Few conflicts throughout history have been as destructive and vicious as that of the First World War. The technological advances of the preceding thirty years strongly favoured defensive warfare, and so both sides were forced to dig into the soil to escape relentless artillery and machine gun fire. Whilst this did provide some respite from the bombardments, the mud and endless rain created yet more horrific conditions. Trenches became cesspits of blood, disease and mutilated bodies as the very worst of human nature came to light. It is thus remarkable that in the depths of this hell, some shred of humanity remained – as demonstrated by the Christmas truces.
Whilst there were numerous unofficial truces and cease fires throughout the war, by far the most famous were those that took place around Christmas of 1914. It does appear rather inconceivable that soldiers on both sides could suddenly agree to cease hostilities, but the truces can arguably be traced backed to Pope Benedict XV. Benedict had ascended to the papacy just a month after the outbreak of war and, on December 7 1914, he issued an appeal to the leaders of Europe “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”
His hope was that even a temporary truce would allow the warring powers to negotiate a fair and lasting peace, but there was little interest from major political and military leaders. Nonetheless, the idea of a Christmas truce was one cherished among many soldiers. This, coupled with limited manpower and munitions in Christmas 1914 (thus rendering an offensive improbable after several months of relentless combat) led soldiers on the front lines to put down their rifles and choose peace over bloodshed.
First World War trenches were in places no more than 50 yards apart, allowing soldiers from both sides to hear one another. As Christmas drew near, the usual tide of profanity turned to carols and the British soldiers could clearly see that the German soldiers had put up Christmas trees, given to them by Kaiser Wilhelm to boost morale. This festivity in the trenches was in stark contrast to the hell of the preceding months, and so motivated the soldiers to organise a truce to bury the dead before Christmas. The interactions between the two sides led to famous football matches and many amicable interactions.
The most famous event from the truces was the football match played between the men from The Royal Welch Fusiliers and the German Battalion 371 (a German 2-1 victory). Even a century later, this demonstration of humanity in the face of conflict wielded huge significance. On 12 December 2014, a memorial was unveiled by Prince William and the then manager of the England football team, Roy Hodgson, to commemorate the event.
The idea that a football match could be played on a battlefield seemed so outlandish that it was often thought of as a myth, until a multitude of evidence proved otherwise. However, the football matches were not the only amicable aspect of the truce. Indeed, both sides exchanged gifts and bartered items. One soldier (and later writer), Henry Williamson, wrote to his mother:
“Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”
Inevitably, due to the fragmented nature of trench warfare, not every sector of the Western Front participated in the unofficial Christmas truce. Many soldiers were even ordered to fire upon Germans trying to commence festivities. The celebrations were particularly disliked by high command, who felt that the truces were ‘fraternising with the enemy.’ Attempts at a Christmas truce the following year, 1915, were hastily prevented.
Nonetheless, the Christmas truces of 1914 offer an insight into the lives and perspectives of ordinary soldiers. That around 100,000 soldiers from both sides were willing to risk their lives to engage in such truces demonstrates the common thread of humanity and, perhaps, the realisation that soldiers were often unwilling participants in a war far larger than themselves.