The Christmas Truce of 1914
By December of 1914, there were no illusions about the horrors of the First World War. Just five months after Europe was set ablaze by conflict, the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding were becoming routine among soldiers huddled in their trenches along the Western Front. In happier times, thoughts of Christmas would not have been far from anyone’s mind, but war has a way of changing the occasions that are normally cherished. On December 7, Pope Benedict XV suggested temporarily pausing the war to allow for the celebration of Christmas. His suggestion went unheeded by the warring countries. With the bitterness of the conflict already so firm, Europe’s clashing superpowers refused to create any official cease-fire. Despite this decision, when the holiday approached, some opposing soldiers on the frontlines found the Christmas spirit well alive in their hearts.
Late On Christmas Eve, an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters, “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.” This behavior continued further along the Western Front, with many British and German troops singing Christmas carols to each other across the lines. British Private Frederick Heath later wrote home about the experience, “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 and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”
On Christmas Day, British and German troops left their trenches and met each other in no man’s land. They used the time of peace to exchange presents, take photographs, and even play impromptu games of football. Some used the occasion for the somber task of retrieving the bodies of fallen comrades. Others dutifully made repairs to their trenches.
English and German soldiers meeting together in No Man's Land on the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914. (Photo: telegraph.co.uk)
It is estimated that the Christmas Truce of 1914 "extended along at least two-thirds of British-held trench line that scarred southern Belgium.” While many put down their guns out of the spirit of the holiday, not everyone stopped fighting. As is always the case with combat, in the areas that fighting continued on Christmas Day, soldiers became casualties.
Some officers were not pleased about the truce, believing it would undermine fighting spirit. After 1914, the high commands of both sides did their utmost to prevent any future large-scale holiday ceasefires. Despite the threat of disciplinary action, there were some isolated cases of soldiers holding brief truces later in the war, but nothing ever reached the same level as the Christmas Truce of 1914.
An illustration of the Christmas Truce published on January 9, 1915 in the Illustrated London News. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
War causes indescribable pain and destruction. It can be easy to lose sight of humanity when faced with such overwhelming carnage. This was especially true in the First World War when technological advancements increased the capability of annihilating the enemy unlike ever before. While it was only for a brief time, the spirit of Christmas in 1914 helped remind some soldiers of the goodness that binds all of us together.