On Christmas Day 1914, in the cold, muddy trenches World War I’s Western Front, a truly miraculous event occurred. For a few brief hours, opposing soldiers, British, French, Germans and Austrians in the “No Man’s Land” of France and Belgium, declared their own cease fire. They laid down their arms, climbed from the trenches, and shared their carols, food, and even games of football. The Christmas Truce remains one of the most hopeful moments of “The Great War,” or any war thereafter.
In the 4 years of World War I, between 1914 and 1918, over 25 million were killed or wounded on both sides. Yet there was still a unexpected moment of joy and hope in the battlefield trenches during the first Christmas of WWI in 1914. Some two-thirds of troops, about 100,000 men on both sides, are believed to have spontaneously participated. But what actually happened to precipitate the famous Christmas Truce?
By the winter of 1914, the terrible Western Front stretched thousands of miles across Belgium, Flanders, and France. Countless soldiers lived in misery in the trenches, while tens of thousands had already died. By December, the men were now very familiar with the harsh realities of the battlefield. Any idealism they’d carried into war the summer before was long gone. They were told by their commanders it would be over by Christmas, yet here they were – still cold, muddy and ready to kill the enemy at a moment’s notice.
Then Christmas came …
Pope Benedict XV called for a Christmas truce in 1914, but the idea was quickly rejected by commanders on both sides. Then, on Christmas Eve, December 24th, several weeks of miserable soaking rain was replaced by a thick, hard frost, creating a light dusting of snow along the front. It made the men on both sides feel that something truly spiritual had taken place amongst the hell of war. It was enough to motivate troops to simultaneously initiate a temporary truce on their own.
The first signs that something unusual was happening occurred after dark on Christmas Eve. Around 8:30 pm, an Irish officer reported to headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches with dozens of candles, are singing songs, and shouting ‘Happy Xmas’ to us. Compliments are being exchanged, but I am nevertheless cautious.”
Most accounts say the truce began with that spontaneous singing of Christmas carols. “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere”, one British private recalled. He was sad to be spending Christmas Eve shivering in the muck, miles from home, fighting the Germans just a mere 100 feet away. They crouched together in long trenches just 6 feet deep and 3 feet wide. Each day was marked with constant fear, stale biscuits and soggy cigarettes. It seemed the only chance of getting home was in an ambulance or a coffin.
About 10 pm, other British troops noticed an odd sound.
“Away across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of raised voices.” The Germans were singing Christmas carols! Another solder wrote; “First, the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours. Until we started up O Come, All Ye Faithful, then the Germans joined in singing the same in Latin, Adeste Fideles. And I thought to myself, well, this is really most extraordinary – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” Further along the line, the two sides serenaded each other with carols—the German Silent Night was met with a British, The First Noel.
The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by joviality and Christmas carols from both sides. Not a shot was fired. The dawn arrived crisp, clear and cold. What happened next would shock the world and forever make history. In the British sector, troops noticed the Germans had placed small Christmas trees along parapets of their trenches. “All down our line there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldiers, English soldiers, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’”
Then voices added: ‘Come out, English soldier; come out to us.’ For some time, they were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down the line, they heard the men answering Christmas greetings from the enemy. One soldier wrote: “How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we were at each other’s throats yesterday, and would be the next?”
“You come half way and we’ll come half way,” the British soldiers replied.
A message was sent back saying, that ‘If you do not fire at us, we will not fire at you.’ Enemy soldiers began to climb apprehensively out of their trenches to meet unarmed in the pot-marked “No Man’s Land” that separated the two armies. Normally, the British and Germans fired bullets across the tangles of barbed wire, with only occasional cease fires to collect their dead. But now, there were handshakes and words of kindness.
Slowly, greater parties of men from both sides began to venture into the space that separated them, until literally hundreds of each side were out in No Man’s Land shaking hands. A Scots Guards wrote that he met a German private who offered him a drink of schnapps and a cigar. The soldiers traded songs, tobacco and booze, joining in a spontaneous holiday party in the chilly morning.
Descriptions of the Christmas Truce appear in several letters of the time. “During the early part of the morning, the Germans started shouting, all in good English. ‘Have you a spare bottle? We will meet you in the middle.’” In other trenches, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and even hats.
It was a welcome break from the hell they’d been enduring for months.
“They came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet, it seemed like a dream.” Another British soldier recalled, “Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”
The Christmas Truce also allowed both sides to finally emerge and bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks, rotting in the cold mud of “No Man’s Land.” There were even numerous accounts describing men helping enemy soldiers collect and carry their dead away.
And it wasn’t confined to any one battlefield. The same basic cease-fire sprung up spontaneously at other points. Pockets of French, German, Austrian and British troops held impromptu cease-fires across the Western Front. Thousands spent Christmas day mingling with their enemies. The event has been seen as a true miracle, a rare moment of peace during a war that would ultimately claim over 15 million.
Just how many soldiers participated is hard to say, but over 100,000 may have took part, along at least two-thirds of trench line that scarred Belgium and France. There are several mentions of impromptu kick-abouts, and even a few organized matches. One British fighter described an icy pitch where: “A ball appeared from somewhere. We made up some goals and then it was just a general kick-about. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part.”
The German soldiers also described a pick-up football game.
“The English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet strange it was. Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends, if only for a time.” In another recollection, “Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee and no score, no tally at all. Nothing like formal soccer.”
Communication was difficult. But football by then was played professionally in Britain and Germany for decades. It was likely inevitable that freed from the claustrophobic trenches—they would take pleasure in a simple kick-about. German Saxons played a game against Scottish troops. Eventually, this developed into a football match with helmets laid out as goals. A Scotsman wrote: “It was hard to play on the frozen ground, but we kept to the rules. Despite the fact that we were all amateurs, we played with huge enthusiasm. The game ended 3-2 for Fritz.” Another legendary match was played between the British and the Germans, refereed by a regimental priest—which the Germans claimed to have won, 3-2 as well.
The military’s official history insists that no matches took place because “it would have been most unwise.” When the truce spontaneously broke out, the leaders on both sides were reportedly horrified and incensed. Commanding Officers sent orders that all football games must stop. Top command issued subsequent orders that it should NEVER happen again and generals should explicitly prohibit any “friendly intercourse with the enemy.”
In most places, up and down the front, it was accepted that the truce was purely temporary.
Men reluctantly returned to their trenches at dusk, and for the most part, the peace was preserved until midnight. One Irish infantryman had become friends with a German artilleryman who spoke English, and said as they parted: “Today we have peace. Tomorrow, you fight for your country, I fight for mine. Good luck.”
What stands out are these memories the soldiers preserved in their own writings. “Looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.” In 1914, this curious holiday reminded all those involved that wars were fought not by military forces but by human beings. Indeed, one British soldier, said: “I came to the conclusion that if we had been left to ourselves, there would never have been another shot fired.”
And of course, it was only ever a truce, not peace. Fighting erupted again the next day. The war was on again, and there would be no further Christmas Truces until the final armistice at 11PM on November 11, 1918. Many of the thousands who celebrated the Christmas Truce would not live to see that final peace. But for those who did survive, the truce was something they would never ever forget.
A century later, the Christmas Truce remains a testament to the power of humanity in one of the darkest hours of our history. It’s been immortalized and fictionalized in numerous books, songs and movies. It speaks to the deep human desire for peace, no matter how fleeting it may be. To mark the centennial in 2014, Britain’s Prince William unveiled a memorial in Staffordshire – a large circular metal frame representing a soccer ball, with two bronze hands clasped tightly inside it.