By December 1914, World War I’s Western Front had turned into a stalemate of trench warfare and barbed wires. The quick end to the war that both the Allies and the Central Powers had envisioned never materialized. Pope Benedict XV implored the belligerent governments for a Christmas ceasefire, so “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” His request was officially refused.
Despite the rejection of the pope’s call for peace and military prohibitions against fraternizing with the enemy, thousands of soldiers – as many as 100,000 – made their own truce that year. On Christmas Eve, British troops saw lights from Christmas trees and heard German voices singing carols across the narrow “No Man’s Land” as night fell. The British joined in singing.
The following day, Allied and German soldiers, not knowing whether they might be shot, crawled out of their trenches to greet one another. They shook hands and exchanged small gifts such as cigarettes and cigars. Both sides took time to bury and honor their dead. Personal accounts also tell of games of football (soccer) between the two sides.
While these thousands of soldiers and officers celebrated this peaceful day, some were furious at the acts of friendliness, which bordered on treason. When General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, learned of the truce, he gave orders prohibiting any friendly interaction. A young corporal in the German Army, Adolf Hitler, was also not happy. He exclaimed, “Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?”
The truce was not reported initially, but accounts, letters and pictures eventually found their way into British newspapers. However, while British papers portrayed the Christmas armistice as a positive moment, greater censorship in Germany and France made the events less known, and fraternization with belligerents was largely condemned in public.
The truce continued in certain parts of the front after Christmas, but the fighting soon resumed. Although there were future sporadic attempts at ceasefires (close proximity between trenches made singing and shouting a somewhat regular occurrence in inactive parts of the Western Front), there were no ceasefires as large in scope as the 1914 Christmas Truce. As the war dragged on, both sides became increasingly inflamed as massive numbers of men died at battles like Verdun and as poison gas unleashed new horrors of war. Soldiers also became more fearful of court martial and even execution for engaging in unauthorized cessation of hostilities.
The Christmas Truce was a small bright spot in an incredibly dark time in history. While brief, it demonstrated that even in an age of such death and destruction, Europe’s warring governments could not stop their soldiers from participating in acts of kindness as they celebrated the birth of Christ. Here are some personal accounts from both sides.