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.
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.
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.
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.