By Matthew LoFiego
“It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness” – An officer in Scotland’s Highland Regiment, as printed in The Times, 1915
This holiday season marks the 102-year anniversary of one of the most memorable events in world history. On Christmas day in 1914, in muddy trenches all across Northern France, two opposing forces that had spent the previous four months attempting to destroy each other laid down their arms and took the day off. History and legend tell us that the combatants met in the desolate fields separating their sides, exchanged gifts, sang holiday songs and even took part in friendly matches of soccer. The Christmas Truce, as it be came to known, became a powerful symbol of humanity in the middle of hell. Although historians have embellished the details of the truce in the ensuing years and it did little to lessen the catastrophic years that followed, the Christmas Truce of 1914 remains a remarkable historical event.
The First World War heralded a monumental transformation in human conflict. The brutality of the mechanized fighting on such a massive scale dwarfed previous wars in unimaginable ways. Although not the deadliest war humanity waged up until that point – China’s Taiping rebellion half a century earlier resulted in nearly double the amount of casualties – the tactics and weaponry employed in the Great War terrified and haunted a generation of survivors and shocked the civilian world.
When conflict broke out in August of 1914, there were parades and celebrations in several European capitals. Many commanding officers rode off to war in full cavalry dress, expecting to find fighting akin to previous experiences. The fighting age generation entering hostilities in 1914 in Europe saw war in much the same light as we view sports today. It was a gentlemen’s pursuit, a passage into manhood. Nobody understood the horror that advances in technology and firepower would unleash upon the Western front until it was well underway.
Machine guns, heavy artillery and the first large-scale use of air power against conventionally trained armies resulted in unprecedented destruction. At the Battle of Marne in September, French and British forces saved Paris from occupation and pushed the invading German forces north towards the sea. In Belgium, in the First Battle of Ypres in October and November, the Germans were repelled despite massive losses on the side of the Allies. Casualty numbers were staggering, with as many as 800,000 total killed or wounded in the opening months of the war. France suffered over 27,000 soldiers killed in a single day during the early fighting in August, the worst one-day total in the country’s history.
By December, the war in France was at a standstill. After their failure at the First Battle of Ypres, German command split its main force and sent a large contingent to the Eastern front to face the now-mobilized Russian army. With comparable strength on each side, a series of fortified trenches emerged on a 400-mile stretch from the English Channel through Eastern France. For most of the month, both sides attempted to break the line at various points without any measurable success. As winter set in and storms exacerbated the misery of trench warfare, the dream of a peaceful spring disappeared.
Such was the setting on Christmas Eve, 2014. Although the details of what happened next are contested, it is reasonably clear that there was an improvement in the weather. At various points along the trenches, some of which were narrow enough to allow for conversation between the sides, German and British soldiers started wishing each other a Merry Christmas. In German culture, the people celebrate Christmas mainly on the 24th, gathering for family meals and exchanging gifts. German troops set up Christmas trees and sang songs for hours, with the British side holding fire. After a prolonged period of calm, German officers appeared over the trench lines, walked slowly towards the center of the No Man’s Land separating the forces, and were met by their Allied counterparts.
This interaction happened at multiple points across the Western front, and wherever it occurred, officers agreed to keep their guns quiet throughout Christmas day. The truce was unofficial, and some locations did not come to an agreement or even have a meeting of officers. Soldiers from both sides met and exchanged gifts, and there were reports of soccer matches played between the sides, although any large, formal match is most likely to be an invention of later retellings of the truce. Perhaps a few soldiers kicked a ball around, but anyone that has tried to play soccer on even a slightly uneven field can understand the improbability of doing so on one covered with impact craters.
Most of all, the break in hostilities was a welcome event for both sides to get a moment’s rest and to gather and bury their fallen comrades stranded in the No Man’s Land.
Despite the hospitality shown in the Christmas Truce of 1914, the event did not become a tradition. The war continued for four more long years and the humanity shown on those two days on the Western front was a distant, clouded memory by the time fighting ended.