By Kevin Kenz
One hundred and one years ago Europe was in the early grip of World War One. Since the beginning of the fighting in August 1914, troops on all sides had experienced the harsh realities of combat firsthand. The early battles in the late summer and into the fall had eroded the strength of the armies that set out with such high hopes of ending the war by Christmas. On the western front the armies had fought to a stalemate and by late October each side took a defensive posture and started to dig in. Thus began the devastating trench warfare so often associated with the Great War.
The depleted armies needed time to rebuild their strength and the trenches allowed for some stability while they did so. Little did anyone imagine that over three and a half years later the war in the trenches would still be raging. Few imagined the shocking loss of life Europe would suffer as these armies attempted to bludgeon their way through the enemy trench lines in the vain hope of a breakthrough that would lead to the collapse of their enemy.
As the armies of the French, British and Germans worked to bring their armies back up to strength it was clear to all that the war would go on much longer and Christmas 1914 would find many men in the front lines, far from home. Hardened regulars were getting reinforced by men who were new to army life and who had a certain naïve idealism about what they would experience.
The trenches on each side were constructed very close to each other in many areas, with the result that men could hear the enemy talking as well work being done in the opposing trenches. This closeness, in certain areas as little as 30 yards apart, meant sometimes troops would actually shout across no man’s land to each other, insulting and joking , at times asking questions of one another, and occasionally actually throwing items like food or tobacco to each other. This was particularly prevalent in the British sector of the front. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) held a 27 mile long front that ran from just south of Ypres, Belgium down to the La Bassée canal 4 miles below Nueve Chappelle in northern France.
As fall continued, the weather turned for the worse. Cold and an almost incessant rain would transform many of the trenches into sloppy, messy quagmires that at times were almost impassable. Efforts to maintain trench walls, remove excessive water, provide shelter, and the struggle to find some measure of warmth and comfort brought men on all sides closer together in a shared misery, over and above the normal difficulties of fighting a war. Into December the weather only worsened as the rain and cold continued.
“I used to think I knew what mud was before I came out here but I was quite mistaken. The mud here varies from 6 inches to 3 & 4 feet, even 5 feet, and it is so sticky that, until we were all issued with boots, my men used to arrive in the trenches with bare feet.” 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Pelham-Burn, 6/Gordon Highlanders, December 1914
“…it had been pouring, and mud lay deep in the trenches; they were caked from head to foot, and I have never seen anything like their rifles! Not one would work, and they were just lying about the trenches getting stiff and cold. One fellow got both his feet jammed in the clay, and when told to get up by an officer, had to get up on all fours; he then got his hands stuck too, and was caught like a fly on a flypaper; all he could do was look around and say to his pals, ‘For Gawd’s sake, shoot me!’. I laughed until I cried…” Lt. Edward Hulse, 2/Scots Guards
“Jimmy went out last night and says he could hear the Huns sloshing about in their trenches & coughing as much as we do, so I expect they are equally uncomfortable.” Lt. Colonel Laurence Fisher-Rowe, 1/Grenadier Guards, mid December 1914
“Things have got very much worse: Flanders is just one great morass and all military operations have been brought to a standstill by the mud. Day and night we stand up in mud and water. We have to wrap our legs up to our thighs in sandbags just to survive. The rain pours incessantly from above…” Pioneer Friedrich Nicklaus, German 53rd Reserve Pioneer Company, December 1914
These shared difficulties and closeness to each other meant troops on both sides began to feel a sense of kinship with their fellow enemy. Breakfast truces, whereby both sides tacitly agreed to halt all fighting first thing in the morning so they could prepare a breakfast and head towards the latrines without coming under fire, were not uncommon by December. Many Germans had worked in Britain before the war, so their ability to speak English led to some interesting conversations along the trench lines between enemy soldiers too.
Another shared trait was singing in the trenches. Popular songs, many requiring participants to join in, often meant that spontaneous bursts of singing on one side would be met by applause, comments and songs in return. “During the winter of 1914-1915 it was not unusual for little groups of men to gather in the front of the trench and there hold an impromptu concerts, singing patriotic and sentimental songs. The Germans did much the same, and on calm evenings the songs from one line floated to the trenches on the other side, and were received with applause and sometimes calls for an encore.” 6/Gordon Highlanders, Official History
As Christmas neared men on both sides dwelled on the time of year, families and friends they missed seeing, holiday traditions they had enjoyed in the past and the fact that they would spend their time most likely far from home. The weather conditions only increased the men’s desire to somehow try to enjoy a measure of holiday cheer despite it all. At the same time, packages started to arrive from home in early to mid-December filled with all sorts of items from warm clothing to holiday foods, tobacco and cigarettes. It is estimated that in the second week of December 1914 at least 250,000 parcels were delivered to the British troops, 200,000 more the following week.
Added to the large influx of holiday gifts to the troops was the special Christmas gift sent by Princess Mary to all British troops. Known today as the Princess Mary Christmas tin, these small brass embossed tins, once opened, revealed several pictures of Princess Mary, the King and Queen, and a small Christmas card. In addition, a bullet pencil, a packet of cigarettes and a packet of pipe tobacco were included. Nonsmokers could get a tin with chocolates and sweets inside instead. Some also got a small writers case. Over 355,500 were delivered by Christmas, so many that it caused a disruption in the normal supply chain of material to the front!
The German troops were given gifts as well from the Kaiser. Normally a meerschaum pipe with tobacco for the troops while officers received a box of cigars. In addition, villages and towns across Germany sent troops packages full of scarves, gloves, cakes, liqueurs, holiday foods, cards and letters. On top of that, thousands of small Christmas trees (Tannenbaum) were sent to the front which would play a part in initiating the truce along the lines on the eve of Christmas. Germany went so far as to supply Christmas trees to ships and U-boats of the High Seas Fleet!
As early as Dec 23nd there were the first signs of a Christmas truce in several places along the front between the BEF and the Germans. Singing and friendlier exchanges indicated that the men desired to halt the fighting. There was a marked change in the weather late on the 22nd that only helped this occur. The skies cleared, the temperature dropped into freezing levels, the ground hardened and the air was cleared of some of the more offensive smells emanating from all the wet, muddy ground littered between the lines with the dead of both side. A heavy frost in some areas, with snow in others would transform the landscape. Snow especially helped to hide some of the scars of battle, covering those areas with a clean layer of white.
The Germans traditionally celebrated the Christmas season on Christmas Eve. So on the 24th many of their troops had little desire to spend it fighting and clearly made efforts to indicate so. The small Christmas trees that arrived at the front were decorated with a few candles. Soon a number of them made their way to the top of the parapet in areas along the trench lines. Even simple gestures of setting a lantern above the edge of the trench raised the curiosity of the British opposite. The lighted trees and lanterns, the singing and laughter coming from the Germans increased as the Christmas Eve night went on.
“Several of my chums had been able to get hold of two small Christmas trees complete with candles, to be mounted on the parapet of the trenches…” Lt. Hugo Klemm, 133rd Saxon Infantry Regiment
“Then at darkness we marched forward to the trenches like Father Christmas with parcels hanging from us. All was quiet. No shooting. Little snow. We posted a tiny Christmas tree in our dugout…We placed a second lighted tree on the breastwork. Then we began to sing our old Christmas songs: ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ and ‘O du Froehliche’…” Lt. Johannes Niemann, 133rd Saxon Infantry Regiment.
In some sections of the line the lighted trees and lanterns could be seen for hundreds of yards in each direction.
“It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere and about seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights- I don’t know what they were. And then they sang ‘Silent Night’- ‘Stille Nacht’. I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.” Private Albert Moren, 2/Queen’s (Royal West Surrey)
Spontaneous applause and cheers would come from the British trenches following the singing of these Christmas songs. Then they would strike up a song or two, and back and forth it went, sprinkled with shouts of good cheer or “Happy Christmas”. Soon there were invitations to come out of the trenches to meet in between. With due caution, a few men from both sides would walk out, shake hands and exchange a few items- food, cigars, cigarettes, liquor.
