The Christmas Truce of 1914 – Facts Vs. Fiction
Image: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches.” From The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915
On the night of December 24, 1914, the guns along the Western Front were mostly silent, and fittingly, “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”) in German began to be sung on both sides of the line. World War I—then known only as the “war” and eventually “The Great War”—was less than six months old, and while soldiers were hunkered down for the holidays in trenches it was still far from the horrors to come.
This was before the gas warfare, the constant artillery barrages, the futile attacks across no-man’s land and before the trenches became as close to hell on earth as anyone could ever imagine. This is not to say that the war wasn’t still hell, for the causalities were already mounting though the line was already static from nearly the Swiss border almost all the way to the English Channel. Both sides hoped for a breakthrough in the spring.
However, on December 24—Christmas Eve—spring was a long time away. Despite probing of the lines and the daily attempts to disrupt the enemy, things were quiet. Then, on Christmas Day soldiers waved white flags and came out of the lines. Peace didn’t break out; it was just a truce for the holy day.
The scene of soldiers climbing out of the trenches is making the rounds this holiday season online thanks to a slick ad campaign from the British Sainsbury’s supermarket chain. The video begins on Christmas Eve as British and German soldiers begin to sing “Silent Night,” and it then proceeds to chronicle how soldiers on each side came out to shake hands, play football and stop fighting.
The sound of artillery sends the soldiers back to their trenches, where the German soldier finds a chocolate bar in his coat, a “gift” from his enemy across the lines. The video advertisement was made in partnership with The Royal British Legion, and was reportedly “inspired by real events from 100 years ago.”
Of course it was also made to sell chocolate bars—ones that look much like the one that the German Landser Otto found in his coat. In this case all profits will be donated to the Royal British Legion, but it is still intended to get folks in the U.K. to head to Sainsbury’s to do their holiday shopping.
Sainsbury’s is not the first to chronicle the Christmas Truce. It has been the subject of movies and even a music video for a Paul McCartney song. One of the biggest misconceptions about the truce was that it was widely reported and was big news.
In fact, news of the actual truce went unreported for more than a week. It was only on New Year’s Eve that the New York Times reported an unofficial truce had broken out. Accounts only circulated as families at home found out, not through the daily newspapers but from firsthand accounts in letters from the front lines. The British newspapers Mirror and Sketch eventually printed front-page photographs of the soldiers mingling.
However, German coverage was somewhat muted and even criticized those taking part, while in France the press censorship all but blocked news of the truce entirely and only confirmed in an official statement that it was limited to the British sectors and was short lived.
The first fictionalized account appears to have been the German play Petermann schließt Frieden oder Das Gleichnis vom deutschen Opfer (Petermann makes peace) in 1933. Written by war veteran Heinz Steguweit, who was an early member of the Nazi Party, the play was far from uplifting. In it a German soldier is shot dead by a sniper whilst singing Christmas carols!
The truce was chronicled as a sequence in the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War, and served as the backdrop for the 1983 music video of Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace,” in which the former Beatle played both a British Tommy and German Jerry who meet in no man’s land. It was also the plot of the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël, which depicted the events from the perspective of German, Scottish and French soldiers.
All of these—as well as the Sainsbury’s ad—are quite moving, and from a historical perspective get many details of the early part of the war correct. The German soldiers are wearing grey uniforms and the Pickelhaube (spiked helmet), while British soldiers are wearing service dress caps, or Glenngary caps in the case of the Scots in Joyeux Noël, with the latter film even including the early red-and-blue French uniforms. Rarely do the scenes suggest the latter horrors of the war with troops wearing steel helmets or gas masks.
In that regard the makers have gotten the equipment and details quite right, even if other aspects are pure fantasy, albeit touching stories in their own right.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about the Christmas Truce of 1914 is that it was limited to the days around Christmas. In fact, fraternization had often occurred in war; it wasn’t all that uncommon for soldiers who had been shooting at one another one day to wave a white flag to exchange food or drink the next. While largely discouraged, such activities happened all the time, even under the threat of serious punishment.
