In December 1914, the troops of the Allies and the Central Powers have been in combat for several months and had begun to be bogged down (sometimes literally — living in mud) in the trench warfare that was to characterize World War I’s Western Front.
Trench warfare was basically a stalemate. Wave after wave of soldiers would be sent “over the top” — climbing out of the trench and advancing toward the enemy line, only to be mowed down by machine gun and artillery fire. The casualty numbers were appalling. But this did not stop the commanding officers from ordering another charge. And another. And . . .
The stretch of ground between the opposing trenches was called No Man’s Land, and it was marked by barbed wire, shell holes and corpses. The dead might be left there indefinitely, since — depending on the fierceness of the combat — retrieving and burying the bodies was in itself a lethal task.
Sometimes, the trenches were so close — in one area, a mere 30 yards apart — the combatants could talk, or at least shout, to each other.
That first December of the war in the British sector, it had been raining for much of the month, but on Christmas Eve, there came a frost that for awhile coated with white the shell-pocked terrain and the forest of stumps that had once been trees. It was a white Christmas.
And a peaceful one. At least temporarily.
There are multitudinous, and varying, accounts of exactly what happened on Christmas Eve 1914. But all agree that there was a spontaneous truce along some parts of the British and German lines.
How it began is uncertain, too. But my favorite story is of British troops hearing the Germans singing Christmas carols, and then joining in. There is also a report of the Germans placing candles and small Christmas trees on the parapets of their trenches.
The foes began shouting greetings to each other.
Eventually, men from both sides ventured into No Man’s Land — this time, not in an attack, but hesitantly walking toward the enemy. Germans and British met in that desolation, and shook hands. More and more troops left the trenches to meet in the middle.
Amazingly, the truce lasted through Christmas Day. The soldiers exchanged gifts — chocolate, cigarettes, cake, souvenirs. They took photos together, sometimes posing in the caps or helmets of the enemy. Some kicked soccer balls around No Man’s Land.*
But many of the soldiers, from both sides, used the unofficial ceasefire for more solemn purposes, retrieving those aforementioned corpses, so they could be given proper burials.
The Christmas Truce was not universal. In other parts of the Western Front, even along British lines, fighting continued. And the High Command was not pleased with the ceasefire when they learned of it. Strict orders prohibiting future fraternization were promulgated.
Suffice it to say, despite all the friendliness and goodwill, the truce was a mere anomaly. It had to end. How it ended, in one part of the sector, was described by Capt. J.C. Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who wrote:
“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.”
That quote is from www.firstworldwar.com, which has an extensive account of the Christmas Truce — and a wealth of other Great War information, if you are interested in learning more. Which I hope at least some of you are.
– Karen Zautyk
* Last week, in a soccer match in Aldershot, England, a British Army team defeated the Bundeswehr (German military) team, 1-0. The event was organized to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce.