It was December 1914. The rain had finally relented after days. The ground was mired in trenches flooded with water. There was continuous sniping, machine-gun fire and artillery shelling.
“It was a Christmas card Christmas eve. There was white beautiful moonlight, frost on the ground – almost white everywhere. And round about – I should think – 7 or 8 in the evening we heard this singing and a lot of commotion and we saw some lights.
“They finished their carol – we applauded them then we thought we must retaliate in some way so we replied with ‘The First Noel’.
“So we went on…. Well, I thought this was rather an extraordinary thing really – to think of the two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
Yes, an unofficial ‘Christmas truce’ did happen in the middle of the First World War in December 1914. The first war of its kind was also marked by the last truce of its kind.
Declaration of the war
A hundred and one years ago, the world was unexpectedly plunged into the Great War. Europe was in the throes of economic prosperity with a young German nation leading the way. And yet, spurred by a complicated system of secret ententes and alliances, the allied countries – United Kingdom, France and Russia had gone to war against the Central powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary in July 1914 over the tragic assassination of Prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Princess Sophie of Austria-Hungary. It was the first global confrontation of alliances that went beyond nations, and even continents, to involve the whole world through direct or indirect interests. The war had begun in the summer of 1914 and people were certain that the “troops will be home when the leaves fall”. Instead, what followed were four years of mass slaughter in deep, muddy trenches with barbed wires, battle tanks, explosives, aerial bombing, and chemical warfare that led to an entire generation of missing men.
Upon the declaration of war in July, a regimented and extra-ordinarily disciplined German advance had routed through Belgium despite stiff resistance and arrived at the gates of Paris only to be checked by the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) at the last instant. After five months of industrial scale slaughter, the war came to a standstill on the western front in November 1914 with opposing armies staring at each other from across hastily built trenches that flanked no-man’s land.
Life in the trenches
Life in the trenches was a disaster with the continuous dread of gunfire and shelling, flooding due to rains, and the poor hygienic conditions that arose from living in them amidst the wounded and the dead; but December was especially bad with its wet, frigid conditions. Early in December 1914, Pope Benedict XV had proposed an official “truce of god” that would cease fighting over the Christmas period but the very idea of a truce was rejected by the ‘powers that be’ on both sides.
In order to maintain the morale of the troops, throughout the month of December, 460,000 parcels and 2.5 million letters were sent to British soldiers in France. King George V in the UK sent a card to every soldier and his daughter, Princess Mary, lent her name to a fund that sent a box of gifts (filled with chocolates, cigarettes, tobacco, her picture and a facsimile of George V’s greeting to the troops – ‘May God protect you and bring you safe home’) to all serving soldiers. The Germans at their end, sent tabletop Christmas trees (Tannenbaums), tobacco and cigars and festive wreaths for the soldiers to celebrate. Clear skies and a brief reprieve from the rain further lifted the spirits on both sides as a cold frost settled in, setting the stage for a white Christmas. It was in this context that the unprecedented ‘Christmas truce’ happened.
Many differing oral accounts , diary entries and letters suggest that the truce emerged spontaneously on the battlefields of the Western Front; and yet, despite these many accounts, to this day, no one knows exactly where it began or how it spread. In all, about 100,000 people are believed to have participated in the spontaneous Christmas Truce of 1914.
On Christmas Eve, candles and trees went up along parts of the German frontline. It is believed that they also delivered a chocolate cake to the British line accompanied by a note that proposed a ceasefire so that the Germans could have a concert. British frontline officers accepted the proposal and offered some tobacco to the Germans. The goodwill soon spread along the 27-mile front line as carols echoed, alternating between the German and British camps.
Encouraged by the events of the night before, on Christmas morning, German soldiers emerged from their camps, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Frank Richards, a British soldier who experienced the “Christmas Truce” says,
“On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy has stuck up a similar one….. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the riverbank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench. Buffalo Bill [the Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavored to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Our officers exchanged greetings with them.”
What began as general bonhomie and exchange of greetings led to the exchange of cigarettes, chocolates, cognac, rum, food, buttons and other wartime supplies. There are also reports of many small-scale football kick-abouts and other communal activities. While the soldiers exchanged gifts and took photos spontaneously, it was also an opportunity for them to leave the squalid trenches and to tend to the wounded and dead in No man’s land. The troops from both sides could finally bury their dead comrades whose bodies had lain for weeks on end. In many places, the truce extended well into boxing day (day after Christmas) and each side seemed to wait for the other to initiate firing. In fact, Murdoch M. Wood, a British soldier is reported to have said: “I then came to the conclusion that I have held firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.” It was, however, only a truce and hostilities eventually returned; sooner in some places, than in others.
The truce was widespread but not universal as firing continued in many sectors like at Yser where bloody battles took place over Christmas. In fact, the French troops are reported to be puzzled and peeved by these reports of the British troops hobnobbing with their German enemies. Not surprisingly, young Adolf Hitler, then a Corporal of the 16th Bavarians, shared a similar opinion himself and said: “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honour?”
The anger from the top
As reports of the truce reached the generals, the High Command was angry, as it feared mutiny due to fraternization with the enemy. Many commanders such as General Smith-Dorrien believed that this proximity and fraternization between the troops posed “the greatest danger” to the morale of soldiers and told divisional commanders to explicitly prohibit any “friendly intercourse with the enemy”. Strict orders were thus issued to end any such interactions between the troops along with harsh punishment for any man who refused to fight. And these policies ensured that such a widespread cessation of hostilities was never again seen in the war.
‘Live and let live’
The Christmas truce, however, was not unique as the massive violence of the war had indeed engendered an ethos of “live and let live” between warring troops. Infantries in close proximity engaged in friendly banter and barter of goods. In some areas, there was also an implicit agreement to not shoot at men while retrieving their dead/injured, while exercising or during meal times. Wagon trains delivering food behind enemy lines were spared despite being easy targets for the artillery. Such truces emerged repeatedly during the war and the ‘army top brass’ would intervene by rotating troops, threatening courts-martial and ordering savage raids that required hand-to-hand combat. There have also been other instances of occasional ceasefires between troops in the war but the Christmas truce of 1914 is unique for its sheer size, scale and spontaneity.
Even today, more than a century after the truce, it is remembered as a testament to the power of humanity and of the individual soldier on the frontlines. Its legend has been memorialized through books, movies and advertisements. To mark the centenary last year, Prince William unveiled a memorial with a metal frame representing a soccer ball with two hands clasped inside. The truce provided an unforgettable memory for many such as the British soldier who confessed in a letter the following day, “I wouldn’t have missed the experience of yesterday for the most gorgeous Christmas dinner in England.”
In the middle of an unexpectedly long and disastrous conflict, the truce symbolises our desire for peace and our ability to effect change from the grassroots, no matter how fleeting. Instead of an organized, top-down ceasefire, the truce of 1914 was a spontaneous series of armistices that originated from the men in the trenches. As Alfred Anderson from the Fifth Battallion, the Black Watch later said: “It was a short peace in a terrible war.” But sometimes that is all that you need – a cessation of hostilities to see the enemy and his human side. It may not give you everything you want but it leaves a lasting impression for sure.
Suvasini Ramaswamy is a researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological studies in California. She is interested in art, photography and the history of science and society.