It’s Christmas Day 1914, and the majority of British, German, and French soldiers make temporary peace to attempt to celebrate Christmas together. But whilst this ‘truce’ has been widely documented, in reality there had been many other periods of temporary ‘quiet’ time where soldiers reciprocally decided to cease shooting at each other. These informal truces were often used as an opportunity to recover wounded soldiers, bury the dead and shore up damaged trenches. However, High Command was angry; they feared that the men would begin to question the war, and even consider mutiny, as a result of fraternising with the enemy that they were meant to defeat. Stricter orders were issued to end such activity, with harsh punishment for any man caught refusing to fight.
And so to the last ‘truce’, where the treacherous monotony of war was briefly interrupted in an unofficial and spontaneous event that began on Christmas Eve (1914?). To set the scene; the men had been marching for some time, setting up the trenches that stretched for seemingly endless miles. However their toil eventually paid off. By the end of November 1914, the crushing German advance that had swallowed the Low Countries and threatened France had been stopped by the Allies before it could reach Paris. Opposing armies stared at each other over the trench walls, through the barbed wire that ran from the edge of the English Channel to the border of Switzerland, and between them stretched ‘No Man’s Land’, often no more than 30 yards wide. The trenches in the low-lying British sector to the west were flooded due to the continuous downpours, exposing the troops to ‘trench foot’ and frostbite. However, as Christmas approached, both sides received Christmas packages of food and writing equipment, and
as the skies miraculously cleared, offering a temporary respite from the relentless rain. The gifts and sunshine may well have lifted the men’s spirits. There are accounts, letters and diary entries from the British trenches describing how much the men wanted this bloody war to end, and many believed that the enemy troops most probably felt the same.
Historical accounts indicate that it was the Germans who made the first move; on the evening of December 24 they delivered a chocolate cake to the British line, accompanied by a note that proposed a cease fire so that the Germans could have a concert. The British accepted the proposal and offered some tobacco as a reciprocal gift to the Germans. The good will soon spread along the 27-mile length of the British line, with some men holding up a board with ‘Merry Christmas’ written on it. So, on Christmas Day, troops on both sides left their trenches to observe a day of peace. It must have seemed bizarre to suddenly cease fighting, to officially lay down their arms, greet each other on the battlefield, shake hands and adopt an air of comradeship - all be it far too brief.
Some were luckier than others; singing Christmas Carols, kicking a football back and forth, and bartering with the cigarettes and sweets sent in Christmas packages. For others the truce was limited to an occasion for each side to bury their dead – laying to rest the bodies that were strewn across ‘No Man’s Land’, and for some, the fighting didn’t cease at all. Despite the merriment, troops did not enter each other’s trenches, instead choosing to remain in ‘No Man’s Land’, exchanging barrels of beer and plum puddings. For most, at dusk on Christmas Day the truce ended and the men were ordered to return to their respective trenches. The merriment was over. British major ordered the British soldiers back to their trenches, with a reminder that “they were there to kill the Hun, not to make friends with him.” In other areas this happened the following day, and for others it extended into January. One thing is for sure - it never happened again.
Those able to enter into the spirit of Christmas made the Truce of 1914 what it was; an odd yet heartening example of how people react to the pressures of war.