The Christmas Truce of 1914
By the time that the Christmas of 1914 was coming near, the First World War had been raging for almost five months. In the Ypres Salient, a normally marshy region of Belgium, some of the most heated fighting of the war had reduced the area to a desolate, hell-stricken span of mud and decay. And yet within this unearthly landscape, this torn up land of onslaught, one of the most heartwarming and altruistic events of the war took place.
As the December of 1914 was approaching, the First Battle of Ypres had scourged the landscape, and severely demoralized all of the troops involved. Living in the trenches as winter approached, an unusually cold winter at that, was a brutal ordeal for the soldiers, ill prepared for life in the flooded and chilling fields of Flanders. The unending slaughter and pounding of artillery had a demoralizing effect, and many of the soldiers, kept in these hostile conditions, and deprived of everything that makes life living for such a long period of time, naturally wanted some reprieve. The soldiers were not machines, they were humans. And thus, as Christmas day approached, a day that would have seemed as hellish as the last, a small glimmer of humanity peaked through. Gifts coming from families stood as a reminder of Christmas and the message behind it, and this message, one of love and peace, may have helped to spur the soldiers to do what they were about to do. The Germans soon began to decorate the areas around their trenches, placing candles on trees, and soon enough, had burst out singing carols, such as Still Nacht. The British soldiers, Englishmen and Scots, soon began to sing their own carols in reply, and soon an exchange of song and laughter had erupted. According to a correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, the Germans then managed to smuggle a chocolate cake into the British trenches along with a note calling for cease fire. At the time designated on the message, heads from both sides emerged, and the soldiers came out of their trenches to greet their enemies.
The soldiers from both sides began to exchange gifts: tobacco, whiskey, jams and chocolates, and soon enough the troops of the opposing sides had befriended each other. The recently dead were given proper burials, and there are many accounts of a “football game.” A ball had emerged out of the crowd, and one soldier recounts, “it was not a game as such – more of a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know…I don’t know how long it lasted, probably half-an-hour, and no-one was keeping score." However, far away from the horrors of war, in Chateaus or other luxurious accommodations, both the British and German high command heard of this fraternization. High ranking officers on both sides soon arrived to break up the festivities, and one remarked towards his soldiers, “[you] were there to kill the Hun, not to make friends with him.” As everyone settled back into their trenches, in a last show of friendship, “[a British soldier] fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and [then] climbed on the parapet. [The Germans] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. [They] both bowed… [and then he] fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.”
Although limited in span, this show of friendship and camaraderie perhaps exemplifies the best and most altruistic nature of humans, the ability to reconcile with an opponent, despite the conditions. In a war that, arguably, was the most bloody and brutal in the history of our planet, this event served as a glimmer of hope for the future, and a reminder of the basic needs of every human being. It remains comforting that soldiers, even when told to have contempt and hate for the other, still had the ability to put down their guns and extend the Christmas message of love, peace and goodwill to all.
Private Turner of the London Rifle Brigade Stands Behind Two Germans
Cyrus_the_Great is the author of In the Land of the Few