via wikimedia commons
It is December 1914. World War I has been going on for nearly four months now, with about a million dead on both sides. The once lively cities and green fields of Europe have now turned into battlefields, filled with shells, holes, and trenches. As Christmas creeps onto the horizon, soldiers settle in for the winter, knowing they won’t be returning to their families for the holidays. Their relatives, miles, or even oceans away, recall their leaders telling them that the war will be “over by Christmas.”
War was declared by the Central Powers on the Allied Powers on July 28, 1914, starting the so-called “Great War.” As the war continued into December, ideas of a truce for the holidays spread among the nations. Pope Benedict XV asked European leaders for an official ceasefire on December 7, but was declined by both sides. Due to this, British General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien issued orders to his soldiers, forbidding friendly communication with German soldiers, as did many other officers. Seeing that their leaders wouldn’t budge, soldiers began to make their own unofficial armistices for Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, low-ranking British officers ordered their men not to fire unless fired upon, which became known as “live and let live.” The close proximity of the trenches was usually used to hurl insults at the opposing side, but instead put to a different use. On December 23, German soldiers were reported to be placing Christmas trees, compliments of German Emperor William II, in front of their trenches in the British-German sector. During the night, they sang “Silent Night,” and the British responded by singing their own Christmas carols.
On Christmas Day, there was an eerie silence. Many soldiers were used to violence at this point, but Christmas would be the day their guns lay in the snow. Many soldiers or officers on both sides stepped onto no-man territory to negotiate a truce. On one part of the Western Front, a German soldier yelled, “English! Tomorrow if you don’t shoot, we won’t shoot!” This truce became more common between British and German fronts, mainly because many Germans had worked in Britain before the war, so they knew some English. An estimated two-thirds of the British trench line on the southern Belgium border made some type of truce with their counterparts. French and Belgian soldiers, however, didn’t trust the German soldiers, since Germany was occupying about a third of France and almost all of Belgian. However, the French and Germans ceased fighting to bury their fellow soldiers. On the Yser Front in the North, Germans, and Belgians arranged a truce: Belgian soldiers could send letters to their families over German-occupied parts of Belgium. German soldiers also tempted British-Indian troops, who were on alert after spotting the Christmas trees, out with cigars, and the two sides were soon smoking together. The Russians on the Eastern front’s Christmas would not start until early January, but an Austro-Hungarian commander attempted a truce. The Russians reacted positively, and soldiers from both sides met on no-man’s land. Not all fronts had some sort of truce, though. There still was fighting, mainly on the Eastern Front. Soldiers on the Western front could hear artillery fire from sectors around them. On the Canadian-German front, a German soldier was reported to be waving a box of cigars and yelling, “Merry Christmas, Canadians.” The Canadian sergeant responded by shooting bullets into his head.
Soldiers would usually meet up together in no-man’s land to talk and exchange Christmas greetings. There were reports of food and gifts exchanged to one another. Christmas carols were sung and some soldiers even played soccer, with one report of Scottish soldiers beating their Germans counterparts 4–1. Joint burial ceremonies were held to remember fallen friends as well. One British soldier even said, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the most gorgeous Christmas dinner in England.”
World War I was not really “The War to End All Wars”. The end of this war was the main factor that would lead the world into another global conflict: World War II. This truce showed peace and humanity in humans amidst one of the most violent wars in history, setting their ideologies and nationality aside, as they celebrated not as soldiers but as friends. Sometimes, the best of humanity comes in the most horrible of times.