Chistmas in the Trenches -- 1914


       Stories tell of the British and German soldiers playing football together in No Man's Land on Christmas day are true. The Christmas truce of 1914 really happened and on some far greater scale than has been generally realized. Enemy really did meet enemy between the trenches. There was for a time, genuine peace in No Man's Land. Though Germans and British were the main participants, French and Belgians took part as well. Most of those involved agreed it was a remarkable way to spend Christmas. "Just you think," wrote one British soldier, "that while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding!"

       "It was a day of peace in war," commented a German participant, "It is only a pity that it was not decisive peace." NCOs and officers often joined in with equal readiness, while others truces were initiated and the terms of armistice agreed at 'parleys' of officers between the trenches. 1

       The situation in the 1914 trenches was very grave! Barely five months after the outbreak of the war, nearly a million soldiers and civilians were already dead. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand that June had plunged Europe into its bloodiest war to date, with no end in sight. The armies of the Allied and Central Powers were grimly deadlocked, facing each other across a series of trenches that stretched more than 400 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland. On the Western Front that December, it rained almost every day; in some places, the water was 5 feet deep. Armies of rats and lice shared the trenches. As Christmas approached, millions of mud-covered troops were shivering, frightened, and homesick.

       The starting of this Chistmas truce was very amazing! It bubbled up from the ranks, with both armies making small gestures of good will in the days before Dec. 25. Near Armentières, France, some Germans suggested a brief, local cease-fire, even sweetening the deal with a chocolate cake. Along the Lys River, a battalion of Welsh infantrymen hoisted a banner reading “Merry Christmas,” accompanied by a sketch of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Then, as temperatures dropped below freezing on Christmas Eve, the guns in many sectors fell silent, and thousands of British soldiers heard something they would never forget.




       The British heard the haunting sound of Germans singing “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”). Through the gloom, the British could also see the flames of candles dotting the branches of makeshift Christmas trees—“like the footlights of a theater,” said one amazed Tommy. Up and down the line the British, moved by the holiday spirit, responded with carols of their own; following each selection, the other side would cheer and applaud. Soon, greetings of “Happy Christmas!” “You no shoot, we no shoot!” and “Come over here!” echoed across no man’s land. Slowly, cautiously, the two armies crept out into the shell-blasted landscape.

       What both sides found was that the other side had ordinary men like themselves. Once they had broken the ice with greetings and handshakes, they started talking about their homes, their jobs, their families. Many realized that they bore each other no real emnity, that they were merely pawns in a vast struggle beyond their control. Gifts were exchanged; English corned beef and German cigars were particularly popular. “Where they couldn’t talk the language,” wrote Cpl. John Ferguson of the 2nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, “they were making themselves understood by signs. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”

       The camaraderie for a short time spread. On Christmas Day, thousands of unarmed men from both sides again emerged from the trenches, having agreed to use the daylight to collect their dead. This time, the enemy soldiers swapped pieces of equipment and parts of their uniforms. Many shared photographs of their families and took pictures of themselves with their new friends. “We are at any rate having another truce on New Year’s Day,” Lt. Dougan Chater of the 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, wrote in a letter, “as the Germans want to see how the photos come out.” In some places, combatants even played soccer with makeshift balls.

       The truce was pretty widespread. Where Britons faced Germans, more than two-thirds of the troops made temporary peace. On the Eastern Front, one group of Austrians and Russians reportedly played leapfrog with one another. The French and Belgians were far less charitable; the Hun, after all, had viciously invaded their homeland. So some French officers defiantly ordered attacks on Christmas Day. “We opened rapid fire on them,” wrote one captain, “which is the only sort of truce they deserve.” Yet in most places, the sound of gunfire was replaced by the sounds of Christmas.

       The Commanders of both sides were not very happy about the truce. When word got back to them, they were appalled. On Boxing Day (Dec. 26), British Gen. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien ordered that “on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposing troops.” On Dec. 29, the German High Command forbade all fraternization, warning that it would be punished as high treason. So with great reluctance, the troops said goodbye and ambled back to their trenches, dreading what was to come. Though many had fantasized that their gestures might lead to an armistice, they knew it was a futile dream. In some cases, a single shot on Dec. 26 was enough to get the war going again. 2


       The informal ceasefire stretched all across the 500-mile western front where more than a million men were encamped, from the Belgian coast as far as the Swiss border. The truce was especially warm along a 30-mile line around the Belgian town of Ypres, Jürgs notes. Not everybody, though, approved. One Austrian soldier billeted near Ypres complained that in wartime such an understanding "should not be allowed". His name was Adolf Hitler. 3


       It was also said that in certain areas when the war resumed that those facing each other at the front had to be sent to the rear because they couldn’t kill each other. This Christmas peace also showed that when enemies really see each other they see each other as brothers and don’t understand why they are killing each other. Certainly this is what Christmas is all about, God’s peace in all of us! This is what happened in the hearts of men on both sides in the trenches on the Christmas of 1914.


1) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1998/10/98/world_war_i/197627.stm

2) http://www.theweekmagazine.com/news/articles/news.aspx?ArticleID=1253

3) http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWchristmas.htm






       A new European movie portaying this World War I Christmas Truce is entitled "Joyeux Noel" and was made in 2005. It has English subtitles but is well worth watching. One thing I learned from the movie, that I had never heard before, was that when artillery fell on the French and Scotts the Germans invited them on their side and when artillery went the other way the Germans went on the French side.


       Countless veterans from WWWII, Korea and even the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have been exposed to asbestos while serving in the military and may suffer from the deadly cancer asbestos mesothelioma as a result. For more information about this cancer and how it affects members of the military community please visit the MAA Center website.


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