We all know the story of the legendary football matches that took place on Christmas Day 1914 as, for a brief period of time, the forces of the Entente and the Central Powers laid down their weapons and greeted one another in No Man’s Land. However, what is the true story of the Christmas Truces of World War I?
The first Christmas truce of the war can be traced back to the German forces in area around Ypres. They had decorated their trenches and began singing Christmas carols on December 24th. The British troops, who were on average 250 yards away, began joining in with carols of their own. As Christmas Eve became Christmas Day, Christmas greetings were shouted across No Man’s Land and eventually, small groups of men began to climb out of their trenches and meet the men they had been shooting at for the past days, weeks and months. Small gifts of food, drink and smokes were exchanged as well as stories and souvenirs. Among other things, the truce allowed both sides to retrieve their dead comrades without fear of dying themselves. One British officer, Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, journalled that “I wouldn’t have missed that weird and unique Christmas Day for anything”. The Russians are also recorded as observing a Christmas truce with the largely Austrian force they faced on the war’s eastern front.
However, this was not the picture across the Western Front. In some cases, a ceasefire was called to allow both sides to collect the recently deceased and in areas of particularly fierce fighting, no truce of any kind is recorded as being called. Even in the areas where the atmosphere was friendlier, there were opponents to truces on either side. Among these opponents to a truce was a twenty-five year old corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry called Adolf Hitler. The length of the truce also varied greatly- some truces are recorded as lasting all the way to the New Year while others lasted for the Christmas Day, with fighting commencing on December 26th.
The home front didn’t hear about the 1914 truce till New Year’s Eve, after the New York Times broke the unofficial press embargo the military had imposed. Eventually, the mostly positive coverage was suppressed and British newspapers were asked to print an ‘official statement’ reminding all that the truces technically constituted treason and that the truces had been brief affairs observed by select units on the British front. Meanwhile in Germany, coverage was muted and limited, with papers largely criticising anyone who had taken part.
Sadly, the truces didn’t extend past 1914. As Christmas 1915 neared, British troops were encouraged to harass the enemy during the holiday season with raids and increased artillery bombardment. Especially as the war dragged through 1916 and ’17, attitudes grew bitter due to bloodier, protracted battles such as the Somme and Verdun. There was simply no will to show the enemy that human kindness the early days of the war had sparked in so many people, if the records and testimonials are to be believed.
So there we have it, a slightly expanded account of the Christmas truce that goes a little bit beyond the classic football match. To all my readers, I wish you a happy holiday season and I will see you all on December 26th.