By Alan Wakim
A depiction of the 1914 Christmas truce by Frederic Villiers, published on the front page of the Illustrated London News on Jan. 9, 1915. The original caption was “The light of Peace in the trenches on Christmas Eve: A German soldier opens the spontaneous try approaching the British lines with a small Christmas tree.” (Public domain)
As Christmas Eve began in 1914, the soldiers sitting in the frost-covered trenches were miserably cold, homesick, and tired of war. The politicians and generals, who were somewhere resting cozily at home or sipping alcoholic beverages in a heated room, had told them that the war would be over “before the leaves fall.”
Five months earlier, their leaders had announced they must go to war to save themselves, their families, and their country. Citizens cheered as they flocked to the streets and town squares. After all, they were the good guys, their enemies were bad, and 1914 was a glorious time to be alive!
This Night Is Different
For five months, the good guys killed the bad guys. A week before Christmas Eve, attacking Allied soldiers were cut down mercilessly by machine gun fire from the German line. This night, however, was different. Christmas trees suddenly began appearing on top of the parapets all along the same German line. The very men who fired the deadly weapons that butchered their friends were now singing “Stille Nacht” and yelling Christmas greetings to them across no man’s land.
Allied soldiers sang their own carols and responded with their yuletide greetings. Soon, soldiers began to show themselves. Slowly and cautiously, they began climbing out of their trenches to meet their enemy and arrange a truce. They shook hands, exchanged Christmas greetings, and agreed to assist each other in the recovery and burial of the dead. Opposing sides carried the dead together. Others exchanged gifts such as chocolate, food, tobacco, and beverages, as well as stories. In other parts of the front, men sat on parapets and sang to their enemies, followed by applause and cheers. Before long, they played soccer matches. They ate, drank, and prayed together. A Brit received a haircut from a German barber. The one thing clearly missing from these legendary scenes was hatred among the enemy soldiers as they behaved like old chums from school.
For the next 24 hours, an unexpected miracle took place along the killing fields of Belgium and France, all because the men shared the same faith and wanted to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior in peace. These scenes were not limited to the Western Front, as similar gestures of goodwill occurred on the Eastern Front as well. Pope Benedict XV had been pleading to both the Central and Allied Powers for such an armistice over the holidays, but even he would have shed a tear at the sights unfolding all along the frontlines.
Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox had waged war on each other for centuries due to differing Christian ideologies, but when it came down to it, they did, after all, still worship the same deity. That bound all the nations of Europe together, save for the Jewish diaspora spread throughout the continent and the Muslims of Albania, Turkey, and the Bosnian provinces of Austria-Hungary. Hilaire Belloc famously stated that “the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith.” Though he was referring to the Catholic faith, it applies to all Christian faiths.
For a large majority of the Europeans, Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior, and the occasion of his birth brought forth peace and harmony for a moment in this cataclysmic war. It was something their political leaders could not or would not even attempt to accomplish until they brought their enemies to their knees.
Once Christmas Day 1914 ended, the soldiers were reluctant to resume the conflict because they had liked and enjoyed their time with the poor chaps on the other side of the field. In fact, there were instances of soldiers firing above their so-called enemy’s heads after the truce to prevent killing them. They were nothing like what they had been told for so long. Had circumstances been different, they would most likely be getting along just fine. Perhaps even celebrating this night together in a lodge or in each other’s homes or churches. Such harmony existed on that evening that there were even discussions among the troops of a New Year’s truce.
Military leaders stationed comfortably away from the front lines, however, were livid upon hearing of the Christmas truce and were not only determined to punish those responsible but planned to prevent such unacceptable fraternization in the future. This peace and love would undermine the fighting spirit of their soldiers. How could an army expect to maintain a war if soldiers felt amity instead of hatred for their enemies? Sir John French, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, recalled in his diary:
“When this was reported to me, I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account, which resulted in a good deal of trouble.”
For the next 12 months, the brutality against humanity continued as the war spread to new theaters of operations with the addition of new participants in the war. This ensured that no such goodwill would exist the following Christmas or any other holiday thereafter, as the war and barbarity continued until Nov. 11, 1918.
Today, teens and young adults from the former Western Front nations of Germany, France, Britain, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Ireland, as well as other European nations can be seen peaceably together in restaurants, coffee shops, nightclubs, beaches, clothing stores, and concerts. Ironically and unfortunately, church attendance among Europeans has plummeted, and those living on that continent may no longer feel the need to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. In 1914, it miraculously brought about peace and goodwill in the most unlikely of places. One hundred and five years later, we would all do well to remember those soldiers, the day, and its true meaning.
Alan Wakim is the co-founder of The Sons of History, a YouTube series and weekly podcast. He travels to interview and document historical figures and sites for his video series. He holds a business degree from Texas A&M University.