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The Christmas Truce of 1914

Recently, as I was researching, I was reminded of the truce on the first Christmas of the First World War. Even though it was a series of unofficial cease fires, what happened in Belgium and at other battle sites along the Western Front is a great anti-war statement that illustrates the insanity and inhumanity of war.

After Serbian terrorists assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 29, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. They used the assassination as an excuse to retrieve territory they had lost during the Balkan Wars. Germany promptly came to Serbia’s defense.

Germany had been planning for war with France and Russia since the late 19th century. The Chief of the German General Staff had devised a plan in 1899 and revised and expanded it by 1905 to include invading neutral Belgian to attack France and simultaneously declaring war on Russia.

In early August, 1914, Germany swept into Belgium and Luxembourg and progressed rapidly towards their goal – Paris. Soon, however, German progress slowed and a battle line stretching from Lorraine in the south to the English Channel in the north was established. The soldiers on both sides along this Western Front dug trenches and erected barbed wire to strengthen their positions.

The Kaiser had been so confident of an expeditious victory he had told departing troops in early August that they would “be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Now reality was settling in and it became apparent to the commanders and to the men that this was going to be a long war.

As December cold enveloped the Western Front, a very remarkable Christmas story developed – an unofficial truce was observed by an estimated 100,000 British and German troops on the first Christmas Eve of the war. Several German troops in the Ypres, Belgium region decorated the area around their trenches with candles and celebrated the season by singing Christmas carols. From their trenches, the British soldiers responded by singing some of their carols. Eventually the two sides shouted Christmas greetings to each other and some dared to enter “No Man’s Land,” the area between opposing trenches, where they shook hands and exchanged small gifts like wine, chocolates and tobacco. The truce also allowed wounded and dead soldiers to be transported behind their lines to receive medical attention or to be buried. Some cooperative burial services were held. The truce lasted through Christmas night in some sectors.

The Times of London printed several of the letters from British soldiers concerning the suspension of hostilities. One soldier wrote, “All joined together in a sing-song, each side taking it in turn to sing a song, and finally they ended up ‘God Save the King’ in which the Saxons sang most heartily!! This is absolutely true.”

In a similar occurrence, Captain Sir Edward Hulse described a sing-song which ended with “Auld Lang Syne” in which English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, and others participated. Hulse said, “It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Henry Williamson, a nineteen-year-old private, wrote the following to his mother about this exceptionally unique experience:

“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… in the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Ha, ha, 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 and Germans met and shook hands in the ground between the trenches, and exchanged souvenirs, and shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, and as I write. Marvelous, isn’t it?”

Today the carol that is most associated with that Christmas truce is “Silent Night (Stille Nacht)”, but British soldiers rarely mentioned the song in their letters to those back home. In his memoirs, Graham Williams, a rifleman, said he had never heard this carol before (it only achieved world-wide popularity later). He claimed that “O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)” was the song both sides started singing together. Other songs participating soldiers mentioned in their letters included the 1823 song “Home, Sweet Home,” Stephen Foster’s 1851 song “Old Folks at Home (Swanee River),” the 1912 song “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” that became one of the war’s most well-known songs, and carols including “The First Noel,” “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” and “O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree).”

A British captain wrote the following about the resumption of the war on Christmas morning: “At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and I climbed on the parapet. [The Germans] put up a sheet with ‘Thank you’ on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the war was on again.”

Alfred Anderson, the last surviving British soldier who had taken part in the 1914 Christmas truce, told the History News Network, “It was then we discovered that those on the other side were not the savage barbarians we’d been told. They were like us. Why were we led to believe otherwise?”

This unconventional truce might be viewed as a Christmas miracle that allowed men on opposing sides to rediscover the humanity of their enemies and the inhumanity of war. They realized that men on both sides were Christians who celebrated the birth of the Christ child. They probably questioned the futility of war and prayed more fervently for “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.”
Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.

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