The Christmas Truce of World War 1
The Christmas truce (German: Weihnachtsfrieden; French: Trêve de Noël) was a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front of the First World War around Christmas 1914.
The truce occurred only five months into the war.
Hostilities had lulled as leadership on both sides reconsidered their strategies following the stalemate of the Race to the Sea and the indecisive result of the First Battle of Ypres.
In the week leading up to 25 December, French, German, and Great Britain & Empiresoldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk.
In some areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs.
There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of football with one another, creating one of the most memorable images of the truce.
Hostilities continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies.
The following year, a few units arranged ceasefires but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides, prohibiting truces.
Soldiers were no longer amenable to truce by 1916.
The war had become increasingly bitter after heavy human losses suffered during the battles of 1915.
The truces were not unique to the Christmas period and reflected a mood of “live and let live”, where infantry close together would stop overtly aggressive behavior and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes.
In some sectors, there were occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades; in others, there was a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised, or worked in view of the enemy.
The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation—even in quiet sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable—and are often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history.
Fraternisation—peaceful and sometimes friendly interactions between opposing forces—was a regular feature in quiet sectors of the Western Front.
In some areas, both sides would refrain from aggressive behavior, while in other cases it extended to the regular conversation or even visits from one trench to another.
On the Eastern Front, Fritz Kreisler reported incidents of spontaneous truces and fraternisation between the Austro-Hungarians and Russians in the first few weeks of the war.
Truces between British and German units can be dated to early November 1914, around the time that the war of maneuver ended.
Rations were brought up to the front line after dusk and soldiers on both sides noted a period of peace while they collected their food.
By 1 December, a British soldier could record a friendly visit from a German sergeant one morning “to see how we were getting on”.
Relations between French and German units were generally tenser but the same phenomenon began to emerge. In early December, a German surgeon recorded a regular half-hourly truce each evening to recover dead soldiers for burial, during which French and German soldiers exchanged newspapers.
This behavior was often challenged by officers; Charles de Gaulle wrote on 7 December of the “lamentable” desire of French infantrymen to leave the enemy in peace, while the commander of 10th Army, Victor d’Urbal, wrote of the “unfortunate consequences” when men “become familiar with their neighbours opposite”.
Other truces could be forced on both sides by bad weather, especially when trench lines flooded and these often lasted after the weather had cleared.
The proximity of trench lines made it easy for soldiers to shout greetings to each other and this may have been the most common method of arranging informal truces in 1914.
Men would frequently exchange news or greetings, helped by a common language; many German soldiers had lived in England, particularly London, and were familiar with the language and society.
Several British soldiers recorded instances of Germans asking about news from the football leagues, while other conversations could be as banal as discussions of the weather or as plaintive as messages for a sweetheart.
One unusual phenomenon that grew in intensity was music; in peaceful sectors, it was not uncommon for units to sing in the evenings, sometimes deliberately with an eye towards entertaining or gently taunting their opposite numbers.
This shaded gently into more festive activity; in early December, Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards wrote that he was planning to organise a concert party for Christmas Day, which would “give the enemy every conceivable form of song in harmony” in response to frequent choruses of Deutschland Über Alles.
British and German troops meeting in no man’s land during the unofficial truce (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux–Rouge Banc Sector)
Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the informal cessations of hostility along the Western Front.
The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols.
The British responded by singing carols of their own.
The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco, alcohol, and souvenirs, such as buttons and hats.
The artillery in the region fell silent.
The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties.
Joint services were held.
In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, continuing until New Year’s Day in others.
On Christmas Day, Brigadier-General Walter Congreve, commander of the 18th Infantry Brigade, stationed near Neuve Chapelle, wrote a letter recalling the Germans declared a truce for the day.
One of his men bravely lifted his head above the parapet and others from both sides walked onto no man’s land. Officers and men shook hands and exchanged cigarettes and cigars, one of his captains “smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army”, the latter no more than 18 years old.
Congreve admitted he was reluctant to witness the truce for fear of German snipers.
Bruce Bairnsfather, who fought throughout the war, wrote
I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything…
I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons…
I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket.
I then gave him two of mine in exchange…
The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.
Henry Williamson a nineteen-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day,
Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning.
Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it.
The ground is sloppy in the actual trench but frozen elsewhere.
In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary.
In the pipe is tobacco.
Of course, you say.
In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier.
Yes, a live German soldier from his own trench.
Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands.
Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvelous, isn’t it?
Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported how the first interpreter he met from the German lines was from Suffolk and had left his girlfriend and a 3.5 hp motorcycle.
Hulse described a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Württenbergers, etc, joined in.
It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”
Captain Robert Miles, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, who was attached to the Royal Irish Rifles recalled in an edited letter that was published in the Daily Mail and the Wellington Journal & Shrewsbury News in January 1915, following his death in action on 30 December 1914
Friday (Christmas Day).
