The famous moment when British and German troops exchanged greetings along the Western Front during World War I is a shining example of how Christmas brings people together.
When Britain went to war on 28th July 1914, around 3,000 British men signed up daily to join the armed forces during the first weekend. By the end of the year, more than one million men had been recruited.
The harsh realities of life set in as Christmas approached. Soldiers realised they would be spending the festive period dug into cold, flooded trenches along the 400-mile Western Front of France and Belgium. It became known as the “war to end all wars” because of the horrific death rate.
By the time the conflict finally ended, on 11th November 1918, more than 25 million people had been killed or injured in the global war that began in Europe. The assassination of the archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, on 28th June 1914 was the trigger.
Moment of joy
Spending Christmas in the misery of the trenches wasn’t what most of the infantrymen had expected. The general belief had been that the war would be over by Christmas. Instead, they found themselves wading around in watery clay and torrential rain, with many being killed or injured by snipers.
The German forces were dug into their own trenches between 50 to 300 yards away and the area in between was known as No Man’s Land. Fighting took place in this area and any soldiers who put their head above the trenches were in danger of being shot.
Despite the despair of living in the trenches of France and Flanders, there was one remarkable moment of joy. On Christmas Day 1914, the German and Allied soldiers held an unofficial truce, laid down their weapons and emerged unarmed into No Man’s Land.
They sang carols, exchanged greetings and small gifts, and developed a sense of camaraderie as they played friendly football matches all along the Western Front. The ordinary troops welcomed the Christmas truce, but a lot of the officers on both sides disapproved, fearing the men would be less likely to go back into battle afterwards.
While it lasted, the truce was magical. Newspapers back in Britain got wind of the story and even the staid Wall Street Journal in the US carried a report, observing that the truce was an “inspiring Christmas story” that had emerged from the “winter fog and misery”.
It was Christmas Eve when the British troops first realised something unusual was happening. In numerous places along the Western Front, no shots had been fired from around noon on 24th December. At around 8.30pm, an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles sent a report of the events to headquarters.
He said the Germans had illuminated their trenches with lanterns and were singing Christmas carols and shouting, “Happy Christmas,” to the British forces. The British soldiers shouted friendly greetings back, but the officer in charge remained suspicious and said he was “taking all military precautions” in case it was a trap.
Similar events were unfolding along the Western Front, instigated by the Germans. Henry Williamson, a 17-year-old soldier with the London Rifles, was interviewed in the 1960s about his experiences.
On Christmas Eve, he was ordered to knock posts into the frozen soil, only 50 yards away from the German trenches. After 2 hours, he realised that no shots had been fired and he completed the task without incident.
Later, at around 11pm, the German troops erected a fir tree and a light shone out. They began to sing a Christmas carol, Heilige Nacht, which the British recognised as Silent Night, so they joined in. Williamson recalled the Germans shouting, “Come over, Tommy!”
Although nervous at first, the British went over after seeing the Germans emerging from their trenches. When the Germans and the Allied troops finally met in No Man’s Land, for one magical day, the war was put aside as they celebrated Christmas.
They exchanged gifts, such as chocolate, cans of bully beef and cigarettes. Some had even managed to get hold of alcohol. They showed each other photographs of their loved ones back home and even began to play football together.
An entry in the Scots Guards’ war diary recorded that “Private Murker met a German patrol and was given a glass of whisky and cigars”. All along the frontline, there were similar scenarios.
The Germans sent messages to the Allies that they wouldn’t fire any shots on Christmas Day and asked the British to agree to do the same.
Singing and laughter
Reports said it seemed to be a “basic understanding”. British soldier Private Fred Heath later wrote a letter to his loved ones back home and said the truce had begun on Christmas Eve “all down our line of trenches”. He said the Germans had called across to them, “English soldier, a merry Christmas, come out here to us!”
Heath said they didn’t answer at first and were cautious, but then he added, “How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards?”
They began talking to the Germans, although initially holding on to their rifles at first, but eventually they dropped their guard. Heath added, “Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity — war’s most amazing paradox.”
The exchange of greetings and the singing of carols continued all night. Heath recalled how the “laughter and Christmas carols” rang out from the trenches. “Not a shot was fired,” he wrote.
The games of football on Christmas Day were described as being like “friendly” matches that the men would enjoy back home with their pals in the park. The language barrier did not get in the way. While some of the Germans spoke a little English, the game of football provided a universal language that everyone understood.
For most of the troops, the truce lasted for Christmas Day only, although in a minority of places, it continued into Boxing Day. However, the officers were uneasy the longer it continued, as they wondered if the troops would rebel against going back into battle against individuals who had become their friends.
The sense of camaraderie that was emerging between the opposing sides eventually led both the British and German officers to order the soldiers back to the trenches. It was “business as usual” after the Christmas truce and the soldiers were soon fighting against the men who had briefly become their friends.
The event was important because it was the only time during the Great War that large-scale fraternising took place. The High Command in Britain was furious when newspaper reports detailing the truce appeared, fearing it would make people doubt the war effort.
As a result, on 2nd January 1915, they banned informal truces with the enemy. Anyone who broke the rule was threatened with a Court Martial, so the legendary Christmas truce of 1914 was never repeated.
In December 2014, the 100th anniversary of the truce was commemorated in a joint initiative between Sainsbury’s supermarket and the Royal British Legion. Lauded as the best advert of all time, Sainsbury’s Christmas advert was inspired by the real-life events of World War I.
It showed the guns falling silent and the two armies meeting in no man’s land, exchanging gifts and playing football together. The advert featured a special chocolate bar which went on sale at Sainsbury’s, with all profits being donated to the Royal British Legion to benefit the British armed forces, their families and veterans.
Christmas Day 1914 will go down as a unique event in the history of war – and one that is never likely to be repeated.
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Wishing you all a very Happy and Peaceful Christmas.