The First World War was a major conflict for control of the European continent between the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the Allied Powers of France, Britain, and Russia. Many other countries came into the fold on one side or the other until most of the world was involved, and nearly the entire global economy became mobilized for the war effort. Beginning in July of 1914, many thought the war would be over before Christmas, although as the fighting dragged on it quickly became apparent this would not be the case. The opposing forces had fought each other to a standstill by that time with no end in sight. Trenches had formed along the Western Front of the conflict which turned to mud and frost with incessant rain giving way to frost with the cold of winter closing in.
Nevertheless, the spirit of Christmas prevailed when December rolled around after months of constant fighting had made the troops eager for respite. Leading up to the great Christmas Truce, Pope Benedict XI called for a ceasefire on Christmas, requesting “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” While the British and German leadership had no interest in peace at this time, word spread of the call nonetheless. Perhaps it was this, or perhaps the spirit of Christmas weighed heavily on the fires of war and kept them still for a time. The German emperor, William II sent Christmas trees to the Western Front to try and bolster German morale, and the German soldiers set the trees up along the trenches. Christmas carols were also being sung on Christmas Eve by the soldiers, and warriors from both sides soon began to sing along together to classic hymns including Silent Night, known as “Stille Nacht” in German. Friendly exchanges occurred throughout the night with the two sides exchanging good tidings and wishes of “Merry Christmas.”
Dawn Breaks On Christmas Morn
That night, orders began circulating among the British troops to “live and let live,” meaning to not fire unless fired upon. The orders from the top on both sides were to continue fighting, and most did. However, as the sun rose on Christmas Day, it is said German soldiers along portions of the Western Front stepped out onto No Man’s Land with hands raised repeating the words “Merry Christmas” in the English language. The British at first thought it a rouse and readied weapons, but did not fire, waiting for the Germans to fire the first shot. Some shootings did occur, but the Germans did not return fire. They continued on with their hands raised as they were shot down. Eventually, the British troops realized it was not a ploy, and soldiers from both sides emerged from the trenches to meet the other side on Christmas morn.
The British and German troops who observed the ceasefire exchanged gifts and sang songs together. Some took the cessation of hostilities to gather the dead from No Man’s Land and fortify their positions. A still moment of peace descended over the field of death that many described as eerie and strange, yet wonderful and marvelous at the same time. The Christmas trees were brought up and lit with candles, and the two forces even played a friendly game of football (soccer). Reportedly, the French did not participate in the ceasefire due to much animosity from earlier offensives into French territory, and the Russians along the Eastern Front saw no such truce as they were using a different calendar with Christmas happening at a later time. The truce persisted in some areas until the new year, at which point all hostilities resumed.
Word Spreads of Startling Peace
The Christmas Truce of 1914 is said to be the last recorded instance of chivalry on the battlefield between warriors. British and German soldiers wrote about the truce in letters to home before censorship of communications was implemented. Word began to spread and was met with much disbelief. On both sides, the media portrayed the other as bloodthirsty demons who one would scarcely believe might stop fighting for the sake of Christmas. Yet word of the miraculous ceasefire continued to spread, much to the dismay of military leaders who feared it might affect the will of their soldiers to continue to fight. For some time, the Christmas Truce of 1914 was treated as a myth or legend rather than a historical event, and its occurrence was disputed. After the war, it became a more widely accepted fact the ceasefire did occur, no doubt due to the circulation of photographic evidence from that day.
With technological advances in firearms, ballistics, and explosives, chivalry eventually faded away from the battlefield as distance was created between warriors and battles protracted from brief bouts of intense melee to endless scourges of attrition. With larger economies and bigger guns brought into play, war became more and more vicious, prolonged, and desperate than ever. The First World War was one of the last major conflicts where chivalry could have been possible, and even then, it was not widely observed. The great Christmas Truce of 1914 was only possible due to the close proximity of fighting forces and the initiative of low-ranking officers to broker their own unofficial ceasefire in defiance of orders from their superiors. It was also a shocking moment which defied all expectations. The Christmas Truce was never repeated, and remains an anomaly to this day.
A Lesson for the Ages
The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a dark, yet heartwarming tale. In the midst of the fire and ice of a wintery battlefield, two groups of warriors which had been driven to hate one another down to their cores by the media they each received demonizing the other side managed to find some peace and solace, not just on their own, but together on that holy day we know as Christmas. It is a surprising and touching moment in human history that sheds a ray of hope into even the bleakest of ponderings. To me, it serves as a reminder of how important it is to set aside any trifles one might have with another when Christmas time comes around. For whatever conflicts we may find ourselves broiled in, Christmas is not a time for war or strife. As much as our nature may push us to dig in our heals, Christmas is a time for us to lay down the sword and share a moment of peace with the people around us.
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