We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable.
A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front.
The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever.
The thing started last night – a bitterly cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us.
Of course, our fellows shouted back, and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines.
Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight.
The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.
Of the Germans, he wrote: “They are distinctly bored with the war… In fact, one of them wanted to know what on earth we were doing here fighting them.”
The truce in that sector continued into Boxing Day; he commented about the Germans, “The beggars simply disregard all our warnings to get down from off their parapet, so things are at a deadlock. We can’t shoot them in cold blood… I cannot see how we can get them to return to business.”
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (24 and 25 December) 1914, Alfred Anderson’s unit of the 1st/5th Battalion of the Black Watch has billeted in a farmhouse away from the front line.
In a later interview (2003), Anderson, the last known surviving Scottish veteran of the war, vividly recalled Christmas Day and said
I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening.
And, of course, thinking of people back home.
All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking, and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire, and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merry.
The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.
A German lieutenant, Johannes Niemann, wrote “grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps, and chocolate with the enemy”.
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the II Corps, issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops.
Adolf Hitler, a corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce.
In the Comines sector of the front, there was early fraternization between German and French soldiers in December 1914, during a short truce and there are at least two other testimonials from French soldiers, of similar behaviors in sectors where German and French companies opposed each other.
Gervais Morillon wrote to his parents “The Boches waved a white flag and shouted ‘Kamarades, Kamarades, Rendez-Vous’.
When we didn’t move they came towards us unarmed, led by an officer. Although we are not clean they are disgustingly filthy.
I am telling you this but don’t speak of it to anyone.
We must not mention it even to other soldiers”.
Gustave Berthier wrote “On Christmas Day the Boches made a sign showing they wished to speak to us.
They said they didn’t want to shoot. … They were tired of making war, they were married like me, they didn’t have any differences with the French but with the English”.
On the Yser Front were German and Belgian troops faced each other in December 1914, a truce was arranged at the request of Belgian soldiers who wished to send letters back to their families, over the German-occupied parts of Belgium.
Richard Schirrmann, who was in a German regiment holding a position on the Bernhardstein, one of the Vosges Mountains, wrote an account of events in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines… something fantastically unmilitary occurred.
German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels and exchanged wine, cognac, and cigarettes for Pumpernickel (Westphalian black bread), biscuits, and ham.
This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.
He was separated from the French troops by a narrow No Man’s Land and described the landscape as “Strewn with shattered trees, the ground plowed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms”.
Military discipline was soon restored but Schirrmann pondered over the incident and whether “thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other”.
He founded the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.
Many accounts of the truce involve one or more football matches played in no-man’s land.
This was mentioned in some of the earliest reports, with a letter written by a doctor attached to the Rifle Brigade, published in The Times on 1 January 1915, reporting “a football match… played between them and us in front of the trench”.
Similar stories have been told over the years, often naming units or the score.
Some accounts of the game bring in elements of fiction by Robert Graves, a British poet and writer (and an officer on the front at the time) who reconstructed the encounter in a story published in 1962; in Graves’s version, the score was 3–2 to the Germans.
The truth of the accounts has been disputed by some historians.
In 1984, Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton concluded that there were probably attempts to play organised matches which failed due to the state of the ground, but that the contemporary reports were either hearsay or refer to “kick-about” matches with “made-up footballs” such as a bully-beef tin.
Chris Baker, former chairman of The Western Front Association and author of The Truce: The Day the War Stopped, was also skeptical but says that although there is little evidence, the most likely place that an organised match could have taken place was near the village of Messines:
“There are two references to a game being played on the British side, but nothing from the Germans.
If somebody one day found a letter from a German soldier who was in that area, then we would have something credible”.
Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxon Infantry Regiment said that the English “brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued.
How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was”.
In 2011 Mike Dash concluded that “there is plenty of evidence that football was played that Christmas Day—mostly by men of the same nationality but in at least three or four places between troops from the opposing armies”.
Many units were reported in contemporary accounts to have taken part in games: Dash listed the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment pitched against “Scottish troops”; the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders against unidentified Germans
(with the Scots reported to have won 4–1); the Royal Field Artillery against “Prussians and Hanovers” near Ypres and the Lancashire Fusiliers near Le Touquet, with the detail of a bully beef ration tin as the “ball”.
One recent writer has identified 29 reports of football, though does not give substantive details.
Colonel J. E. B. Seely recorded in his diary for Christmas Day that he had been “Invited to a football match between Saxons and English on New Year’s Day”, but this does not appear to have taken place.
On the Eastern front, the first move originated from Austro-Hungarian commanders, at some uncertain level of the military hierarchy.
The Russians responded positively and soldiers eventually met in no man’s land.