Did the 1914 Christmas Truce Really Happen?
Every Christmas season, the media fills with heartwarming stories of holiday cheer. None is more ubiquitous than the famous 1914 Christmas Truce, the story of British and German soldiers in World War I who set their rifles aside and stepped out of the trenches for an unprecedented moment of mutual good will. They sang Christmas carols and shared warm drinks, and even played a game of football (soccer to you Americans) — an element of the story repeated more often than any other — said to have been won by the Germans with a score of 3-2. It's the kind of story that we all want to hear so much that many of us never think to wonder how much truth there is behind it.
Such an event would stand in glowing contrast to the other memories from World War I. It was a terrible war, in large part because of where it fell in the timeline of weapons technology. We didn't yet have the ways to kill so quickly and efficiently as we did in World War II, yet we'd found ways to be even bloodier since the days of swords and arrows. World War I was the war of chlorine gas, mustard gas, and bayonets: you could die slowly and brutally at close range or far away. Whenever it was warm enough that the snow wasn't causing frostbite, the mud was deep enough to make every little task laborious, to pack every scratch with infectious bacteria, and to fill every boot with trench foot.
We have more than enough documentary evidence to know that the 1914 Christmas Truce did indeed happen to some degree. We have many personal accounts from the men who were there, in multiple languages. Nobody pretends the truce was universal; it was mainly a matter of nationalities. There was deep, long-standing distrust between the Germans and the French; consequently, there was almost no fraternization between these two sides. German animosity with the Russians was even worse. For the British, however, it was a different matter. Germany had not invaded Britain. Many German soldiers had lived in Britain and spoke the language. Circumstances found them on opposite sides in this conflict, but their actual differences were minimal.
Nevertheless, there is still plenty of room for skepticism about the stories told today. And in what part of the story does our skepticism uncover pseudohistory? Not, as we might expect, in the part that portrays men peacefully shaking hands and sharing Christmas cheer; but in the part of the story that frames this as all that different from their normal day. It turns out that the 1914 Christmas Truce was only marginally more peaceful at a time in the war when fraternization — at least between the British and the Germans — was commonplace.
To understand this, let's set the stage for Christmas 1914. World War I is best known for its trench warfare, and this reputation is well deserved. Pull up any map of World War I and you'll see a wavy 750km line that represents the Western Front, the fronts being named relative to the primary aggressor, Germany. That line starts at the English Channel, cuts down through a corner of Belgium, and winds a wavy line gouging a great chunk out of France, then curves back toward Germany and goes all the way south to Switzerland. To the east of this line were the Germans, and to the west were the French, British, and Belgians, plus scatterings of their allies. This line was established very quickly, in the first three months of war, and was to last — almost unaltered — for three years, until the Allies finally started pushing the Germans back out of France. During those years, the trenches developed into semi-permanent fortifications.
In November of 1914, only a few months into the war, the Germans gave up on their last great attempt to push the front westward, which was the First Battle of Ypres. They couldn't make any headway. Seeing this, the German chief of staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, decided the war was unwinnable. This was the point at which organized major offensives on both sides basically stopped. From the end of November 1914 and into the opening months of 1915, the Western Front was relatively quiet. The British stayed in their trenches and the Germans stayed in theirs. Everyone hoped the war was essentially over.
And despite plenty of casualties on both sides up until this point, the worst parts of trench warfare hadn't happened yet. Although non-lethal tear gas had been used by both sides since the beginning of the war, it wasn't until April 1915 that the first use of deadly chlorine gas appeared. If we were forced to draw a single line between when the war was merely bloody and when it became truly barbaric, this was it. By the time of Christmas 1914, the kind of hatred that only chlorine gas can inspire did not yet exist in the war.
Not even the mud — so often and prominently mentioned as one of the worst parts of the trench war — had made its first big appearance yet. As Alan Wakefield at London's Imperial War Museum put it:
And thus, the Christmas season of 1914 found the Western Front in an apathetic stalemate. Troops wiled away their days in the trenches, officially still under orders to fight, yet the generals held back as the bureaucrats hoped for a diplomatic end to the hostilities. Many hoped the worst was behind them and they might all be going home soon. Listen to this diary excerpt from German soldier Gottfried Rinker, translated into English, from December 1st, nearly a month before the Christmas truce:
Tony Ashworth's book Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System recounts many, many such tales; including one section of the line where there was a strict 30-minute truce every evening for both sides to deliver food.
Compounding the British and German soldiers' already-existing proclivity for mutual non-aggression were a number of high-profile international calls for a truce, especially for a Christmas truce. None of these carried more weight than that of Pope Benedict XV, perhaps the world's most influential and most active opponent throughout the war he described as "the suicide of civilized Europe." In December, he made a special plea to all the nations involved "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." His epistle drew no official notice, but among the men in the trenches, it solidified what was destined to happen anyway.
On Christmas Eve day, every British soldier received a card from King George V and a small brass box of gifts from Princess Mary. The Germans as well received gift boxes from home. While French, Belgian, and Russian troops continued patrols along their parts of the line and skirmished with their German counterparts, British and German parts of the line were still. Hardly a shot was fired all day.
Christmas Eve was quiet, and the night was clear. "It was a Christmas card Christmas eve," wrote one British soldier. "There was white beautiful moonlight, frost on the ground — almost white everywhere." The singing began on both sides, in many locations; schnapps, brandy, and cognac were plentiful. Some traditional carols of both nations were to the same tune; the British sang "O Come All Ye Faithful" while the Germans sang "Adeste Fideles", and the British sang "Silent Night" while the Germans joined in with "Stille Nacht". Eventually the soldiers transformed themselves into boys awaiting Santa Claus, and turned in for the night.
It was a scene that was repeated the length of the British and German lines. About those football matches? Innumerable anecdotes tell of makeshift balls, empty "bully beef" cans, and anything else close to round being kicked about. Football was a national pastime for both countries, then as now. But so far as games sufficiently organized for scores to have been kept, it's not very likely and no first-hand accounts exist. There were no goals and no record of even a single proper ball, and certainly nothing like a flat surface on the cratered, snowy landscape. It hardly mattered. The formality of any football hijinks is scarcely a crucial aspect of what happened that December day.
And then, inevitably, the war escalated, with a malevolent new character in which civilians were bombed and torpedoed, and troops were burned and gassed, and there were no more Christmas truces.
The 1914 Christmas Truce was not a moment where soldiers laid their weapons aside and let their humanity triumph over their orders. Modern popular tellings of the tale giving it that characterization do it a disservice; they portray it merely as a heartwarming anecdote. It was much more. It was the peak of a great wave of native humanitarianism, a rejection of a war thrust upon men who had no part in it. It was what might have been, and what can always be, wherever men follow their hearts.
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