Festiveball - the 1914 Christmas Truce

Jackson van Uden

World War One was one of the bloodiest wars in the history of mankind

World War One was one of the bloodiest wars in the history of mankind, with between 16 and 40 million people dying as a result. The Great War was one the first modern wars, as it saw the end of 19th Century warfare tactics and the rise of 20th century technologies and tactics such as, aeroplanes, trench warfare and chemical warfare which were used to gain an upper hand in the fighting. The 1914 Christmas Truce was a brief movement of humanity and peace within the inhumanity and violence of The Great War. This truce was a temporary, unofficial peace during World War One on the Western Front that lasted in most cases from the 24th of December to the 26th of December 1914, however, in some places, it extended into the beginning of 1915. Within these few days, soldiers from both the Allies and the Central Powers came together to celebrate Christmas, and because of this, it has even been seen as one of the final examples of warfare chivalry. Before Christmas 1914 there had been several attempts from various parties for peace, most notably from Pope Benedict XV who called for "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang", and Pope Benedict XV might not have received the peace he asked for, but some guns did fall silent on the night the angels sang. There are several differing accounts of what happened during the Truce, and for how it began. The Truce is thought to have started when British Soldiers across the Western Front observed German Soldiers decorating their trenches and Christmas Trees and singing carols, and in some places two sets of trenches exchanged messages. The following day these messages then turned into meetings in no-man's-land after some German soldiers crossed no-man's-land, unarmed, singing carols, and calling out 'Frohe Weihnachten', or Merry Christmas in German. Whilst, understandably, the close presence of the enemy might have unnerved and shocked British troops, the fact that the Germans were unarmed put some of their concerns to rest and the British rose from their trenches to celebrate with their enemy. In some places an unofficial ceasefire was come to after German Soldiers placed big boards in front of their trenches that read 'Merry Christmas' and 'You no fight, we no fight', and on the British side, some Officers believed it was not right to fight on Christmas and forbid their Soldiers from firing, which eventually led to a ceasefire from both sides. Sir Edward Hulse, a British Officer in one of these ceasefires described in the following way: "The silence seemed extraordinary after the usual din. From all sides, birds seem to arrive, and we hardly ever see a bird generally."
Festiveball – the 1914 Christmas Truce
Soldiers in WW1

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Festiveball – the 1914 Christmas Truce
Soldiers in WW1

The two sets of men exchanged Christmas presents

In the middle of no-man's-land the two sets of troops bonded as if they had not been firing and fighting each other for five months. The two sets of men exchanged Christmas presents and gifts from home, they swapped cigarettes and plum puddings, in some cases cut each other's hair and sang carols together in one of the most remarkable displays of Christmas spirit and camaraderie in warfare history. In some places across the Western Front, the now famous 1914 Christmas Truce football games happened. German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch mentioned the football games in his diary and wrote "a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. This Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time." The soldiers who played in these games often were unable to get their hands on proper footballs so used anything they could get their hands as alternatives such as food tins, and often the war-scarred fields did not make for good football pitches, thus ruining any chance of a proper game. The organisation of these games has often been exaggerated, and they have more often been described as 'kickabouts' rather than actual games by several historians. There are some records of score lines, including one where a German Regiment defeated a British Regiment 3-2, however, the lack of German sources of games make it difficult to prove the accuracy of such records. The Christmas Truce was also similar to the unspoken 'Live and Let Live' system of truces where troops would not fire upon or attack Troops during mealtimes, when they were washing or when performing actives, such as collecting their dead and repairing trenches, which were usually unarmed and left them exposed. Troops from both sides also utilised this truce as an opportunity to properly respect the dead and to give them honourable burials, with both the German and British Troops working together to bury their dead. It was not only the British and the Germans who held ceasefires, many French and Belgian soldiers managed to arrange truces with their German opponents on Christmas day too. Furthermore, there are also records of Austro-Hungarian and Russian ceasefires on the Eastern Front, however, these ceasefires were not as widespread as the ones occurring on the Western Front. These stories of ceasefires give us an important window into the human side of WWI and the lives and attitudes of the Soldiers taking part in this war. However, recent narratives and depictions, such as the now-famous 2014 Sainsbury Christmas advert, have led to many believing that the 1914 Christmas Truce was good-natured, widespread, and something that occurred not just across the entirety of the Western Front, but across the Eastern Front as well. Some Officers and Soldiers from both sides saw the truce as an opportunity to gain information on the enemies, their trenches, their best soldiers, and the positions of their weapons. One British officer shared a cigar with a German sniper who claimed to have killed over a 'dozen' British soldiers. However, this officer had used the truce to find his firing position and fully intended to kill him when fighting resumed. The truce did not happen everywhere on the Western Front, as it has been predicted only about 10,000 British soldiers took part in the truce out of around 150,000 men that the British had serving on the continent. Having roughly 6% of the British participating in such truces demonstrates that this truce was not widespread across the Western Front. Fighting did continue elsewhere with casualties occurring on Christmas day as gunfire echoed across the fields of the Western Front and artillery shells rained down upon both sets of trenches. British Commanders had also foreseen the potential for ceasefires and issued pre-emptive commands to prevent truces as Christmas so that the 'fighting spirit' of their men was not undermined by getting too friendly with their enemy, these commands were extended in the following years of the war. Often many officers on both sides would shoot at men, on both sides, to prevent them from attempting peace. The German high command even went as far as to declare fraternisation with enemy troops as high treason, which was punishable by death. The British press was supportive of the ceasefires that happened across the Western Front, whereas the German press criticised the German soldiers who took part in the ceasefire.
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Truces were not as widespread in 1915

Truces were not as widespread in 1915, partly down to the aforementioned attempts from both sets of high command to prevent them. There were several recorded attempts by German Soldiers for Truces on Easter 1915, and a few records of Truces at Christmas 1915, but they were very quickly shut down by Officers and Commanders. The officers and commanders once again had any soldier from the other side shot at for attempting peace and they had their soldiers who attempted a ceasefire punished. Furthermore, the violence and high casualty rate of 1915 made soldiers reluctant to celebrate with soldiers who had killed thousands of their men. Huge offensives had been carried out on the Western Front in 1915 and they had caused the deaths of thousands of men, with the Second Battle of Ypres claiming the lives of nearly 60,000 British Soldiers and over 35,000 German Soldiers, and the Battle of Loos claiming the lives of nearly 60,000 British Soldiers and over 26,000 German Soldiers. The frequency of these Christmas Truce greatly diminished after 1915, and the increased brutality of the war and increasing death toll on both sides firmly lowered the potential for seasonal goodwill gestures. However, the 'Live and Let Live' truces continued, to allow for the retrieval and burial of the dead. Whilst the story we know of Christmas 1914 is not entirely true, we must remember the humanity that was demonstrated in those moments, and that for a moment these enemies divided by a thin strip of land were friends, not enemies. 'Lest we forget'
Festiveball – the 1914 Christmas Truce
The Historians Magazine Edition 5 cover
Festiveball – the 1914 Christmas Truce

Jackson van Uden

Jackson is the founder of History with Jackson and in early 2022 joined The Historians Magazine team. Jackson has recently qualified as a History Teacher and is currently studying for an MA in Politics, from the University of Birmingham. In his spare time you can find Jackson writing, playing rugby and watching and/or coaching sports.
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