The Christmas Truce
December 12th 2022
With the holidays coming up, I remembered a story I got taught in secondary school. I was told about the history of WW1, which was just a single lesson, as my country, the Netherlands, did not participate. There was, however, a beautiful story about Christmas. It all started in December of 1914 on the Western Front, when the Great War had been well under way for a couple of months, and both the allied and central powers had entrenched themselves. Christmas was approaching, and since this holiday was celebrated on both sides, many thought some form of ceasefire should take place. Christmas, after all, is a time of peace. Many initiatives were taken, most notably Pope Benedict XV asking “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”.
Unfortunately, this request was denied by almost all leaders. This was because commanders of each side of no man’s land had already seen truces happen under certain circumstances, with many of them challenging the idea, because the enemy was not to be trusted. The truces that had occurred before were often organised by literally talking from one trench to the other, as they were often in such close proximity to one another. In some places, these occasional ceasefires allowed soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades. In others, there was an agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised or worked in view of the enemy.
When Christmas Eve came around, another one of these ceasefires happened, only this time on a much larger scale. Men from both sides started celebrating Christmas, and peace was experienced in many sectors, especially ones where British soldiers were facing Germans. Truces between the French and the Germans were less successful, as most of the French were angry at the Germans for taking parts of their territory. In some places truces lasted through Christmas night, while in others they were continued until New Year’s Day. It is thought some 100,000 British and German troops participated in the ceasefire.
When the artillery fell silent, the enlisted men started singing carols, and soon thereafter they shared food, drinks and cigarettes, even holding joint church services with their enemies. The troops gave each other souvenirs, like hats and buttons, and even showed pictures of their family. Soldiers from both sides helped to retrieve fallen comrades, to give them a proper burial. There were many accounts of football matches being played on no man’s land during Christmas Day, with one match between the English and the Germans resulting in 2-3, and another between Scottish and unidentified Germans ending 4-1.
Regrettably, all of this had to come to an end. After all, there was still a war going on, and that war was not going to end by playing football. The horror of war continued, with the worst of the war still to come. By Christmas 1915, only a couple of small truces occurred. Artillery barrages during the day prevented verbal communication, as the officers on both sides were ordered to prevent any repeat of 1914. Levels of animosity had clearly risen, as a result of the introduction of mustard gas which led to increasing slaughters.
The Great War continued on until 11:00 on the 11th of November 1918, with entire cities destroyed, millions of lives lost, and families scarred forever, but at least the war to end all wars had achieved its goal… Maybe we should look at the bright side of the story, that even when a horrible war is raging, people are still human, and are capable of uniting to celebrate the birth of Jezus. This would mean there is hope for the Russians and Ukrainians, as they perhaps could lay down their arms this Christmas.