When the “War to End All Wars” began in August, a hundred years ago, governments on both sides were so sure of a quick victory that they assured their soldiers that they would be home by Christmas. As a line of opposing trenches stretched from the English Channel to the Alps and men settled into living ankle-deep in mud and futile, suicidal attacks against entrenched riflemen, machine guns and cannons, the men soon realized it to be a vain hope. Both sides were too strong and too determined for the war to have a quick conclusion. Christmas would be spent in the trenches, with rats and trench foot instead of reindeer and stockings for Santa.
The First World War was different from previous wars in so many ways. Killing was much more efficient, with machine guns and monstrous cannons. It was truly the birth of mechanized warfare, with trucks for transportation, airplanes for bombing and tanks for driving over the top of infantrymen. And it spelled the end of armies going into winter quarters. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, armies would have an unspoken truce during the harsh months of winter. It was due to the impassable roads and difficulty of moving and provisioning of the troops in those conditions rather than compassion for the troops. The men would usually be housed in rude cabins, where they would spend Christmas in time of war. That is why George Washington’s attack on Trenton on the 26th of December in 1776 was such a surprise to the Hessians; he attacked in weather not considered suitable for military maneuvers. While the mechanization of the armies did not eliminate those problems, it reduced them enough that there was no pause in the fighting for winter. Christmas in 1914, the first of the war, would be spent in the muddy, cold trenches.
In an effort to to alleviate the misery of Christmas in the trenches, both the British and German governments sent packages and cards to their troops. The Germans also received small Christmas trees with candle-lit lanterns. In Germany, the main Christmas celebration is on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. So the German troops lighted their lanterns and set the trees in front of their trenches, then started singing Christmas carols. Since there had been a sudden frost, the landscape had a cover of white, like snow-frosted Christmases back home for both sides. Understand that in many places the opposing trenches were so close that the soldiers had often yelled taunts at each other in the months before. Now the lights and music of Christmas wafted across the war-torn terrain. Since these were predominately men who were Christians and might even have visited each others’ countries before the war, no doubt the soldiers began to think that it was not right to kill each other on such a holy day. They started singing the carols together. They started calling to each other, with well-wishing rather than taunts. Then, on Christmas morning, something most unusual happened. In a number of places, the shooting did not resume with the daybreak. An ad-hoc truce had started.
Private H. Scrutton of the Essex Regiment described it this way: “As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them. We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:-
From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer).
“Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer).
“GOOD MORNING FRITZ.”
From German trenches: “Good morning.”
From our trench: “How are you?”
“Come over here, Fritz.”
“No. If I come I get shot.”
“No you won’t. Come on.”
“Come and get some fags, Fritz.”
“No. You come half way and I meet you.”
One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fritz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange.”
Rifleman C. H. Brazier of the Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford, described what happened to him in this way: “You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ”
This was not planned. There was no coordination to the truce. It was not universal. In some places, the firing continued and men died. Germany had been a united country less than 50 years and not all German troops reacted the same way. In one location, the British who came out of their trenches were fired upon by Prussian troops (much more regimented and militaristic than other Germans) and a couple were killed. However, some Saxon troops near them threatened to shoot them and they stopped. The Saxons even ventured out to put up a table to host their British enemies. During Christmas Day, many locations down the line had an unofficial truce. Hymns, carols and other songs were sung by the soldiers from both sides. Souvenirs, food, tobacco and stories were shared. Footballs (soccer balls) appeared and were kicked around. There was even time to bury the dead who had fallen in no-man’s land, where trying to reach them would have meant almost certain death.
All too soon, the day of celebration was over and the killing began again. On the same land where the day before soldiers had shared food, stories and bon humour, men were again mowed down by machine guns. Although the top brass tried to stifle news of the 1914 Christmas Truce, censorship had not yet been formalized and stories leaked out to the general public from soldiers’ letters home. However, as the war and killing ground on, the Truce was all but forgotten and never happened again.
Although briefly depicted in a couple of movies, the 2005 movie “Joyeux Noël” was devoted to the Christmas Truce and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Now, on the centennial of that truce, Sainsbury supermarkets has made a TV ad depicting it, including the British Tommy handing a Sainsbury chocolate bar to his German counterpart (click here). While some have claimed that this is blatant commercialism, at least it brings to light this most unusual event. In doing so, it gives food for thought. As a Highland Regiment officer wrote in The Times in 1915: “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.”