Lasting four years, from July 1914 to November 1918, World War I is often remembered as a long and horrible war. Millions were killed or wounded. Old fashioned tactics were being used alongside more modern weapons, this making it one of the deadliest conflicts in history. What made World War I particularly dreadful was the trench warfare. Soldiers from both sides were made to dig and fight in trenches along the main fronts of the war. The unsanitary conditions and dangers of fighting enemies with powerful weapons so close made the trenches unlike any other battlefield.
Trenches for each side were separated by “no-man’s land”, which, in some places, was only about 25 feet wide. To advance and take an enemy trench, soldiers would have to cross no-man’s land, cut through barbed wire and attack the opposing soldiers, often in their trenches, As a result, many were wounded or killed in the attacks, and were often left where they fell.
Many soldiers believed the war would be over by Christmas 1914, but as the holiday season neared, and no end was in sight, morale began to decline significantly.
Christmas Eve 1914 began like any other day during the war, but as evening neared, singing was heard across the trenches. British soldiers were reporting that the Germans illuminated their trenches and were singing Christmas carols. This was taking place spontaneously and simultaneously down the lines. The British side soon joined in the singing and in some locations, soldiers from each side climbed from their trenches, carefully made their way into no-man’s land, and exchanged well-wishes, gifts and handshakes. Some places along the lines even reported an impromptu soccer game taking place.
This resulted in an unofficial truce that would last through Christmas night, and even into the new year, in some areas. One British soldier, Private Frederick Heath, wrote in a letter home,
“How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So, we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity-war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn-a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines, laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”
The truce also allowed the opposing forces to burry any of their soldiers who had fallen in no-man’s land. With all the horrors of war, specifically in trenches, a few days of comradery and Christmas spirit were a pleasant change. Unfortunately, the war had not ended, so both sides would return to their trenches and continue fighting. There would not be another truce until the armistice of 1918, but the Christmas Truce of 1914 would be forever remembered.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine, “World War I: 100 Years Later, The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce”
Picture: British and Saxon troops during the Christmas Truce