The Christmas Truce of 1914

The aggressive, unstoppable drive of the German Empire into Western Europe staggered to a halt at the first Battle of Marne. German commanders had intended to quickly smash through Belgium and into France, ending the campaign by encircling Paris and ensuring decisive victory.

But as 1914 dragged onward into winter, troops could not find a weak point in the defenses of a combined France and Britain. They were forced instead upward until the battle lines extended to the North Sea. Bound by ocean to the north, mountainous Switzerland to the south, and a stubborn wall of British and French forces to the west, the armies slowly woke to a new reality of fortified entrenchment and slow artillery bombardment.

 

The Western Front, from the West Point archives

 

By the time Christmas came to Western Europe, the borders of the Western Front were well-established. Trenches continued to be dug and infrastructure was built to feed and otherwise supply the massive armies stationed along this border. While generals on both sides tried to devise strategies for breaking the stalemate, regular infantry were ordered to hold the line, maintain position, and await further instructions.

“Live and Let Live”

It was only 5 months into the war. While the war propaganda had spoke of glory and battle, armies on both sides of the Western Front were mostly waiting and watching. Few of the terror weapons which would later characterize the war had been used yet. Few soldiers had individual grudges against their foes, only knowing what their had heard from newspapers and their fellow men.

 

British soldiers in a flooded trench

 

Fraternization was inevitable. The trenches were often close enough for loud shouts to easily be heard by ears on the other side. Many soldiers knew multiple languages, and used their ability to set up short, informal no-fire periods for collecting the bodies of the dead and distributing rations to the living.

There were many instances of opposing sides shouting jeers and taunts, of course, but also they passed along the news of the day and other casual small talk.

Known as a policy of “Live and Let Live” these unofficial, completely-informal truces continued to be made off and on during the winter of 1914. Yet on Christmas Day, December 25th, something new and completely unexpected occurred.

Christmas Carols, Gift-Giving and Soccer Matches

By most accounts, it was the Germans who first came forward.

Singing Christmas carols and shouting greetings in English, small bands of German soldiers walked unarmed to the opposing battle lines. In may regions, the artillery fell completely silent. Soon groups of soldiers were trading rations, liquor, tobacco, even buttons from their uniforms.

 

British and German troops enjoying the Christmas Truce

 

At their most daring, these Christmas Truces even extended to opposing sides forming teams and playing friendly games of soccer out in the no-man’s-land between trenches. In this rough terrain, using whatever improvised ball they could find, the matches were far from regulation. But in this short period of time these long-suffering soldiers could enjoy a constructive pursuit.

Revitalizing the War Spirit

As Christmas Day continued, the various informal truces became more tenuous.

High-level officers on both sides were infuriated by this continued fraternization. Soldiers began to be threatened with treason if they continued to show non-aggressive behavior. Some soldiers were even picked out from the celebrating throngs and court-martialed for failure to display proper fighting spirit.

And as the stalemate of the war progressed into 1915, the fragile brotherhood the two sides might have felt was quickly replaced by hatred as the continued use of artillery, machine guns, and bayonet charges took life after life in the cold, muddy trenches.

But in the weeks that followed, the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 continued to grow and spread. Even as the fighting grew more savage, this fragile, temporary truce could be looked back on as an example of peace and sanctuary decending back on humanity, if just for a little while.

Today when many other elements of World War I are often forgotten, the tale of the Christmas Truce endures. Being told and taught to future generations, it is a symbol both of hope as well as real tangible evidence that acts of kindness and compassion can sometimes rise up out of the most difficult circumstances.

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24 Responses to “The Christmas Truce of 1914”

  1. Carole L. Smith

    Thank you so much for this video. In this world so full of hate, it it so good to remember that the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is a universal unifying event. It can bring hope, peace, love and healing to a hurting world. It is sad that our government and governments all over the world reject using the guidelines set forth in the Bible in dealing with both national and international issues. Our world would be such a better place if we just followed the Golden Rule and the tenets of Christ.

    Reply
  2. Taylor Dorsey

    There’s a good movie about this called Joyeux Noel

    Reply
  3. Patrick Ursomanno

    Amazing how simple peace is, it’s only when politicians get involved does it get ugly. God bless. (No matter what or who you call GOD)

    Reply
  4. Don Long

    As the article noted, “fraternization with the enemy” was absolutely forbidden and the commanding officers on both sides were furious. They demanded punishment for the perpetrators and future instances would be met with courts martial and firing squads. Morale and “fighting spirit” could only be maintained if the enemy was dehumanized in the minds of the soldiers, so any activity that encouraged soldiers to view the opposing soldiers as “kameraden” or “buddies” could not be allowed.

    Reply
  5. Dennis Bowen

    I think that Carole L. Smith’s response says it better than any response that I can provide! I must agree with her 100% and say “ditto” to her response! My own Grandfather fought in the trenches of World War I but he never spoke of his experiences, despite suffering gunshot wounds to both eyes and seared lungs from mustard gas. We can only imagine… Thanks for the article!!! And well said Ms. Carole L. Smith!

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  6. Ronald Forsse

    Wonderful to see 2 men exchanging items of enjoyment from their “hearts”! This world has lost a lot from unnessary wars! Your Lord watches!!!

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  7. sid

    There’s a great classic actual honest-to-God sixties folksong about the story of the 1914
    Christmas Truce… it’s called “Christmas in the Trenches.” Don’t recall who the artist was who recorded it, but it’s written first-person from the POV of a British soldier named Francis Tolliver.
    The lyrics prove that at least the basis of the lyric (poem?) was written firsthand by a soldier who
    was There. I urge anybody who cares to search the song title and check it out, there’s at least ONE recorded version out there in the Folkiverse. What did they learn???
    “… the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame,
    and *on each end of the rifle, we’re the same*…”

    Reply
  8. Jack Smith

    Who was it that said, “What if they gave a war and nobody came”.

