THE “Christmas truce” is a term used to describe a series of unofficial cessations of hostilities that occurred along the Western Front during Christmas 1914. World War One had been raging for several months but German and Allied soldiers stepped out of their trenches, shook hands and agreed a truce so the dead could be buried. The soldiers also used that truce to chat with one another and, some claim, even play a football match. Unofficial truces between opposing forces occurred at other times during World War One but never on the scale of that first Christmas truce. Similar events have occurred in other conflicts throughout history – and continue to occur.
Setting the scene: Factors leading to the truce
THE assassination of heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 29 1914 sparked a rapid sequence of events which led to the outbreak of World War One. In early August, Germany swept past Luxembourg and Belgium on their way into France and at first made rapid progress. The Allies and Germans tried a series of outflanking movements which eventually led to a battle line – the Western Front – stretching from Lorraine in the south to the English Channel in the north. Soldiers dug trenches and erected barbed wire to hold their positions: the nightmare that was to become ‘trench warfare’ had begun.
In places the trenches were just yards apart and, as the soldiers realised that neither side was going to make any rapid victories or progress, the trenches became more fortified. The opposing forces now had time to regroup and strengthen their lines with more men but it soon became apparent to the Generals and to the men on the front line that this was going to be a war of attrition – the only way a ‘winner’ would be decided would be when one side ran out of men or out of bullets. As Private R Fleming of the 2nd Durham Light Infantry put it: “It is not war this. It is who can kill the most in the shortest possible time” ( The Newcastle Evening Mail January 13, 1915).
The proximity of the enemies also allowed men to shout out to their opponents or stick up signs on wooden boards. After a particularly heavy barrage of missiles or bullets, the soldiers might shout out “Missed” or “Left a bit”. (1) This black humour was to be the start of a ‘conversation’ between troops that would hasten the onset of a Christmas truce.
Another factor that assisted conditions for an unofficial truce between the men was the weather. For much of December it had been wet but on Christmas Eve the temperature dropped and a sharp frost enveloped the landscape. A ‘white Christmas’ as depicted on all traditional Christmas cards would provide the backdrop to one of the most remarkable Christmas stories in 2,000 years.
The shouting between troops turned into something more during Christmas Eve. Germans celebrate Christmas on December 24 more than they do on the day itself (in Britain and France, December 25 is the main day of celebration). It is on the 24th that the Germans have a large meal with family and ‘Father Christmas’ delivers his gifts. So on the Western Front on Christmas Eve, German soldiers began to sing carols and place Christmas trees lit with lanterns above the trenches. As a sub-altern told the Press Association (and it was then published in numerous UK newspapers): “Their trenches were a blaze of Christmas trees, and our sentries were regaled for hours with the traditional Christmas songs of the Fatherland. Their officers even expressed annoyance the next day that some of these trees had been fired on, insisting that they were part almost of the sacred rite.”
A ‘white Christmas’, singing of carols, shouts of good wishes across the trenches and the erection of illuminated deocrations: A truce which days earlier had seemed inconceivable was now all but inevitable.
Christmas Eve – the Truce begins
IT is easy to understand how shouting and singing between the trenches on Christmas Eve escalated into something more serious. This letter, for example, was one of hundreds sent home by the soldiers on the front and later shared by excited families with their communities through the columns of the local newspapers. Censorship, fortunately, appears to have been in its infancy.
“As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them. We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:-
From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer).
“Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer).
“GOOD MORNING FRITZ.”
From German trenches: “Good morning.”
From our trench: “How are you?”
“Come over here, Fritz.”
“No. If I come I get shot.”
“No you won’t. Come on.”
“Come and get some fags, Fritz.”
“No. You come half way and I meet you.”
One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench.. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fitz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange.”
Letter from Private H Scrutton, Essex Regiment, published in the Norfolk Chronicle on January 1, 1915
And this from Rifleman C H Brazier, Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford: “You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ” (The Hertfordshire Mercury, Saturday January 9, 1915).
