The Christmas truce was a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front during the First World War in 1914. The truce occurred only five months into the war. Hostilities had lulled as leadership on both sides reconsidered their strategies following the stalemate of the Race to the Sea and the indecisive result of the First Battle of Ypres. In the week leading up to Christmas Day, German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and
talk. In some areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of football with one another, creating one of the most memorable images of the truce. Hostilities continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies.
The following year, a few units arranged ceasefires but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides, prohibiting truces. Soldiers were no longer amenable to truce by 1916. The war had become increasingly bitter after heavy human losses suffered during the battles of 1915. The truces were not unique to the Christmas period and reflected a mood of “live and let live”, where infantry close together would stop overtly aggressive behavior and often engage in small-scale fraternization, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there were occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades; in others, there was a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised or worked in view of the enemy. The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation—even in quiet sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable—and are often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history.
During the first eight months of World War I, the German attack through Belgium into France had been repelled outside Paris by French and British troops at the First Battle of the Marne in early September 1914. The Germans fell back to the Aisne valley, where they dug in. In the First Battle of the Aisne, the Franco–British attacks were repulsed and both sides began digging trenches to economize on manpower and use the surplus to outflank their opponents on their northern flanks. In the Race to the Sea, the two sides made reciprocal outflanking maneuvers and after several weeks, during which the British forces were withdrawn from the Aisne and sent north to Flanders, both sides ran out of room. By November, both sides had built a continuous line of trenches running from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.
Before Christmas 1914, there were several peace initiatives. The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria”, signed by a group of 101 British women suffragettes at the end of 1914. Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”, which was refused by both sides.
In such an environment, a World War, a place of death, fear and terror the last thing someone would expect is for opposite sides of the battle to come together and show restraint in their orders to kill and take land. This show of human decency at Christmas is definitely a testament to the power and beauty of the Christmas season. It brings us together regardless of our circumstances and that’s a miracle in itself.