December 25, 1914. Across the wintry fields of France and Belgium, a Christmas miracle occurs. The land between the trenches goes quiet, and it only takes a few brave souls to inaugurate an informal ceasefire. Mortal enemies come together for a few hours in the midst of the First World War to celebrate the Christmas Truce. In 1914 as in 2020, life goes on and Silent Night echoes in even the darkest of times.
The Truce is one of World War I’s most well-known events, and has assumed something like a mythical status in the modern consciousness. It was truly unprecedented, and would never be matched again. Only five months after the beginning of one of the greatest wars in the history of mankind, after almost a million had died and all the world was thrown into chaos, the men in the trenches put aside their arms and met between the lines to talk, exchange food and gifts, sing carols and in some cases play brief games of football. For one day and one day only, the carnage and sorrow and pain faded away as the enemies celebrated Christmas.
By November 1914, the British and French on one side and the Germans on the other had built a continuous network of trenches running from the Atlantic Ocean to the border of Switzerland, stretching like an iron band across Belgium and France. The War had come, and it wasn’t going away anytime soon. The sky-high hopes of an early victory had sunk into a sea of disillusionment, and neither side had gained much of anything except for a sobering realization of their own errors, follies, and limitations. The Great War would grind on, chewing up men and nations like a giant historical thresher, and its bloody march was far beyond anyone’s ability to stop at this point.
That didn’t mean people didn’t call for peace. Small antiwar and pro-peace factions on both sides had begun to call for peace, but there was very little peace to be had. One voice in particular, that of Pope Benedict XV, was openly arguing for a truce and negotiations. When Benedict asked the powers to at least declare a truce “upon the night the angels sang” – i.e., Christmas Day – the combatant nations ignored him. The war would continue as long as it had to, and the birth of Christ was no call to halt their struggle.
While these high-level pleas went on, they mattered little to the masses of men stuck in the trenches. Many had been promised by their governments that they would be home by Christmas; instead, they faced the prospect of singing Noel in a muddy, frozen ditch far from their families and houses. The bleak landscape offered little festivity, and there was to be no tree – not where the enemy could see it. Huddled in their thousands in their fighting positions, the young men of Britain, France and Germany expected little and received less for Christmas 1914. Their hymns were to be the distant thunder of guns, their Santa was to be a lonely biplane buzzing overhead, their stockings were hung not for gifts, but to dry them out after a miserable night on watch in the puddled trenches.
For us in the present, this Christmas – 2020 – is one of the darkest and dimmest we’ve seen in a while, with families separated, many in mourning, and an uncertain future for the world and for our country ahead of us. We may be a bit comforted in knowing that we’re not the first or the last to experience a year like this, and perhaps we can identify a little bit with the people of Europe in that dark winter of 1914. They too underwent a great ordeal that shook their societies and their human connections, and they too did not know when it would end. Would they spend the next Christmas in the same way, under the same great shadow and in the same dark mood? There was no answer for them, and there is still no answer for us.
But as Christmas approached, the soldiers in the trenches began to lose much of their aggressive spirit. As the front settled into a stalemate, fraternization between the two sides began to emerge in the quiet sectors, a sort of “live and let live” policy. Informal truces between the British and the Germans began to crop up in November 1914, usually around dinnertime, when each side refrained from shooting during certain periods in order to allow their enemies to be fed. This only worked, of course, if both sides adhered – and the “live and let live” policy began to spread to other times and other places as well. By December 1, at least one British soldier reported a German sergeant visiting under a flag of truce just to see “how we were getting on.”
With no battles in the immediate future, and with the homesickness and heartache of their ordeal about to reach its peak, December 1914 grew increasingly friendly on the Western Front. There was of course still shooting and trench raids and smaller battles, but officers on both sides saw a “troubling” rise in open fraternization. One of the biggest signs was music, as both sides could hear each other singing in the opposite trenches. During quiet hours, the British and Germans were often competing, with the Germans bellowing “Deutschland Uber Alles” and receiving hearty choruses of “God Save the King” in response. While it would be hard to call this nationalist hymnal a sign of peace, both sides obviously preferred it to bullets.
Christmas Day, December 25, 1914 dawned cold and clear on the Western Front. The lonely soldiers from the streets of London or the farms of Bavaria, or from the Scottish countryside and the Berlin suburbs, woke up to their miserable reality, shivering and tired and ready for another day. The Germans prepared what Christmas cheer they could muster by placing candles on the lip of their trench, and even got brave enough to erect a few Christmas trees – no British soldier would fire at them. As they began to sing their Christmas carols, the British responded – usually the same song, just in a different language.
This would have been relatively normal, but soon both sides began to shout greetings at each other. What happened next became legendary. At various spots all along the Western Front, British and German soldiers began to venture out from the trenches. It usually required one man from either side brave enough to stick his head out, and when he wandered out safely the others followed. Doubtless some of these attempts didn’t end well, but most did. It always took one man to make the first move, to lift his head above the parapet and call for a truce, but in most cases the other side was more than willing to comply.
