One hundred and one years ago, the Christmas Truce of 1914 was a spontaneous cease-fire and a day of Christian brotherhood for both sides of the No Man’s Land along the Western Front. The event was kept secret by senior military officers and government censors as an embarrassing breakdown in military discipline.
Military recruiters from both the Triple Entente and the Central Powers promised recruits that they would be “Home for Christmas.” But after five months of war, the Western Front became an entrenched battlefield running almost 600 miles from Belgium to Switzerland.
Most of the soldiers were young men from rural villages who had never been away from home. They were cold, miserable and disillusioned in their three rows of trenches on Christmas Eve of 1914. All the hype about God and Country was interrupted by the reality of rats, lice, and endless artillery duels.
While senior officers billeted in snug and warm country estates were enjoying fine wine and good meat safely out of range from artillery barrages, lower-ranking officers stayed in the trenches and suffered just as much as the enlisted soldiers.
It was these junior officers that permitted a Christmas lull in the fighting. But once the lull started, soon there was singing of religious hymns on both sides. After a while, men in many of the front line locations left their weapons and came out of the trenches to fraternize in No Man’s Land with the same enemy soldiers the propaganda machines had demonized.
There had already been a million casualties in the short war and the front lines had not really moved in three months. The troops were coming to realize that the “War to End All Wars” would be a protracted game of attrition.
Many of the men who experienced the Christmas Truce were emotionally overwhelmed with Christian love and respect for their fellow man, and refused to fight and kill when senior officers came to the trenches and ordered a re-start of hostilities. Some soldiers were punished for disobedience and many had to be replaced with fresh troops who had been in the reserve trenches the day before. Corporal Adolf Hitler was among the soldiers who did not experience the front line fraternization.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 never threatened to end the war. For the next four years, new military technology and logistics resulted in unprecedented destruction and the death of 9 million soldiers killed by November 1918. The vast majority of the soldiers who experienced the unauthorized truce fought on, and many did not survive the war.
The Christmas Truce story is summarized in the concluding verse of John McCutcheon’s famous song about the event, “Christmas in the Trenches”:
“My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool,
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung,
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, ‘Now listen up, me boys!’ each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
‘He’s singing bloody well, you know!’ my partner says to me
Soon one by one each German voice joined in in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was ‘Stille Nacht,’ ‘Tis “Silent Night”,’ says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
‘There’s someone coming towards us!’ the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ‘em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
‘Whose family have I fixed within my sights?’
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I’ve learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”