It’s quite the understatement to say that life on the Western Front during the winter of 1914 was unpleasant. Both the British, French and Germans, by this point, dug in their trenches, rendering the war more or less a stalemate. From the north sea coast all the way to the Swiss border, there were gigantic networks of trenches on both sides. In between these trenches lay scorched earth littered with craters from artillery bombardments, barbed wire, and the occasional body of a fallen soldier.
The life of soldiers in these trenches was pitiful. Due to ground- and rainwater, there was a constant puddle of water soaking their boots. Rodents roamed freely, with rats, fleas, lice and mosquitos. Add to this entire experience the continuous artillery barrage, shelling and the firing of machine guns. It was horrible. The charges these soldiers were forced to commit to are all too well known. Once they left their trenches, they’d be easy pickings for the hostile machine-gun fire.
By December 1914 the war had been waging on for just five months, but the losses had already been enormous for both sides. Pope Benedict XV had newly been elected to the Papacy. His first encyclical was a plea to end the war, or at least guarantee a Christmas truce. This plea was initially refused both by the Allies and Germans.
Amidst December the temperatures plummeted below zero. On Christmas Eve, a freezing night, some scattered fire sounded, but there wasn’t an assault or charge from either side. During this cold night, the Germans were the first to start celebrating Christmas. They drank schnapps, typical strong German alcoholic drinks, and smoked their cigarettes. Here and there they lifted Christmas trees and lanterns above their trenches, placing candles in front of them, and somewhere they started singing ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.’
According to a first-hand account by a British soldier, Graham Williams, part of the London Rifle Brigade stationed in France, after the Germans finished singing the British figured they should start their own song. At first quiet, but then louder from the British trenches, hundreds of soldiers began singing ‘The First Noel.’ Following this song, the Germans replied by singing ‘O Tannenbaum.’ And it continued like that.
In other places, events similar to this one took place. According to other first-hand accounts of veterans, the Germans called the Brits over, and vice versa, saying “Hey Tommy! Hey Fritz!” Those were the generic names soldiers gave each other back then. A few daredevils climbed out of their trenches and met with their counterparts in the middle of no-man’s land. They returned to their trenches at night, in what was the beginning of a very curious truce.
The next morning, on Christmas Day, on both sides soldiers left their trenches. Soldiers waved at each other, and some entered the no-man’s land again, to shake hands and greet their adversaries. Realising there would be no shooting, the groups of soldiers between the trenches grew until hundreds of them were fraternising. They exchanged cigarettes, canned food and newspapers. There are accounts that soldiers even played games with each other such as football matches and cards. They shared their food and played music together. Aside from the fun and games, soldiers and officers used the truce to collect their dead from the no-man’s land and give them a proper burial.
It is estimated that around ⅔ of the Western front respected the Christmas truce. In most places, it lasted until the days after Christmas, but there are accounts of places where the peace lasted until New Year’s Day, or even further into January.
Obviously, army command opposed the truce vehemently. It negatively impacted discipline and morale among the soldiers. Yet it seemed that the official ordinances by higher-ups didn’t help in subduing the Christmas spirit.
Finally, when the frost subsided and the snow made place for rain, the atmosphere returned to a war-like setting. It was agreed between German and Allied commanders that they would give each other a sign once the truce ended, so that the war could be continued in a fair manner. As such there are accounts, such as that of a British medical officer, who fired his pistol in the air three times, to notify the Germans they were about to continue the war.
After Christmas 1914 the First World War lasted for a little under four more years. It would cost millions of young men their lives. Yet this curious even shows that for a short while there was peace on the front, where the cannons and artillery noises halted for just a little while.