What was strange wasn’t that this happened once, but that it happened spontaneously all along the frontlines, without any prior coordination or planning. The higher officers certainly hadn’t arranged it, and they were gravely displeased at the lack of discipline and fighting spirit. The hostilities faded as British and German soldiers slipped back and forth across no-man’s-land, often to trade items or ask about the fate of prisoners or recent casualties. Soon, though, it was more than just a few brave souls. Entire units got out of their trenches, stepped forward into the land that until minutes ago had been a deathtrap, and began to converse and interact like there wasn’t even a war on.
The unofficial truce may have involved as many as 100,000 troops from both sides. Masses of British and German soldiers, who yesterday had been committed to each other’s death, gathered in great masses in no-man’s-land. They exchanged rarities, like German foodstuffs or tobacco or hats. English-speaking Germans asked about football teams that they had followed before the war began. A British Captain smoked a cigar with a teenage soldier who was supposedly the best shot in the German Army. All along the lines from Belgium to France, the tired and lonely soldiers of the Allies and the Central Powers met and shook hands like old friends. Between one set of trenches, soldiers from all parts of the British Isles and Germany sang “Auld Lang Syne” in their various accents and languages.
Captain Robert Miles wrote home in a letter that “The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man's land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.” Captain Miles was killed in action five days later.
Some party-poopers didn’t join in. Several generals who got wind of the Christmas Truce sent out orders forbidding it to take place, while other soldiers like Corporal Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Division believed it was unpatriotic. But the truce also wasn’t just limited to the British and Germans. The Belgians sent letters to their families, behind the German lines in occupied territory, during their own Christmas truce, while several French and German units held their own set of meetings, though these were less widespread. Even far away on the Eastern Front in Poland, Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers clambered out for a few minutes of mutual relief from the cold, terrible fighting.
One very common story involves a football match taking place between the British and the Germans, though it’s honestly uncertain whether this ever actually happened. Most of the stories of the football game were of the “heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend” style. At least one German soldier remembered kicking around a soccer ball with the British. There is evidence that at least a few units tossed around balls with enemy soldiers, though it’s hard to peg anything like an organized match with a time and place. But there’s plenty of evidence to show that this in fact occurred, which would exemplify just how strange the whole event was if true. Imagine the United States and the Taliban doing such a thing, or even the Germans and Americans in World War II? It seems like the kind of thing that could never happen, and we might even be a bit appalled if it did. Yet the two sides of Christmas 1914 were able to emerge from their trenches and meet as men, not as Germans or Britons or Frenchmen.
The Christmas Truce is not just a product of wartime propaganda; quite the opposite. Both Allied and German propaganda did their best to CONCEAL the truce from the people back home, and were aided by an unofficial press embargo. The story was only really broken by the American New York Times on December 31, and when they broke the story the British papers ran with it as well. In Britain the reportage was mostly positive, but in Germany and France press censorship was more widespread and what did get back to the public was mostly negative. Official statements in January 1915 tried to downplay the true extent of the Truce, since news of such “ill discipline” and “lack of vigor in the face of the enemy” could cause a crisis back home and give the enemy ideas of weakness and war weariness – at least, that was the reasoning.
Either way, the Christmas Truce was never repeated. After the men returned to their trenches on Christmas Day 1914, the war resumed as if it had never stopped for a few hours. The artillery thundered once again, rifles cracked, and men did their best to kill the men they had shook hands with days before. While the carols they had sung spoke of peace on Earth, in December 1914 peace was the exception rather than the rule. Nothing like the Christmas Truce occurred again in the following years, for two reasons. First, the commanders of both sides were much more vigilant and scheduled attacks and bombardment for Christmas Day. Second, less obviously, was the fact that the war had gone far longer and left much more bitterness. By December 1915, fewer people wanted or would have accepted a truce with the Hun, and that number was miniscule by 1916. The war had overtaken man’s better impulses and the carnage had come to the fore.
The unique and romantic Christmas Truce, though, remains a part of the Great War story. It has become almost a myth, gaining an importance to the narrative of the War far beyond its actual effect. The Christmas Truce was not the beginning of peace, but the last gasp of old-world ideals of civilized war and humane conduct in battle. Those ideas would sink into the mud of 1915 and 1916 and be totally gone by the end of the Great War. Nothing like the Christmas Truce COULD occur again, and probably could not occur today. Too much blood had been spilled, too much had passed. In the end, the Truce was the light before the greater darkness, the ray of hope before the great plunge.
But it did have meaning. For a moment, just for a tiny bit of time, participants in one of history’s most terrible conflicts defied orders, fear, and self-interest to celebrate their holy day with their fellow man. Far from their loved ones and families, isolated with strangers in distant lands, under the shadow of the most terrible year of their age, they managed to find brotherhood for a brief period with the men who were supposed to be enemies. It couldn’t last, but the presiding memory of the Truce was not of sorrow that it ended but joy that it happened.
Maybe that should be our touchstone in 2020: not sorrow from the weight of our own great shadow, not the loneliness of the long separation from our loved ones, but the savoring of the small human connections and the brief moments that shadow lifts. The darkness makes the light shine all the brighter.
Merry Christmas, everybody, and may God bless you all.