Remembering, Again, The 1914 Christmas Truce

Truce

I’ve posted on this a couple of times, and as it is one of the more unusual ethics events in history to occur on Christmas, here it is again. Of course, as an America, I am joyful about another, more consequential military event that happened on Christmas. Washington crossed the Delaware river on this date. His resulting victory over the Hessians at Trenton was, in the end, less than consequential militarily, but it was important nonetheless . It bolstered the rebelling colonies’ morale, at a point where there were serious doubts that the nascent democracy had any chance to prevail.

One of the weirdest events in world history took place on Christmas 1914, 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 German trenches, 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.

5 thoughts on “Remembering, Again, The 1914 Christmas Truce

  1. I’ve read a number of times about this famous Christmas truce. It is fascinating to think about what factors coalesced to create this result.

    I am also reminded of stories about the Civil War armies — apparently whenever the Federal and Confederate armies would be camped near each other, trade would spring up between the enlisted soldiers. I recall reading that the Yankees like southern tobacco, whilst the Confederates appreciated northern coffee.

    These men realized they’d likely be killing each other in job lots the following days, and figured that not shooting a handful would not make any difference. There did not appear to be any slackening of ferocity when the armies clashed.

    I’ve always thought it showed we had more in common, even during a Civil War, than what divided us. I confess that I don’t know how that might apply to WWI.

  2. On my father’s side, I descend from a Hessian drum major who escaped from the P.O.W. camp in Frederick, Maryland while awaiting shipment back to Germany and settled in Berkeley Springs (then known as Bath), West Virginia (then Virginia).

  3. Actually, at least according to Wikipedia (backed by primary sources) the French did participate, though in smaller numbers, and there were isolated instances on the Eastern Front of the Russians backing off the Austro-Hungarians during the Catholic Christmas, while they returned the favor some weeks later during the Orthodox Feast of the Nativity. The British waved off German attempts to repeat the truce on Easter Sunday 1915.

    The fact is that it makes for a good romantic inspiration for poems and songs, I myself just wrote a poem about it for a friend, focusing on the singing of “Adeste Fideles” which both sides knew, words and music, and the sentiment of finding one song the whole world can sing. Unfortunately, although war and government can be spoken of and campaigned for in poetry, they must be executed in prose. In a song, it’s easy to get swept away in the emotion of the holiday and say “if it could happen then, why not later?” and “If soldiers everywhere put down their weapons, not just for one day, but for all time, what a world that would be!” However, it’s no different than Simon and Garfunkel’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” which is just that, a dream, or John Lennon’s “Imagine” which you much (rightly) malign.

    The nearest this world ever came to one peaceful person or movement stopping a war was when Gandhi used a hunger strike in an attempt to end the riots and religious violence that accompanied the partition of India. Europe hadn’t listened to the suffragettes, it hadn’t listened to the Pope, and the idea that a peace was going to break out was a pipe dream. There’s a big difference between the chivalry of taking a short break to observe a holiday or to bury the dead (which fades away when the enemy is no longer thought of as chivalrous) and the wishful thinking/anarchy and treason of members of the military repudiating their oaths of office and simply walking away because their duties ramped up. In fact, Eric Maria Remarque noted, in All Quiet on the Western Front (often trumpeted as an anti-war book, but really more an attempt to describe the experience of the common soldier), that the soldiers’ thinking was that, although being a private sucked, being an NCO was actually pretty good, and often led the corporal or sergeant to the post of village policeman (who everyone wanted to keep happy) after his time in the service.

  4. The first time I knew of this story was through a song by Garth Brooks. It still amazes me that it’s true. I didn’t know it was true for a long time. I thought it was just a song. Garth has a lot of ballad style songs.

    • The event and the song both highlight the fact that ordinary soldiers often have a greater sense of humanity than those they are conscripted or sworn to follow. For those with a robust sense of ethics, it is easier to die for your country than to kill.

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