The Songs of the Truce
THE singing of hymns and carols between the trenches is perhaps one of the most atmospheric motifs of the Truce. Today it is the hymn Silent Night (Stille Nacht) most associated with the event but Allied soldiers rarely mention this hymn in their letters. Indeed, Rifleman Graham Williams said in his memoirs (1): ‘This was actually the first time I heard this carol, which was not then so popular in this country as it has since become’. He says O Come All Ye Faithful was the hymn which both sides started singing together. Other songs participating soldiers mention in their letters home include: Home Sweet Home, It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, The First Nowell, Old Folks at Home, Auld Lang Syne, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks and O Tannenbaum.
FIRST, it should be remembered that while the truce was widespread it was not total. In some parts shelling and firing continued during the day; there were deaths on Christmas Day 1914. Pat Collard, for instance, wrote to his parents at The Chestnut Horse pub at Easton, near Winchester, describing a horrendous Christmas under fire, concluding: “Perhaps you read of the conversation on Christmas Day between us and the Germans. It’s all lies. The sniping went on just the same; in fact, our captain was wounded, so don’t believe what you see in the papers.” (Hampshire Chronicle, January 1915).
But despite Pat Collard’s experience, there were indeed many truces along the Western Front that Christmas. Some had been arranged on Christmas Eve, others on the day itself. While some arrangements appear to have been quite formal, including a ruling as to when the truce would end, others appear to have been quite informal. For instance Rifleman J. Reading, writing to his wife, Mrs. Reading, of Germain Street, (Chesham) said: “During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: “Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.” At 4 a.m part of their Band played some Christmas carols and “God save the King”, and “Home Sweet Home.” You could guess our feelings. Later on in the day they came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them. Of course neither of us had any rifles. I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet that it seemed like a dream. We took advantage of the quiet day and brought our dead in.” Bucks Examiner, January 8, 1915
This letter from Private Cunningham, of the 5th Scottish Rifles, to his friend Mr James D Gray, in Carluke, Scotland, also reveals in more detail how such truces came about: “On Christmas Eve the firing practically ceased. I think both sides understood we were going to have a day off. Through the night we sang carols to one another, the German lines were only a hundred yars away, so we heard each other quite plainly. This went on all night. When dawn arrived we started putting our head above the parapet and waved to each other. On our left was a brewery occupied by the Germans and to our surprise we saw a German come out and hold his hand up, behind him were two rolling a barrel of beer. They came halfway across and signed to us to come for it. Three of us went out, shook hands with them, wished them a merry Christmas, and rolled the barrel to our own trenches amid the cheers of both British and Germans! After that it was understood that peace was declared for a day. We both got out of our trenches and met in the middle of the field, wished each other seasons greetings. The Germans said: “A merry Grismas!”. Some of them were quite good at English. We had a most interesting day. The Germans got permission for our officers to bury some of their dead which were lying near our lines. ” (The Scotsman, January 5, 1915).
But precisely what happened during the truces? With some notable exceptions most letters refer to a number of common events:
An agreement on a truce
Burying any dead lying in No Man’s Land, including prayers such as the 23rd Psalm
Chatting and swapping jokes
Swapping of information about the war
Singing of songs and hymns
A football match?
An agreement as to when the truce would end
There’s much controversy over whether football matches took place during the truce so the evidence for and against is presented in a separate section.
While it’s impossible to talk of a ‘typical’ Christmas truce experienced by soldiers along the Western Front this letter, which appeared in The Exeter Express and Echo of January 7, 1915, describes a series of events similar to that reported by many other soldiers:
“In a letter to his brother at Barnstaple, Private H A Amy of the 2nd Devons at the front, also refers to the Christmas truce. ‘On Christmas Eve,’ he says, ‘their officers told them not to shoot unless the Germans did, and not a shot was fired. The Germans were singing and shouting, ‘a merry Chrstmas to you’. As the day broke the enemy would be seen to bob up and down, and as the British did not fire they plucked up courage enough to get out of the trenches. Soon their parapets were lined and our chaps went out and met them and exchanged gift, cigarettes etc. Officers also fraternised. The Germans told them that the English had lost thirty warships and they had only lost two. It only showed that the Germans were being buoyed up with false hopes, and that when they learned the truth no doubt they would get a shock.”