“Our sergeant goes out, their man takes a lot of coaxing but comes at the finish and we find that they have sent two, we can hear them talking quite plain, they exchange cigarettes and the German shouts to us a Merry Christmas.” Private William Tapp, 1/Royal Warwickshire
As the night wore on there were exchanges of good will, open requests not to fight this night or on Christmas day, some even wanting to halt fighting till after the New Year. The Christmas truce, while not along the entire front between the Germans and British, was breaking out along its length in large sections.
When the dawn of Christmas day broke forth after a quiet yet eventful night the agreed upon halt in the fighting held. Men from both sides would stand on top of the trenches, waving and shouting to the enemy opposite. Soon small groups of men could be seen walking out into no man’s land to meet the enemy up close. Some of this had a very practical and somber reason for doing so. It only made sense to use the peace of the Christmas day to make an effort to bury the dead which lay between the lines. But without a doubt there was also a sincere desire by men of both sides to meet their opponents in daylight while the truce held.
“At about 9 a.m. on Christmas day an English officer, accompanied by two of his men, came across and asked for a cease-fire until midnight to bury the dead. This was willingly granted.” Excerpt from a German soldier’s letter home
“…The officer came out; we gravely saluted each other, and I then pointed to the nine dead Germans lying in midfield and suggested burying them, which both sides agreed to do. We gave them some wooden crosses for them, which completely won them over, and soon the men were on the best of terms and laughing.” Unknown British officer, Rifle Brigade
“There was no firing, so by degrees each side began gradually showing more of themselves, and then two of their men came halfway and called for an officer. I went out and found that they were willing to have an armistice for 4 hours, and to carry our dead men back halfway for us to bury. This I arranged and then – can you imagine it? Both sides came out, met in the middle, shook hands, wished each other compliments of the season, and had a chat. A strange sight between two hostile lines. Then they carried over the dead.” 2nd Lieutenant Wilbert Spencer, 2/Wiltshires
This curious blend of meeting their enemy, whom they had been fighting and killing only days or hours before, in order to carry out the task of burying their dead as well as come to friendly terms of peace on Christmas day was not lost on many of the men. Nevertheless men on both sides would at times go out to assist the enemy in burying their dead too. Their shared experiences the proceeding weeks and months created a special bond that allowed this to happen during the truce.
In at least one case, joint burials between the lines led to an actual burial service carried out between the lines and attended by troops of both sides. Often however, simple words were spoken by the men as they covered their comrades with the frozen ground and went on with their grim tasks. There was an almost silent understanding by men of both sides when it came to taking care of their lost soldiers. They did the task with a twinge of anger mixed with the emotion of the day, in the midst of a terrible war they could do little to alter. So in their own way they used the truce to give their dead some dignity in the end.
As Christmas day wore on more and more men reveled in the silence of the day and sought ways to make the most of it. Resting, meeting the enemy, cooking and sharing food from home, enjoying the treats sent by families and others were among the activities this special day. Some of the men actually made it over into the enemy trenches where they were treated as special guests. In places along the frontlines there were literally several hundred men, all mingling together for several hours, talking, exchanging tobacco, food, or hats, buttons and other bits of their military kit.
While most of the Christmas truce took place along the sector held between the BEF and the Germans there were some of these same events happening along areas of the front held by the French. Yet there were far fewer compared to those on the British front. France and Belgium had suffered greatly at the start of the war and it was their lands that were now occupied by the Germans. It was difficult for them to find the spirit needed to allow a truce to occur as it did with the British. It was also different in that many Germans worked in Great Britain before the war and had familiarity with both the country and the language. This was for the most part missing when it came to the relations between the French and Germans.
One other aspect of the Christmas truce must be told regarding the numerous stories of soccer matches held between the lines that day. Over the years this is one the more popular aspects of the truce and and it has been debated ever since. There does seem to have been some impromptu kicking a soccer ball about (or something akin to one) between the trenches with men from both sides of the line joining in. On the other hand, stories of real matches with set teams and a marked playing field have found no support by veterans who experienced the Christmas truce nor in most of the documentation. What little that was written about it in reports or letters home allude more to a general playing around with a soccer ball versus a real match. Besides, as was pointed out by the men who were there at the time, the land in and around the trenches was in no way suited for a proper match to be played. It was broken up with barbed wire, shell holes, muddy in many areas and generally in poor shape. (Though nowhere near the level of devastation that would be seen as the war dragged on whereby the areas near the trenches were literally transformed into an almost lunar like landscape.)
By the end of Christmas day in areas where the truce took hold, there was tacit agreement by most of the men on both sides to keep it going to at least New Year’s Day. In many of those cases it indeed held up but as word got out about the truce, many in higher commands began ordering their troops to stop fraternizing with the enemy. It is also true they were willing to let some areas remain quiet as it allowed work on the trenches and other areas near the enemy to be conducted during the daylight without interruption. So there was at times a tacit and practical reason to allow the truce to remain, but clearly many commanders did not want the fraternizing to continue.
In some cases, due to the normal rotation schedules, units in the front lines were replaced by new units which had not experienced the truce nor understood what had happened to bring about the truce. So they were less inclined to go along with the informal truce their predecessors had participated in.
Accounts of the Christmas truce did end up in many newspapers of the day. Most of the accounts were positive and continued interest in the story kept it going for several weeks. New accounts appeared as letters from home were then given to the press which provided more material to bring to their readers. In some cases actual pictures of troops from both sides standing together were printed. Clearly the truce sparked interest back at home and found a ready audience who enjoyed seeing something good and positive to read about regarding a war that few anticipated would be so devastating when it started a mere 5 months prior.
As the war entered into 1915 in most areas the Christmas truce ended and war resumed. In small pockets of the front lines there were lengthy quiet periods which some took as an extension of the truce. These lasted in a few places until March 1915. Yet overall the truce was over and it was not to be repeated to such an extent again in WW1. Though there was some scattered attempts at a truce during Christmas time in 1915, there were few actual instances of it happening.
As the war went on, the armies would grow larger, the death toll would rise to unthinkable heights, and hundreds of miles of landscape would be forever scarred by the constant shelling year after year. The trenches would be extended even more as well, further marring an already ruined land littered with the remains of a generation who gave their very last shred of life in a war that consumed men on all sides. Yet the Christmas truce of 1914 was an event that stood out in the Great War despite it lasting for almost four more years. Why?
Upon reflection, perhaps the Christmas truce of 1914 serves to remind us that despite all the difficulties, men still found a way to remain human, to have a glimmer of hope in a dark world, and to provide us today with the inspiration to find hope in each and every Christmas for a better world.
- Christmas Truce-The Western Front, December 1914, by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton. The single best account of the truce.
- Silent Night- The Story of The World War I Christmas Truce, by Stanley Weintraub.
- All Is Calm- The Christmas Truce of 1914, by Peter Rothstein. This is a CD using Christmas music sung by Cantus, interspersed with dramatizations of the truce using original quotes by the men who experienced it firsthand.
- The Christmas Truce, an article on the website www.firstworldwar.com
- The Christmas Truce website www.christmastruce.co.uk
- “Last survivor of ‘Christmas truce’ tells of his sorrow”, by Lorna Martin, an article from The Guardian, December 18, 2004, www.theguardian.com
- Bullets and Billets, by Bruce Bairnsfather, a well-known illustrator in WW1. He created the cartoon character “Old Bill” who so well illustrated the average British soldier with an earthy sense of humor and irony. Bairnsfather experienced the truce firsthand as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1/Royal Warwickshire
**All quotes in this article are from Brown and Seaton’s book, although they can also be found in many sources describing the Christmas truce.