Christmas Truce of 1914 311.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As darkness crept over British and German trenches on Christmas Eve of
1914, one of history’s most astounding and heart-warming anomalies of
warfare spontaneously unfolded. The German and British troops halted
their fire and laid down their arms in order to sing to one another,
exchange gifts, bury their dead together and according to many
recollections, play friendly games of soccer in the no-man’s land that
had been strewn with the bodies hours earlier.
According to most
accounts recorded in diaries and interviews years later, the 1914
Christmas Truce began sometime after 7 p.m. on December 24, just over
four months into World War One. German troops decorated small
Christmas trees with candles sent by their headquarters and broke out into
carols, faintly heard dozens of meters away by British soldiers.
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most famous story took place near Ypres, Belgium, where British troops
made out the melody of Stille Nacht
(Silent Night) being sung from the
German lines and sang back the same carol in English. Each round of song
elicited applause from the opposing trenches, replacing the booms and
cracks of artillery and rifle fire that had raced across the narrow
stretch of land separating the two sides only hours before.
shouts in broken English replaced the song. "You no fight, we no
fight," the Germans yelled at their enemies, Dominic J. Caraccilo tells
in Beyond Guns and Steel
. Small groups and sometimes individual soldiers
from both sides climbed out of their trenches and walked toward one
another, stepping over the concertina wire and heavy guns. Without a common language
in most cases, the enemy soldiers shook hands and exchanged Christmas
greetings and tobacco.
It is not known exactly where the 1914
Christmas Truce began, if it broke out spontaneously in far away
battlefields or if it spread along the long lines of trenches. But the
scenes that took place were similar in locations all along the western
front. By most modern estimates, 100,000 troops on both sides took part
in the impromptu fraternization among young men enlisted to kill one
The next morning, Christmas Day, the unofficial
ceasefire continued. Troops from both sides collected their dead, some
of whom had for weeks been left lying on the frozen ground separating the trenches. In a handful of cases Germans and Brits held communal burial
ceremonies in both English and German.
One account by a German army major, published decades later by a German magazine, described the scene:
heard that it was the wish of the Englishman to bury on the occasion of
the Christmas holiday their dead who were lying before the front … Our
padre … arranged the prayers and psalm and an interpreter wrote them out
in German. They were read first in English by our padre and then in
German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an exciting
and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English
on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared.
the more astounding occurrences of the Christmas Truce – and the one most
questioned by historians – were tales of friendly soccer matches that
broke out between the two sides. In Silent Night: The Story of the World
War I Christmas Truce
, Stanley Weintraub cites a German soldier's
journal describing one such game. What started with an Englishman and a
German kicking around a ball soon "developed into a regulation football
match with caps casually laid out as goals. The ground was frozen was no
great matter … The game ended 3-2 for Fritz (the Germans)."
truce, which would be unfathomable in modern warfare, lasted until after
New Years Day in some places but only until December 26 in most. In The
World War I Reader
by Michael S. Neiberg, one British officer is quoted
describing the last moments of the anomalous truce in the early morning
hours of Christmas Day 1914:
I fired three shots in the air and
put up a flag with 'Merry Christmas' on it, and I climbed on the
parapet. He put up a sheet with 'Thank you' on it and the German Captain
appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into
our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the war
was on again.
Senior officers behind the lines did not, however, sanction or view with
such lightheartedness the Christmas Truce of 1914. Many derided the
spontaneous and scattered ceasefire as a rebellion against the military
and political command echelons.
Testifying to the English Parliament 16 years later, Sir H. Kingsley
Wood, an English major who took part in the Christmas Truce and later
became a cabinet minister, described the sentiment of the unique moment:
“The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I
have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves
there would never have been another shot fired."