While this was typical there are also reports of very untypical truces with some soldiers going far behind enemy lines or staying with the enemy for some considerable time.
This account by Rifleman C H Brazier, Queen’s Westminsters of Bishops Stortford which appeared in the Hertfordshire Mercury of January 9, 1915, for example, conjures up a comic picture of the Christmas Truce hardly typical of the usual image depicting cautious soldiers nervously shaking hands in No Man’s Land:
“The trenches in this position are so close that they are called ‘The Death Trap’, as hundreds have been killed there. A hundred yards or so in the rear of our trenches there were houses that had been shelled. These were explored with some of the regulars and we found old bicycles, top-hats, straw hats, umbrellas etc. We dressed ourselves up in these and went over to the Germans. It seemed so comical to see fellows walking about in top-hats and with umbrellas up. Some rode the bicycles backwards. We had some fine sport and made the Germans laugh.”
And what are we to make of this remark by Lance-Corportal A Lockett, of the 1st North Staffs Regiment: “One of our fellows went across to the German trenches dressed in women’s clothes” (Staffordshire Sentinel, January 13th 1915).
The Truce Fails
ON some parts of the Western Front there was no truce. At others the truce ‘failed’. This letter suggests there was more chance of a truce where Saxons made up the German line than if Prussians were in the enemy trenches:
“The following are extracts from a letter of a Leicestershire soldier at the front dated January 2nd: ‘We had a rather sad occurrence on Christmas Day. Directly in front of our regiment there were one or two German regiments. On our right was a regiment of Prussian Guards and on our left a Saxon Regiment. On Christmas morning some of our fellows shouted across to them saying that if they would not fire our chaps would meet them halfway between the trenches and spend Christmas Day as friends. They consented to do so. Our chaps at once went out and when in the open the Prussians fired on them, killing two and wounding many more. The Saxons, who behaved like gentlemen, threatened the Prussians if they did the same trick again.Well during Christmas Day our fellows and the Saxons fixed up a table between the two trenches and they spent a happy time together and exchanged souvenirs and presented one another with little keepsakes. They said they would not fire on us as they considered us all English gentlemen and all the while we were opposed to one another they never bothered us at all. They said they did not want war and thought the Kaiser quite in the wrong. They were continually falling out with the Prussians. They are the people who are the cause of the war and hate the English very much indeed. I hope this war will not last long, but our chaps have behaved splendidly all through, and although they have suffered terrible hardships they have always worn a smile’.” (Leicester Mercury, January 27, 1915)
The Football Match
DID the Germans and the Allies indulge in a football match in No Man’s Land during the Christmas Truce? And if so where did it take place?
There is evidence that such a match took place but it is not overwhelming. Many letters written by soldiers at the time refer to playing football but the letters are ambiguous. For example:
A very interesting letter has been sent by Mr J A Farrell, a Bolton Post Office employee. The letter is sent to the Post Office and reads: ‘…In the afternoon there was a football match played beyond the trenches, right in full view of the enemy’…” (Bolton Chronicle 2nd January 1915)
Does Mr Farrell mean the match was played simply between allied soldiers or did the Germans also take part? Other letters say that the opposing sides wanted to arrange a football match but it fell through for lack of a ball or because of intervention by superiors. For instance:
“Walter Cooke, son of Mr H Cooke of Church Lawford has written home to thank his friends for the plum pudding and good things they sent him for Christmas. He says: ‘They wanted to play at football but that fell through. They kept their word, and did not fire a shot all Christmas Day and Boxing Day’.” (Rugby Advertiser, January 16th 1915)
The oft-quoted letter, cited as evidence for such a match (and a score of 3-2 to the Germans), comes from The Times on January 1st, 1915 in which an anonymous major states: “The …Regiment actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2.” But this is also ambiguous: is the major quoting hearsay or did he actually witness the match himself? Seaton and Brown (1) also point out that a German reference to a match also had a score of 3-2 and go on to say: “The fact two scores of 3-2 occur in the accounts of Christmas Day football must be assigned either to a curious coincidence or to mistaken memory. The two matches referred to could not have been same one; in that the units concerned were separated not only by geographical distance but also by the river Lys.”