    Wouldn’t that be even better.

    Reply
    • Larry B.

      From “Quora:”
      That is a slogan that has haunted the world for decades. It became so utterly ubiquitous that people traced it to different authors. One suggestion was Bert Brecht, who had indeed quoted it but then had added a sentence. “Then war will come after you.” This spoiled the slogan but reflected the Nazi situation: “Since Nazidom put all meaningful life under threat and was a global threat it had to be wiped out physically.”

      Reply
  9. John Stillman

    Great article ! Few people know about this unofficial truce by troops . Of course Europeans were Christians and all celebrated Christmas, yet it showed men were dying over politicians arguments . Maybe if all the troops in mass would have refused to fight what would governments do?
    It would not work in WW2 because of fanatics in Nazism and especially the Japanese military regime. Both armies would have to have people who want peace and did not want war started by arguing leaders above nationalism and religion. Shame people just cannot live side by side respecting each other’s religion and way of life yet it seems not to be in our human nature – shame !

    Reply
  10. SpeedBump

    I wonder if liberals and conservatives could ever enjoy such a moment?

    After all, one side represents law and order, the other side represents open borders and crime, corruption…

    Never mind , silly me!

    This “truce” was centered around two opposing armies, NOT two opposing factions living under the same flag!

    Reply
  11. Larry B.

    “War is a racket.” — Smedley Butler. — Major General Smedley Darlington Butler (July 30, 1881 – June 21, 1940), was a United States Marine Corps major general, the highest rank authorized at that time, and at the time of his death the most decorated Marine in U.S. history.

    From Wikiquote:
    “War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.” From a speech (1933)

    And then we have……
    John Stuart Mill (1806–73)
    QUOTATION: “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice,—is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.
    ATTRIBUTION: JOHN STUART MILL, “The Contest in America,” Dissertations and Discussions, vol. 1, p. 26 (1868). First published in Fraser’s Magazine, February 1862.
    SUBJECTS: War

    Reply
  12. James Airesman

    This is a good idea, good information.

    Reply
  13. Paul F. McCourt

    Out of EVERYTHING that happend during WW-I, THIS is what almost brings me to tears, even now after reading the article, and seeing the clip.
    “SNOOPY’S XMAS” says it all in that line, “Christmas Bells, those Christmas Bells, Ringing through the Land! Ringing Peace to All the World, and Good Will to Man!”
    To me, Xmas is Very Precious, and NOT in the religious way! I am not religious, and I hate that religious version!
    Xmas to me stands for, as the Song says, Peace to the World and, Good Will to EVERYONE!
    Getting back to the Xmas Truce, what really makes me upset and angry is, when those guys got together as Friends and there was Peace in No Man’s Land, THAT SHOULD have been IT! NO MORE WAR! War OVER! PEACE AT LAST!
    But, High Command on both sides INSISTED they return to their trenches, take arms and shoot the shit out of eachother! THAT’S what bloody hurts! And we must ask the BIG QUESTION. . . WHY?
    If Xmas was that Catalyst that CREATED PEACE, it should have been the Spirit of Xmas and New Year that KEPT IT!
    EVERY YEAR at Xmas, I make the very same Wish for the World that ALL this crap that’s spoiling our World for the People. Crime, religion (GET RID OF THAT CRAP!!), greed, corrupt governments, queers, egos, war, EVIL in general, ALL come to an end, and the New Year be filled with Peace and Good Will Everywhere!
    But THIS the Planet Terra, and no matter what, this crap will always be with us, and the Wishes of the Decent People here will never be granted, because evil is everywhere!
    Every Xmas, I look forward to hearing all the non-religious Xmas Carols, but Especially “SNOOPY’S XMAS”, because of the Xmas Bells.
    LEST WE FORGET!
    HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!

    Reply
    • Matt Miller

      Paul, you’ve listed a few “evils” that you want to see gone. Where do you derive your list of good/evil from? Do you decide this, or are you getting this from some other authority? To define this for oneself is a religion of “god = me”… and that is very much at the heart of the issues that lead to war.

      If you are getting your morality from some external source, it would be good to share that source so that others might potentially benefit from it. In full disclosure, I believe in God as written in the Bible, and in His gift of Jesus for saving us all from our sins. The gift is hard to comprehend as humans (including me) often give with strings attached. Peace on Earth will only come through the Prince of Peace.

      Reply
      • Matt Miller

        I should clarify my last statement as to not impart a partial truth!! While God’s gift is offered to all, only those accepting that gift will be saved from their sins!

        Reply
  14. Michael Wong

    Here’s a song about it, “Christmas in the Trenches”: https://youtu.be/s9coPzDx6tA .

    Reply
  15. Robert Moody

    Unfortunately this couldn’t take place in the war in the Middle East. The soldiers of WWI were much more civilized than are the fanatics we face today.

    Reply
  16. Charlie

    I saw a statue commemorating this truce in the Manchester England Football (soccer) museum this past spring…. People still remember….

    Reply
  17. Bing Toporcer

    Knew about some of this, but not all the details & described. As a veteran we above all know the true value of peace.. Be an amazing miracle, if Jesus; Moses ; Muhammad ; & Buddha can walk together to show the rest of us the way.

    Reply
  18. Rooster

    A beautiful example of what “true” human beings are capable of. Maybe someday we’ll stop obeying our masters and live in peace and true freedom.

    Reply
  19. Joe Yerty

    Was there ever a movie of this happenings

    Reply