Christmas Truce 1914 -15
About Christmas Truce during First World War
When I was at school we visited many battlefields in Belgium and France, it was a powerful experience to see the countless of rows of graves. This is short piece I wrote on Christmas Day, 2004. It was inspired by a BBC TV programme that I had seen a few weeks before.
By Christmas Eve 1914, many 1000s of soldiers had already died on the Western front. The soldiers were living in difficult circumstances; the trenches were cold and wet and more poignantly the memory of fallen comrades was vivid in their minds. However despite this harsh situation the soldiers tried their best to hold impromptu Christmas celebrations. To raise morale the soldiers sang Christmas carols. In fact they could hear their enemies also singing, from the other side of no man's land. Being buoyed with the Christmas spirit, soldiers made impromptu signs wishing their "enemies" a happy Christmas.
On the next day British soldiers were startled to see their German counterparts walking unarmed across No man's land. Rifles were reluctantly drawn but nobody was of a mind to use them. After a tense couple of exchanges, men started to leave the trenches in order to meet their sworn enemies, in the middle of no man's land. Both sides started to chat and since it was Christmas started to exchange gifts.
Soon the opposing armies were freely mingling in the middle of no man's land; which had so recently seen such great devastation and death. Senior officers were alerted and were shocked to see their men socialising with the enemy. But the senior officers saw no reason to stop the festivities and often brought more liquor to fuel the festivities. Unofficially commanding officers agreed upon a temporary truce.
For the 24 hours of Christmas there would be no hostilities and both sides would have an opportunity to bury their dead. These men had been encouraged to hate the other side. However on getting to know their enemy on personal terms, they found they shared a common Christian background and actually had little appetite for fighting.
Scenes such as this spontaneously arose on many parts of the Western front. Up to 50% of British and German front line troops joined the biggest mass desertion of any war. Famously, impromptu games of football were organised in the middle of no man's land. Despite the massive scale of this desertion it took along time to filter through to the top generals. They were horrified to learn their men had been so willing to "befriend their enemy". Even after Christmas day, when the unofficial truce was over, there was very little fighting. When you have got to know your enemy and exchanged gifts it is hard to then try and kill that person. Soldiers would waste many rounds shooting high into the air.
Unfortunately this was never to repeated. The Generals would never again allow such a "weakening" of their men's morale. However the Christmas truce remains a potent reminder of man's instinctive aversion for hatred and desire for harmony.
By Richard Pettinger 2005
See also Review "O What a lovely War"