However in 1983 a former Territorial of 6/Cheshires, Ernie Williams, claimed in a TV interview that he had taken part himself in the famous match: “The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side – it wasn’t from our side that the ball came. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melee – nothing like the soccer you see on television. The boots we wore were a meance – those great big boots we had on – and in those days the balls were made of leather and they soon got very soggy.”
Williams was at Wulverghem (just north of Ploegsteert, Belgim) where he says No Man’s Land was not as broken up by shell fire as it was elsewhere.
His account is supported by a fellow member of the 6th Cheshires. Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden of the 6th Cheshire Territorials was interviewed by the Evening Mail, Newcastle while in Stockport for a week’s leave. He told the paper:
“On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemey must cease but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.” (Evening Mail, Newcastle, December 31st, 1914)
So the evidence in favour of a match suggests at least one such game took place at Wulverghem and no score was kept.
The End of the Truce
IF initiating a truce in the middle of wartorn France seemed impossible then ending it was to prove even harder. On some parts of the Western Front the time limit and rules of a truce seem to have been clearly defined. For example:
Sergt W. Blundell, of the 1st Beds Regiment said: “They asked us not to fire that day and said they would not; and no firing was done until next day and then we were fighting for all we were worth.” (The Bedfordshire Times and Independent of January 8, 1915)
And more poignantly, Lance-Corpl, Henderson, of the Royal Engineers:
“The alarm went about midnight, and we stood up till daybreak, when we found that our pals of the previous two days had tried to rush our position, but they got cut up as usual, and I believe the next morning the ground where we had been so chummy, and where Germans had wished us a merry Christmas, was now covered with their dead.” (The Hampshire Chronicle of January 30, 1915)
But in other places the soldiers seemed reluctant to begin shooting at the very people they had been sharing jokes with just a few hours earlier.
Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden of the 6th Cheshire Territorials: “Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemey must cease but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.” (Evening Mail (Newcastle) January 31, 1914)
And the Manchester Guardian’s Paris Correspondent wrote on January 6, 1915: “The sequel was more interesting than the event itself. The French and German soldiers who had thus fraternised subsequently refused to fire on one another and had to be removed from the trenches and replaced by other men.”
It’s easy to understand that either side would want to record the first kill after the truce and there are reports of Germans warning Allied soldiers to ‘keep their heads down’ because a visiting senior officer meant they would have to start firing again. But while the truce may have extended or been repeated until New Year’s Eve, it’s clear that most soldiers were reporting ‘business as usual’ by early January. There is no such widespread repetition in 1915 or the following years.
THE reaction of the public and the senior officers to news of this Christmas Truce was one of excitement and wonderment, but with an understanding that it was an aberration which only lasted a few hours before fighting recommenced. And since the truce was being used to bury the dead, it was also seen that the truce served some useful purpose. But a letter published in The Aberdeen Daily Journal on January 9th, 1915 by an anonymous writer attacked the truce, saying: “Fie on ye, Scotsmen! There is not much of the boasted Highland Pride left in you when you would sell it for a German souvenir.” Public feeling could change quickly.
THE enduring legacy of the truce has been positive and it’s looked upon today as a wonderful example of humanity during an dreadfully dark hour of man’s history. It has inspired many songs, paintings, literature, films and other art works – too numerous to list. But it’s greatest legacy must surely be the message of Hope. As a Highland Regiment officer said in The Times in 1915:
“It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.”