An unthinkable series of spontaneous peaceful actions took place almost a century ago during the Great War. 99 years ago, today, was the beginning of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Because of it’s peculiarity and that it happened nearly a hundred years ago, the event has attained an almost mythological status. Some observers have even said something to the effect that the truce was the last gesture of 19th Century warfare, in that it was a general assumption that all of the soldiers were gentlemen.
Perhaps you have heard or read about the troops fighting for the Triple Entente (allies) and those of the Central Powers had laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together. There were even reports of soldiers exchanging small gifts, toasting one another with drink, and help in burying one anothers’ dead comrads. It’s easy to understand how these simple, humanitarian gestures within the context of a brutal, mechanized war could be elevated in the mind of the hearer.
One thing is certain. The Christmas Truce of 1914 did happen in many stretches of the war front. The fact that this event took place astonishes the most jaded mind that is used to the cruelty and inhumanity of human conflict and war.
Several weeks before Christmas there were many peace attempts by both sides. On December 7th, Pope Benedict XV begged for an official truce between the Triple Entente and the Central Powers. No officially sanctioned truce ever occured in 1914.
Verified reports, supported by photography, suggest that fraternization among the combatants included meetings in No-Mans-Land, religious services by chaplains from both sides, general civility, and even a few football games between combatants took place.
The story usually begins on Christmas Eve with the feeling of a holiday spirit among the Germans and the British soldiers. The war was already half-a-year-old and the participants had the forboding feeling that an endless drudgery lay ahead of them.
Eye-witnesses said that Germans had erected makeshift Christmas trees and lit candles in their trenches. From the lines of the Central Powers came the singing of “Stille Nacht”. The British responded with curiosity and then sang their own carol. At places, the enemies applauded each others’ performance. More than one soldier later described the first singing as a sort of friendly duel.
As December 25th dawned, soldiers began peeking above the trenches. They were soon rewarded with no enemy fire. Eventually a British officer emerged from his line and carefully walked to the middle of No-Man’s-Land and stopped. Next, a German officer did the same thing. The two met in the middle, shook hands, exchanged some small trinkets and cigarettes and engaged in conversation. The rest of the soldiers then eventually made their way out of the trenches and involved themselves in holiday friendliness. In some stretches of the front, the truce went on for three days.
The party atmosphere wasn’t all hale and hearty with a desire to let down their guard. While there was a mutual trust between the combatants, it was also a time for reconnaissance and the exchange of one anothers’ propaganda.
At this early stage of the Great War, there was still a slim possibility that soldiers could feel sentimental. It was the last time that the old-fashioned mentality of the 1800s was widely thought. It is factually known that more than 100,000 soldiers were caught up in the unofficial truce along the entire Western Front.
The commanding officers were furious over the fraternizations. British Generals issued orders forbidding all communications with Germans. Other commanders took a less hardline approach to the cessation. They saw it as an opportunity to re-supply and shore up their trenches. Both sides engaged in reconnaissance during the festivities.
In most stretches of the Western Front, the truce extended only through December 25th, but in some areas, it lasted through New Year’s Day. Since there was no peace treaty, both sides had to decide upon signals for the reengagement of hostilities. Soldiers reluctantly returned to the sordid business of making war.
The feelings of brotherhood eroded away as soldiers were rotated to other arenas of battle. The fighting dragged on and became ever more fierce. Soon enough, the temporary peace of 1914 became a distant and unreal memory.
The Blue Jay of Happiness has read that the groups of soldiers, having met their enemies in person, began to think critically about all the propaganda they had heard about one another. In terms of the business of war, this is dangerous. In terms of humanity, this is essential.