—even though it continued to be maintained—once the troops had seen the death camps. True, the immensity of the horror made it not at first comprehensible—not, at least, as a whole; that took time. And it was only over time, too, that the true story came out, that the Germans were not alone in the genocide; that French, Polish, and other enthusiastic assistants joined in consigning millions to flames.
        …..But to see the ovens into which humans were fed was enough to implicate the high culture of Europe; its value was drawn into question once it was suspected that such a culture had culminated in Dachau and Auschwitz. And by way of contrast, how could one look down on the typical GI who showered gifts on little children—without regard to whose little children they were?*
        …..Observing the works of Nazi Germany and her willing aiders and abettors in German-occupied Europe had the effect of reminding the United States of what it stood for. Americans told themselves, and others, that theirs was a country in which every person was as good as everybody else—a land tolerant of differences but conscious that beneath surface differences all were children of one God.
        …..Those who lived through the 1940s will remember the motion picture films then and afterward about the war and the names of the men in a typical army platoon—as the movies had it: Smith, O’Brien, Campbell, Kozlowski, Jones, Giannini, Suarez, Cohen. That was the way the country wanted to be seen: as a spacious, liberal-spirited New World that had risen above the hatreds that had destroyed the Old.

        *Yet a generation of postwar European intellectuals grew up in the cafés of Saint-
        Germain-des-Prés and elsewhere defining their literary and artistic superiority by a
        deliberate anti-Americanism.

  2. What would’ve bothered me most if I was part of the Christmas truce, would be having to go right back to shooting the same people I’d been socializing with.

    That being said, while it’s a pity the truce didn’t lead to the end of the war or anything else major, I have a hard time regarding it as a bad thing. Nobody was deserting or switching sides (I know, “it’s not the worst thing”) they were talking a break from the business of killing each other because a treaty told them to.

  3. Regarding the anecdote about your dad: has it occurred to you that that story could make a superb screenplay or stage play?

  4. I don’t think we can state unequivocally,yhat no lives were saved. We cannot prove a negative.

    The objective of war is to force your opponent to acquiesce to your demands. Unfortunately, killing and breaking their stuff is the means to that end. If there is a way to force a choice between two intransigent groups without killing we should be open to it.

    Whether these soldiers were naive or not once one is in the trenches to goal is not to kill as many of the others as possible it is to make it home in as close to one piece as possible killing only enough to be victorious.

    • 1. If any lives were saved, it was Chaos and Moral Luck, and they don’t get any ethics brownie points for it.
      2. Now, if they had used Christmas to stop fighting, show love and respect to each other, and issue a joint statement that this war was insane, they were fighting over nothing, and announcing that they would fight no more, I could have respect for that. Who knows what would have happened? To say, symbolically, for Christmas we’re pretending to parctice peace and good will, but just until tomorrow, is either self-serving or cynical.
      3. Is there a standard in war that has backfired as often as “kill only enough to be victorious”?

  5. The statement about putting fighting aside for the day only to go back to fighting the next day as being fundamentally wrong is the most important thing stated in the whole post.

    I really don’t know how many killed is enough but I have to assume that most soldiers simply want to get home to their loved ones because they are merely the tools of policy makers. If maximum killing is the goal then just use nukes.

    I have the utmost respect for all combat soldiers who stand to lose everything for us. My uncle fought at the Bulge and my grandfather at Anzio. My father was in the Marines. I only know about war what I learned from them. That lesson was war is sometimes necessary and the goal is not to be the bigger loser because there are never any winners.

  6. One thing that troubles me a bit is the term Nazi soldiers. Most of the ordinary soldiers in the Wehrmacht were not members of the Nazi Party although a certain percentage of their officers were, especially those in the SS and high ranking officers such as Goering. Still, if I was an American or British soldier fighting against a German army unit the distinction wouldn’t matter much.

  7. It also get complicated with the Soviet troops such as the Cossacks who fought with the German Army especially on the Eastern Front who were more motivated by their hated of Stalin and the Soviet Union than their love for Nazi Germany. Many of them wound up being captured by American and British formations and forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union where they were shot upon arrival or sent to the Gulag where they perished. One of the great tragedies of WW2 thanks to the deal that FDR and Stalin worked out at Yalta.

  8. The Christmas Truce is famous at least in part because it was a one-off thing, and never happened again.

    During our Civil War, which at the fighting level was certainly as vicious and deadly a war as they come, there are any number of reports of soldiers fraternizing with the other side. Whenever two armies were facing each other for any length of time, trade would spring up between the two sides. I believe Yankee coffee for Rebel tobacco was always a popular trade.

    I like to think that it showed that the two sides were really a common people even as they fought a deadly war. The soldiers certainly had much in common.

    But however much they fraternized, when the next fight came they were just as fierce and just as determined to win as ever.

    It was also a less regimented era than the 20th and 21st centuries, which no doubt played a part as well.

    • “It was also a less regimented era than the 20th and 21st centuries, which no doubt played a part as well.”

      This is important. World War I marks a turning point in the relationship between the citizen and the state…certainly in Europe.

  9. I don’t think it proves anything much about the goodness of the soldiers involved, but it speaks well of Christmas that the two sides couldn’t help but feel friendly and congenial on Christmas.

    It’s not something that would have happened on Saturnalia.

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