In the early stages of the Great War the British and German units tended to have moments of fraternization, but relations between the French and Germans—long time rivals—had been far more tense. However, by the early part of December short truces weren’t uncommon for each side to recover dead soldiers for burial.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was also spurred on in part by the “Open Christmas Letter,” a public message for peace that was addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria” and signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists. This followed on December 7, 1914, when Pope Benedict XV called for an official truce between the warring governments, but this attempt was officially rebuffed by all sides.
How long the truce lasted is also heavily debated and misunderstood. While the film Joyeux Noël suggested that it lasted beyond Christmas Day, most other depictions including McCartney’s take and the Sainsbury’s advert suggest it was something that lasted mere minutes. The truth is murky on this because truces—rather than a single truce—existed up and down the lines.
In many sectors it is widely accepted that the Christmas Truce did in fact last just for the single day, but in other sectors it continued through New Year’s Day. Part of the reason for the latter phenomenon is that as noted neither side planned a major campaign for the foreseeable future, and as a result it was just a quiet time on the line.
“There are reports of truces from the French and Belgian sectors too,” said Chris Baker, author of recently published book The Truce: The Day the War Stopped. “It varied and in some areas went on for several days; in others nearby
it did not take place at all. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day appear to have been quiet pretty well all along the line – but even so more than 70 British soldiers lost their lives that day. Actual fraternization appears to have been a few hours at most.”
What is accepted is that the commanders on both sides of the lines were pretty much in the dark about the activity until after it occurred. And neither side’s leaders were particularly happy, with both fearing that a widespread mutiny could ensue. The last thing the commanders wanted was for their respective soldiers to give up the fight.
The other debated issue of the truce is whether football (soccer) was ever played. While it is likely given that there were a number of cases of fraternization that some balls were kicked around, it isn’t clear if there were really any “organized” matters. A number of period letters suggest that the units did kick around the ball but in many cases it is unlikely that the soldiers used a real ball—probably ration tins or other similarly sized objects.
Most historians tend to agree that the football matches could not have been much more than kick-about games given the terrain in no-man’s land. It is also believed that most of these matches were really soldiers on the same side playing together rather than with those from the opposing side.
“The evidence for football being played is from letters and various other paperwork from individual soldiers,” added Baker. “It gets no mention in unit war diaries, regimental histories etc and indeed some men wrote that they simply did not believe that it had taken place.
“The circumstances of the cratered nature of the ground, presence of barbed wire defenses and so on, plus the very short time over which fraternization occurred, make it most improbable that we are talking about a properly organized game,” Baker suggested. “A kick-about is probably nearer the mark. The only place where even two
British reports mention football was on the front of 15th Infantry Brigade, but no corroborating German evidence from that sector has been found.”
However, while there is likely much fiction in the story it is undeniable that a truce did occur and it is one of the few examples of a “feel-good” story to come out of the horror that was World War I. To ensure that the story is remembered—whether accurately or not—a Christmas truce memorial was unveiled on November 11, 2008, in Frelinghien, France. There was even a football match, where soldiers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers faced off against the German Battalion 371—with the Germans winning 2-1.
For the 100th anniversary of the truce and its football connection Michel Platini, president of the UEFA, the European football’s governing body, announced plans to commemorate the centenary of the Christmas truce with the unveiling of a new memorial near Ploegsteert in Belgium on December 11th 2014.
Sadly, the 1914 truce was to be the only significant attempt at quieting the guns by the soldiers at the front lines. In December 1915 Allied commanders tried to discourage any truce through a number of methods. In addition to explicit orders, units were ordered to mount raids while artillery barrages pounded the lines. There are reports of German overtures to the British in 1916 and 1917, but the horrors of the war had taken their toll. Not until 1918 did the bulk of the armies truly have a “silent night” for Christmas Eve.
About the Author
Peter Suciu has been collecting militaria and playing military simulations since he was a child. He’s been reviewing computer games for nearly 20 years, and when he’s not waging battle from his desktop he is a business reporter for several magazines and websites. His work has appeared on CNBC.com, Fortune.com and Forbes. He also collects military helmets and runs the MilitarySunHelmets.com website.