"All quiet on the Western Front" - The Christmas Truce of 1914

24 December 1914 on the Western Front, an unofficial cessation of hostilities spread through the trenches, later known as the Christmas truce. 

“Meanwhile, Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged, addresses given and received, photos of families shown etc. One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette; the German said, "Virginian?" Our fellow said, "Aye, straight-cut." The German said, "No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!" (Sort of 10 shillings a hundred man, me. It gave us all a good laugh.). A German N.C.O. with the Iron Cross – gained, he told me, for conspicuous skill in sniping – started his fellows off on some marching tune. When they had done I set the note for ‘The Boys of Bonnie Scotland where the heather and the bluebells grow’, and so we went on, singing everything from ‘Good King Wenceslaus’ down to the ordinary Tommies’ song, and ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!" (Captain Sir Edward Hulse, Scots Guards)

Christmas Truce - “Illustrated London News” on January 9, 1915*

In December 1914, after three months of modern war in France, everyone had realised that those who’d be home for Christmas had either caught a packet or were dead. The rival armies had fought to a standstill in Flanders after offensives and counteroffensives, the muddy trenches had frozen over and even if the horrors of the Russo-Japanese and the Boer War should have set everyone’s expectations for what was to come, nobody was quite prepared for the dimensions of modern war. A few days before Christmas then, the Christmas Mary Box gifts arrived in the British lines and the Germans received gift parcels along with collapsible Christmas trees and the express order of the Kaiser and the Oberste Heeresleitung, the Supreme Army Command, that the latter were to be lit up on Christmas Eve. On the same day, at first along the trenches near Ypres, an informal cease fire was agreed to on company level to bury the dead in the No-Mans-Land between the British and German lines, about 300 feet apart. And somehow, the men began to exchange gifts, cakes, fags and spirits. And then a Landser respectfully asked Tommy not to shoot while the Germans would sing Christmas carols in their trench and the British complied and applauded afterwards and were asked to sing along. One British die-hard cried out he’d rather die than sing in German and the Germans answered they’d shoot him if he did anyway. Everybody laughed and nobody wanted to slaughter his fellow man, at least not for a day.

A contemporary photograph of British and German soldiers during the truce

It happened, admittedly, before the complete dehumanisation of the war, before the endless artillery barrages, the widespread use of poison gas and months and years of fighting, living and dying in the trenches. Back in 1914, though, during the informal Christmas truce, bilingual services were celebrated, gifts and addresses exchanged, British, Germans and French soldiers boozed together and there is the persistent rumour of football matches, played with bully beef ration tins and maybe even an organised match with a ball, goals and a referee, that ended, somewhat unsurprisingly, 3-2 for Germany. The unofficial truce ended in some places as late as 26 December and even though it was condemned by the various high commands and the press on the continent pretended it had never happened, but at least there was no disciplinary action against the thousands of participants on a front line that stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland. The informal Christmas truces were never repeated to that extent during the rest of the war either. It remained a short glimpse of humanity and goodwill before the catastrophe of the 20th century asserted itself.

* British newspapers did not ignore the events, though. Depicted above is an illustration that appeared in the “Illustrated London News” on January 9, 1915, captioned with: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches - Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternising on the field of battle at the season of peace and goodwill: Officers and men from the German and British trenches meet and greet one another—A German officer photographing a group of foes and friends."

And more about the Christmas truce of 1914 on: