The Christmas Truce of 1914
It’s December and the Christmas spirit is here with us. Mulled wine, gingerbread, Christmas trees, snow, the cold cosy nights. Who doesn’t like Christmas and the Christmas spirit? Some would argue soldiers in service. But over 100 years ago in the trenches and the No Man’s Land of WWI, something astounding happened. Namely, the Christmas truce, where the British soldiers had a temporary unofficial cease-fire on Christmas Eve. So did this really happen? Well, I think it happened and I will explain why I think so.
The countries and soldiers that went to war in July were convinced that the war would end before Christmas. If Kaiser Wilhelm said so it must be true, right? Well not really. Imagine yourself as a German soldier; You’re sitting in your trench far from home, cold and wet from all the rain and one knows that families will celebrate Christmas without you. You are losing your will to fight, but the Kaiser have sent you Christmas trees so at least that’s something. This is how, I imagine, many soldiers felt in December 1914. Soldiers, on both sides, were tired of fighting. On the 23rd of December, the German soldiers started putting their Christmas trees outside of their trenches and started singing carols such as “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night). This caused the British soldiers to sing back their own carols. The battle now was not made of bullets and shell but of who could sing the best and the loudest.
By presumably word of mouth only, the Christmas Eve policy became “live and let live” and it is suspected that this was ordered by lower-ranking officers. This order meant that one was not to fire unless fired upon. The officers’ decision was made without authorization from the higher-ranking officers and the flimsy truce started to slowly take hold. On or around Christmas Eve, German soldiers started to emerge from their trenches, waving their arms to show that they mean no harm. When it became clear for the British soldiers that they were unarmed, the British soldiers joined them and met the Germans in No Man’s Land. When they met each other they started to exchange gifts, sharing food and drink. There was even a football match between them, where, it is rumoured, the Germans won 3-2.
How do we know that any of this actually happened? Well at this time of the war, the censorship of letters sent home had not been imposed yet. British and German soldiers wrote of playing football and sharing food and drinks with the men who had been their mortal enemies the day before.
Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch, a schoolteacher of the 134th Saxons, wrote in his diary.
“The British brought a ball from the trenches, and soon a lively game ensued.
How marvellous, how wonderful, yet how strange it was. The British officers felt the same way about it. And so Christmas, that celebration of love, managed to bring together mortal enemies as friends, for a time”.
These letters stress the fact that the soldiers could not believe their eyes that they were celebrating and chatting with the enemy. But it was not all fun and games, however, as the most common activities in areas observing the Christmas Truce were joint services to bury the dead and to repair and improve the trenches. This implies that the soldiers knew that the peace was not going to last. They were right.
The Allied and German High Commands knew nothing about these Christmas Day festivities. When the news reached them, in their secluded chateaux, a safe distance from the front, they did their utmost to put a stop to it. The following days after Christmas the violence began again on the Western Front.
“At 8.30 am I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and climbed onto the parapet,” wrote Captain JC Dunn, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. “The German Captain appeared on the parapet - he put up a sheet with ‘Thank You’ on it. 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.”
I think that this is a beautiful thing that happened. It makes me both happy and sad at the same time. It makes me happy because this unusual event shows the humanity of the soldiers. That they’re not some programmed killing machines, where their only purpose is to kill. They were human, like the rest of us. But it makes me sad thinking of how many of them actually survived until 1918, to the end of the war. Or the fact that they had no clue of the horrors that would come. The second battle of Ypres and its asphyxiating gas were months away and the seemingly endless, mindless slaughter of Paschendale and Verdun would come in the following years. The explosions from artillery shells, the sight and smell of poison gas, the screaming, the loss of friends and limbs. They were young men with ambitions and passions, but it was unfairly taken from them by a pointless war. This was their last time of peaceful silence before they would experience the horror of The War to End All Wars.
Gustav Falk Year II student.
Universitetsholm Vocational College.