A Christmas truce on the Western Front

In an otherwise devastatingly violent and inhumane war, the Christmas truce was a series of widespread and spontaneous truces that arose along the Western Front in 1914. Becoming one of the most famous and romanticized events of the First World War, it is said that enemies met in no man’s land, exchanged gifts, took photographs, and played impromptu games of football. In the hundred years since, the truce has lived on as a Christmas miracle. But what was a Christmas truce really like- and how widespread was it actually?

Image: [Cover of the “Illustrated London News” from January 9, 1915. A German soldier approaches his British enemies with a lantern and a small Christmas tree, and organizes a cease-fire.] Courtesy of http://www.worldsecuritynetwork.com. 

The idea of a truce did not necessarily appear spontaneously across different areas on the Western Front, but was first suggested by Pope Benedict XV in December, 1914. Soldiers on the ground, nevertheless, were not necessarily aware of the truces being observed on other parts of the Front. Several accounts suggest the Christmas truce began when men of the British Expeditionary Force heard German soldiers singing carols in the trenches opposite them. [1] And so the story goes, the two sides continued to sing carols, and on Christmas morning, emerged from their trenches calling out “Merry Christmas” to one another. In a war that many expected to be ‘over by Christmas,’ a truce provided temporary relief from four months of brutal fighting. The truce, however, was not observed everywhere along the Western Front. In some places, shelling and heavy machine fire continued, and in some cases was heightened on Christmas Day to demoralize the enemy. 

A truce manifested itself in various forms on the Western Front. [2] Some were held only to recover the wounded and bury the dead, while others did not include any fraternization with the enemy. In many cases, soldiers refused to participate in a truce and were unable to ignore their distrust of the Germans during the cease-fire. Others were careful to let their guard down and were unable to overcome their dislike and resentment for the enemy. The reality was, however, that informal truces were not unique to Christmas and were more common than one might believe. Being in such close proximity to the enemy, many have suggested that a “live and let live” attitude developed on the Front. Nevertheless, truces were more practical than anything as they gave both sides the opportunity to recover their wounded, bury their dead, and repair any damages sustained to the trenches. 

As news of a Christmas truce reached High Command, they feared that men at home and on the Front would now question the war. As such, stricter orders were issued against informal truces and a Christmas truce was never repeated. To many, “it was indeed an ideal Christmas,” as “the spirit of Peace and Goodwill was very striking in comparison with the hatred and death-dealing of the past few months.”[3] While the war might have affected how soldiers celebrated Christmas, however, it did not prevent them from celebrating a small triumph in what must have seemed a very dark and confusing time.

This will be our last blog post until the New Year, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of our readers for an absolutely wonderful year! Thank you for following, for sharing, and for supporting everything the Centre does. Happy Holidays!

References

[1] Mason, Amanda. The Real Story of the Christmas Truce. Retrieved from Imperial War Museums, http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-real-story-of-the-christmas-truce

[2] Crocker, Terri Bloom. The Christmas truce: myth, memory, and the First World War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

[3] Ibid, p. 59. 

 

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