December 24-26, 1914: The Christmas Truce
In December 1914 the world was reeling from the trauma of five months of horrifying bloodshed, which spread death and sowed hatred on a scale almost beyond comprehension. As a particularly fierce winter blanketed Europe in snow and ice, civilians on the home front found their worries compounded by the first shortages of food and fuel. Worst of all, most people now realized that there was no end in sight: the war would probably go on for years.
But in the midst of all this misery humanity still somehow prevailed, if only for a moment, creating one of the most powerful cultural memories and moral examples of the Great War.
The famous Christmas Truce of 1914, when exhausted foes put down their guns to enjoy a brief evening of peace and camaraderie, began with music. It started on Christmas Eve, when British and German soldiers huddling in the cold, damp trenches tried to cheer themselves up by singing Christmas carols and songs from home – then were amazed to hear their enemies applauding and responding with songs of their own. William Robinson, an American volunteer in the British Army, recalled the strange scene:
"During the evening the Germans started singing, and I heard some of the most beautiful music I ever listened to in my life. The song might start just opposite us, and it would be taken up all along the line, and soon it would seem as if all the Germans in Belgium were singing. When they had finished we would applaud with all our might, and then we would give them a song in return… The men were getting along well with it, when someone in the German trenches joined in singing in just as good English as any of us could speak."
There were many talented musicians on both sides, who now paid tribute to their foes by playing their national songs, showing that the national hatreds were far from universal even among men on the frontline, who had the most reason to embrace them. Phil Rader, an American volunteer in the French Foreign Legion, described one such exchange:
"After dinner we heard a blast of music that thrilled us. A little German band had crept into the trenches and announced itself with a grand chord. Then came the unexpected chords of the 'Marseillaise.' The Frenchmen were almost frantic with delight. George Ullard, our Negro cook, who came from Galveston, got out his mouth organ and almost burst his lungs playing 'Die Wacht am Rhein.'"
The exchange of songs across no-man’s-land built trust and encouraged curiosity, leading to shouted verbal exchanges, followed by men poking their heads over the parapets – normally a suicidal move – only to find their erstwhile enemies looking back at them, waving and beckoning. When it became clear that neither side was going to shoot, in a matter of minutes soldiers were climbing out of the trenches and crossing no-man’s-land to meet the men who had been shooting at them a few hours before (top, British and German troops fraternize).
They shook hands, embraced, and tried to communicate as best they could, helped by informal translators, who in many cases had lived in the enemy’s country before the war. One British junior officer, Edward Hulse, met a German counterpart who had lived in Britain for years and lost everything he loved when the war started:
"He came from Suffolk where he had left his best girl and a 3 ½ h.p. motor-bike! He told me that he could not get a letter to the girl, and wanted to send one through me. I made him write out a postcard in front of me, in English, and I sent it off that night. I told him that she probably would not be a bit keen to see him again… They protested that they had no feeling of enmity towards us at all, but that everything lay with their authorities, and that being soldiers they had to obey…"
The truce continued into the next day, as junior officers took advantage of the break in hostilities to get some important tasks done – above all, burying the dead. Victor Chapman, an American in the Foreign Legion who would later become the first American pilot killed in the war, recalled:
"Christmas morning a Russian up the line who spoke good German, wished them the greetings of the season, to which the Boches responded that instead of nice wishes they would be very grateful to the French if the latter buried their compatriot who had lain before their trenches for the last two months… The burying funeral performed, a German Colonel distributed cigars and cigarettes and another German officer took a picture of the group."
Indeed, as it was Christmas, it was only natural to exchange presents, which not only demonstrated goodwill but allowed men on both sides to get things they lacked. Edward Roe, a British corporal, recalled: “They gave us bottles of wine and cigars; we gave them tins of jam, bully [beef], mufflers, tobacco etc. I annexed a tin of raspberry from the sergeant’s dugout and gave it to a stodgy and bespectacled Saxon. In return he gave me a leather case containing five cigars… The line was all confusion [with] no sentries and no one in possession of arms.”
In some places the truce continued into December 26, “Boxing Day,” and even as late as December 27 – but inevitably it was bound to come to an end. Senior officers on both sides were livid when they heard about the informal ceasefire, which they believed threatened to undermine morale and discipline; after all, as some German soldiers told members of 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers: “We don’t want to kill you, and you don’t want to kill us. So why shoot?” British war correspondent Philip Gibbs summed up the contradiction in simple, damning terms: “The war had become the most tragic farce in the world. The frightful senselessness of it was apparent when the enemies of two nations fighting to the death stood in the grey mist together and liked each other. It became so apparent that army orders had to be issued stopping such truces.”
It’s worth noting, however, that the truce wasn’t universal. According to British eyewitnesses, German troops from Saxony were often eager to fraternize, perhaps because of their shared ethnic heritage with the Anglo-Saxons, whereas Prussian troops were much less likely to make any friendly gestures, if only because they were under the stern supervision of committed Prussian officers. Meanwhile, on the Allied side, French troops were understandably also less inclined to fraternize with invaders occupying their own homeland – indeed, in some cases, their own homes. And regardless of nationality, some individuals simply seemed unable to put aside their personal hatred of the enemy. A Bavarian dispatch runner, Adolf Hitler, voiced strong disapproval of the truce, according to one of his fellow dispatch runners, who later recounted: “He said, ‘Something like this should not even be up for discussion during wartime.’”
Although some men held back, the Christmas Truce still delivered an unambiguous message to the world that the ideal of a universal humanity, along with basic values like human kindness, had not yet fallen victim to the war. The war would continue, but that declaration would not be effaced, lasting until the present day. Back in the trenches Roe captured the wrenching sense of sadness among soldiers who would have to continue fighting, knowing neither they nor their enemy wanted to:
"Would the Spirit of Christmas be maintained?... Would ambitious Statesmen and Warlords, who only think of the Regimental officer and common soldier in terms of mathematics, cast aside their ambitions, stupidity, pride and hatred and allow the angel of peace, instead of the angel of death, to spread his wings over stricken and bleeding humanity. I, or any of my comrades, as far as I can ascertain, bear no malice or hatred against the German soldier. He has got to do as he is told, and so have we… I’m afraid I’m a damn bad soldier. I’m preaching peace in the spirit of Christmas."