This week in history: The World War I Christmas truce

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 25 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

Beginning on Dec. 24, and lasting through Christmas Day 1914, British, French and German soldiers took the day off from the First World War to celebrate the birth of the Savior. (Shutterstock) Beginning on Dec. 24, and lasting through Christmas Day 1914, British, French and German soldiers took the day off from the First World War to celebrate the birth of the Savior. (Shutterstock)

On Dec. 24-25 1914, the guns went silent along the Western Front as British, French and German soldiers temporarily set aside their differences to celebrate the birth of the Savior.

World War I began in August 1914 and ushered in a new era of technological killing. The fruits of the Industrial Revolution led to vast improvements in weaponry, making World War I the most lethal war to that time. By December, hundreds of thousands of soldiers of different nationalities had already died across the battlefields of Europe.

After the war's initial great battles, the conflict had settled into positional trench warfare, a war of attrition where neither side could get the upper hand. Every attempt to push on an enemy position resulted in scores of casualties as machine gun and rifle fire tore the poor young men to pieces. The bodies were frequently left to rot between the enemy trenches, an area referred to as “No Man's Land.”

A peculiar thing happened on Dec. 24, however. Both sides began decorating their trenches for the Christmas holiday with whatever ornaments they could find or make. The modest merriment soon led to the singing of carols. According to some reports, this is how the truce began, with each side singing to the other, and all soldiers reminded of their common Christianity. Without orders from above, the soldiers stopped manning their guns and a truce was discussed for the holiday.

Historian Martin Gilbert wrote about one area of the line in his book, “The First World War: A Complete History”: “On the following morning, German soldiers walked across towards the British wire and British soldiers went out to meet them. … Then arrangements were made between the two sides to bury the British dead who had been killed during the disastrous raid on the night of December 18, and whose bodies were still lying between the lines, mostly at the edge of the German front-line wire where they had been shot down.”

Most such truces along the line were instigated by German troops, though the British, and in some areas French and Belgian troops as well, were happy to take one day off from the war.

One British second lieutenant stationed in northern France, Dougan Charter, wrote to his mother about the truce: “I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o'clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trenches and some came towards ours. We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles so one of our men went out to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers from both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”

In many places along the line the two sides exchanged presents such as cigars or alcohol, shared pictures of their families, and even engaged in soccer games.

The temporary cease-fire was met with horror by high-ranking generals on both sides who feared that such non-authorized truces and fraternization would undermine their military efforts. Their fear was twofold — on one hand such arbitrary actions by junior officers and the lower ranks might evolve into full fledged mutiny if soldiers simply refused to fight. This had been a fear in many European capitals when the war broke out and no one knew if the lower classes, infused with socialist idealism, would refuse to fight in the first place.

It had turned out to be an empty fear when the war began, as most soldiers dutifully, and in many cases cheerfully, went to war in August. By December, however, with casualities piling up and no end in sight, such actions could cause serious problems for the army leaderships.

Another fear many generals felt was that such fraternization humanized the enemy. Since the beginning of the war, the British were doing their best to portray Germans as little better than 20th century Huns, and the German propaganda made the British out to be money-grubbing plutocrats determined to keep Germany under its boot. Such mingling as that of the Christmas truce threatened to destroy their carefully crafted portraits of the enemy as the “other.” When the soldiers saw that their enemies were in actuality little different from themselves, would they still be willing to kill them when ordered?

In fact, many soldiers believed that the truce could in fact be the end of the war, if the soldiers themselves simply refused to fight. Such a sentiment was not to be, however, and in many cases ended in tragedy when soldiers attempted to engage the other side after the Christmas truce.

Victor Chapman, an American fighting with the French Foreign Legion, wrote to his parents and told a heartbreaking story that occurred on Dec. 26: “This morning Nedim, a picturesque, childish Turk, began again by standing on the trenches and yelling at the opposite side. Vesconsoledose, a cautious Portuguese, warned him not to expose himself so, and since he spoke German made a few remarks showing his head. He turned to get down — and fell! a bullet having entered his skull: groans, a puddle of blood.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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