On This Day

christmas truce, ww1 truce, christmas peace ww1, world war 1 christmas truce
Imperial War Museum
British and German officers meet in no mans’s land during the Christmas truce of 1914.

On This Day: Christmas Truce Brings One Day’s Peace in WWI

December 25, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 25, 1914, five months into World War I, British and German troops on the Western Front stopped fighting in a spontaneous ceasefire; soldiers from opposing nations put their weapons aside to enjoy carols and a game of soccer together.

Christmas Truce Brings Peace for a Day

At the outbreak of World War I in July 1914, many government and military leaders believed the conflict would be “over by Christmas.” However, after the German advance through France and Belgium was halted at the Battle of Marne in September 1914, fighting along the Western Front became locked in a stalemate.

But that Christmas, the fighting briefly came to an end on many parts of the Western Front, as soldiers reached separate ceasefires to celebrate the holiday. The truces were made primarily between British and German soldiers, though some French and Belgian regiments also participated.

On Christmas Eve, soldiers sang Christmas carols from their trenches and sent gifts to each other. Some men bravely walked unarmed in the desolate, forbidding no man’s between the trenches and began associating with the enemy while they buried their dead comrades.

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

Though high-ranking officers forbid fraternization with the enemy, soldiers from both sides met again on Christmas Day. The men socialized, sang carols and exchanged gifts such as chocolate cake, wine and tobacco. In many places, the men played soccer.

The Times of London printed several letters from British soldiers describing the truce. 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. One of our men was given a bottle of wine in which to drink the King’s health. The — Regiment actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2!!!”

The truces ended that night or the following morning. A British captain wrote of how the Royal Welch Fusiliers resumed the war: “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. He [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.”

Reflecting on the truce, one British officer wrote to The Times, “They were really magnificent in the whole thing and jolly good sorts. I have now a very different opinion of the German. Both sides have started the firing, and already enemies again. Strange it all seems, doesn’t it?”

Additional Accounts and Photos of the Truce

The Imperial War Museum includes an audio clip of British soldier Marmaduke Leslie Walkinton recalling the truce and a copy of a letter written by Captain Alfred Dougan Chater. The museum also holds several photographs and artifacts of the truce.

ChristmasTruce.co.uk has a collection of letters sent from British soliders who took part in the 1914 truce. The collection holds many letters previously published in newspapers across the United Kingdom.

The New York Times published several excerpts from the journals, memoirs and letters of participants in the truce.

Significance of the Christmas Truce

A few more truces sprang up in 1915. But as the war dragged on, commanders upheld stricter standards of behavior and the soldiers grew bitter from years of fighting. To some, the Christmas truce of 1914 represented the final flowering of civilized ideals that were destroyed in the violence of World War I.

“I think it's wrapped up with the fact that you could still be sentimental in 1914,” says Peter Simkins of the Imperial War Museum. “Whereas, when total war became much more all pervasive later in the war, and the war became much more sort of a mass war for everybody, I think the sort of slightly old-fashioned sentiments lost their place and it became much nastier business.”

“It is the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman,” according to University of Toronto historian Modris Eksteins, author of “Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.” “As the war goes on, the enemy becomes increasingly abstract. You don't exchange courtesies with an abstraction.”

Historical Context: World War I

World War I, originally known as “The Great War,” began in the spring of 1914 and raged through Europe until November 1918. The war cost 9 million lives and billions of dollars in damages. World War I demonstrated the magnitude and destructive power of modern warfare.

PBS’ “The Great War” and the BBC’s “World War One” describe the battles and events of the war and provide commentary from noted historians.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History gives detailed accounts of the U.S. Army’s action during the war, along with a prologue explaining the war prior to U.S. involvement.

First World War.com provides a battle-by-battle history of the war.

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