The Christmas Truce

Christmas truce photo "Soldiers shake hands at the memorial" courtesy of Alan Cleaver

On December 24, 1914, along the Western Front during World War I, something many would call miraculous occurred. Despite months of intense and violent fighting, an unofficial Christmas truce was declared. This truce brought short-lived peace to a very unlikely place and allowed weary soldiers to enjoy much needed camaraderie and respite from fighting.

Celebration in No Man's Land

A Formal Truce Denied

Despite an official request from Pope Benedict XV, as noted on History.com, to stop fighting on Christmas Day, no official truce was declared. However, this did not stop homesick soldiers on both sides from declaring their own Christmas truce and finding the Christmas spirit in the midst of fear and devastation.

According to FirstWorldWar.com, the days leading up to Christmas in 1914 found Allied and German soldiers hunkered down in poorly constructed trenches and miserable from harsh weather conditions that included rain, snow, and bitter cold. In some parts of the front, enemy soldiers were in close proximity and could easily hear one another. In between the trenches was "no man's land," where the bodies of their fallen and injured comrades lay. Although soldiers were anxious to retrieve those bodies, this was next to impossible due to the amount of sniper fire that occurred as soon as any retrieval attempt was made.

An Informal Truce Declared

However, this was about to change. As Christmas day approached, soldiers on both sides began receiving holiday related foods, small packages, and messages which gave them a taste of the Christmas spirit. They began singing Christmas carols -- easily heard by their nearby enemies -- and calling out holiday greetings. Eyewitness accounts on EyeWitness to History state that on Christmas Eve, German soldiers sent a chocolate cake to the British line, along with a note asking for a Christmas cease fire so that the Germans could perform a concert. The British accepted the request and sent the Germans a return gift of tobacco.

The feeling of goodwill quickly spread and it wasn't long before soldiers from both sides joined one another in "no man's land" to sing carols, exchange small gifts, and generally enjoy each others company. During this period of goodwill, it was agreed that each side be allowed to retrieve the bodies of their fallen comrades and perform burials. Making the truce more poignant was the arrival of small Christmas trees on the German side, as cited by FirstWorldWar.com. Decorated with small candles, these trees reminded many soldiers of home and further encouraged goodwill towards their enemies.

While it's understood that soldiers enjoyed this display of friendship, soldier Private Frederick W. Heath tells of an underlying feeling of trepidation in his written account at Operation Plum Puddings. He observed that even though the troops were getting along, there was still a strain between the enemies.

In most cases, the truce lasted through Christmas Day; however, in some areas along the front, the truce lasted into the new year.

Reaction to the Truce

Although many on-scene officers attempted to stop the holiday fraternizing, they were largely unsuccessful and most ended up joining in the festivities.They also saw the truce as an opportunity to strengthen their hastily built trenches and allow troops a much needed boost in morale. However, many high command officers were not pleased with the truce and quickly ordered soldiers to get on with the war at hand. In addition, EyeWitness to History notes that French citizens currently being occupied by the Germans were very unhappy that British soldiers had enjoyed time with the enemy.

As newspaper and eyewitness accounts of the almost unbelievable truce reached citizens, families, and friends, reaction was mixed. Some thought it was a wonderful gesture of peace while others on both sides were incensed that fraternizing with the enemy took place, some believing this was treason. Command officers on both sides took care to minimize the event and reassure civilians that the war effort was alive and well.

The Great War experienced three more Christmases before it finally ended. Although there were small scale attempts at other holiday truces, officers watched carefully and took steps to make sure they didn't take hold.

Results of the Truce

It seems that the face to face interaction of the Christmas truce of World War I will remain unique in history. Although attempts were made in later wars to obtain a Christmas cease fire, they were often unsuccessful, and with the advancement in warfare technology, there is less likely to be trench warfare. In addition, during World War I, many enemy soldiers shared the same religious and cultural beliefs that gave them common ground to build upon. In many of today's war scenarios, this is not the case. In fact, as proven throughout history, it's often cultural differences and differences in religious beliefs that cause war.

Many books, movies, documentaries, and plays were inspired by the holiday truce of 1914. Some of these are: Joyeux Noel, Silent Night, Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting, and All is Calm.

Start Your Own Holiday Truce Tradition

Despite the controversy surrounding the World War I cease fire, there are important lessons to be learned that can be applied to your family's Christmas traditions. Holiday celebrations can be stressful and often bring together people with differences of opinion or who are carrying past grudges. Declare your own holiday truce by communicating to your family that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are to be days of peace and goodwill with all conflicts temporarily set aside. Make reading the incredible Christmas truce story a holiday tradition and follow the lead of World War I soldiers by singing Christmas carols together. While it may not lead to a completely conflict-free holiday, it just might open the door to healing and repairing relationships.

The Christmas Truce