Christmas Truce, 1914
By Bill Heidner, Museum Curator
The First World War: The War to End All Wars
By Bill Heidner, Museum Curator
They were the enemy, the Hun, the Boche, and senior Army Commanders encouraged an attitude of hatred towards them, but for a relatively brief period of time during Christmas of 1914, impromptu tree-lighting ceremonies and the singing of Christmas Carols ushered in a Christmas truce. In some instances this truce lasted well into January.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was un-official and those same senior Commanders who had preferred a hateful attitude towards the enemy were not at all pleased. Officially, the situation along the Western Front was thought to be so bad that when the Pope proposed a Christmas Truce it was deemed to be impossible to carry out, and therefore rejected. But to the common soldiers occupying their muddy trenches, in some cases only 60 yards apart from their enemies, it went from the realm of impossible to improbable and finally to a wondrous historical footnote to a war that would create 8.5 million dead among the combatants. (The total death toll for World War I, including civilian deaths, was well over 20,000,000.)
It began in many areas with impromptu tree lighting ceremonies held by the Germans. The British in particular had been told to be wary of a possible attack, and at first the appearance of small lights above the parapets of the German trenches were taken as signs of impending combat action. In many cases the soldiers fired at the twinkling lights and were surprised that they received no return fire. Often what they received in return were renditions of Silent Night or O’ Tannenbaum being sung by the German soldiers in their front line trenches.
Although the words were unknown, the melodies
were familiar, as was the tradition of the decorated and lighted tree. While there are many legends regarding the
tradition of the Christmas tree, almost all of them point towards
Little by little soldiers from both sides of the deadly trenches exposed themselves and came forth into the deadly no-mans land to exchange Christmas greetings and goods. Each side had received Christmas boxes from their governments and loved ones, which were shared between the sides. In one exchange a heated discussion arose over the virtues of the British cigarettes made of fine tobacco from Virginia (USA) versus the German preferred Turkish tobacco. Onlookers from both sides laughed as they smoked each others offerings.
What began on Christmas Eve blossomed to a wide-spread truce by Christmas day. Each side took advantage of the peace to recover and bury dead comrades who had been left in the deadly no-mans-land. In one sector a keg of beer was traded for plum pudding, and one British soldier remarked in a letter to his family that he knew who had gotten the best exchange on that deal. In some areas, impromptu soccer matches occurred. The scores vary depending on who is telling the story, although in the more organized of these matches it is reported by both sides to have been a German victory.
For the most part, the truce would end on Christmas day. In one case the Company Commanders had agreed on an appropriate signal. On the British side they unfurled a sign that said Merry Christmas. The Germans unfurled a bed sheet that said thanks. The British Commander fired three shots in the air. The two Commanders saluted each other and then bowed. When they had each descended back into the trenches, the German Commander fired his pistol twice. The war was “officially” back on. In most sectors the immediacy of death to anyone exposed above the trench lines was back in full effect.
In some other areas the truce would have more lasting effects. One British soldier wrote home that he wished every day could be like that Christmas day. Some sectors reported a complete lack of the back and forth sniping that had occurred previously. The memories of the event would have even farther reaching effects on the participants. The few survivors of the war who witnessed this remarkable occurrence all remembered the sad irony of the night and day when Peace on Earth - Goodwill Towards Man poured forth from the deadly landscape of “the war to end all wars.”