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The Christmas Truce

In: Historical Events

Submitted By brprunsky
Words 2004
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Brittany Prunsky
Episodes of World War I

The Christmas Truce of 1914

“Christmas Eve was, in the way of weather, everything that Christmas Eve should be’. Christmas Day itself was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white ... It was such a day as is invariably depicted by artists on Christmas cards - the ideal Christmas Day of fiction. And indeed, the curious manifestations taking place along considerable stretches of the British front that day had a look of the most surprising fiction” (Terraine). The wonderful events that occurred over the Christmas holiday of 1914 revealed to all that the human spirit seems to have a way of peaking through at rather disastrous times showing that even in times of chaos, a glimmer of hope can be seen through the compassion that humans undoubtedly possess. This was proven true during one of the most violent and fatal wars in history. World War I, also known as The Great War, spanned from 1914 until 1918 experiencing around 37 million war casualties (“First World War Casualties”). During the horrors of the war, an almost unexplainable incident occurred; the Christmas Truce of 1914, which restored a bit of hope in many men living in hopelessness. Neither a civilian nor a soldier during World War I could have anticipated the Christmas Truce of 1914 due to its story like characteristics. Although at times seen as merely a myth or a small incident blown widely out of proportion, this truce absolutely happened, and on a larger scale than it is given credit. Much to the surprised of the troops positioned in the trenches, they spent a much merrier Christmas than expected. With high morale that the war was sure to end in the near future with one soldier writing, “… there are no widespread misgivings as to the future. The belief as well as the hope prevails that long before next Christmas we shall have celebrated the restoration of peace to Europe by the victories of the Allies” (Terraine). Spirits were also kept high after the British newspapers sent out advertisements calling for parcels to be sent out to soldiers for Christmas and after having received Christmas packages from home, men on enemy and friendly lines joyfully sang Christmas songs in their separated camps at nightfall on Christmas Eve (Brown). Due to the close proximity of opposing trenches, men were easily able to hear singing across the front lines, which somewhat humanized the enemy and filled many men with a sense of compassion and curiosity realizing that their opponent was too enduring the same unbearable conditions. The winter of 1914 was terribly rainy, snowy, and cold making living miserable for the soldiers in the trenches (Brown). Then the unthinkable happened, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, walking out into the span of land between enemy lines, known as no-man’s-land, and shouted, “Merry Christmas” to the British soldiers. In fear that it was only a trick, British soldiers remained weary until noticing that they were unarmed and started to join them in no-man’s-land (Cleaver, Park). On December 24th, 1914 stretches of opposing trenches ceased fire on the Western Front. Men from both sides came together in singing Christmas carols in their native languages, as well as exchanging gifts, such a cigarettes and alcohol. In an article from The Times on January 1st, 1915 a letter from a British soldier read, “The singing and playing continued all night, and the next day, our fellows paid a visit to the German trenches and they did likewise. Cigarettes, cigars, addresses, etc., were exchanged, and every one, friend and foe, were real good pals “(“Letters From The Front 1”). Photographs were even taken of enemy soldiers celebrating Christmas together in good spirits (“Fraternizing Between the Lines”). Not only did the exchange of gifts take place, it is said that the men actually faced each other in a football game. In The Times, an article was published with a letter from a soldier explaining how a British soldier brought a football out of his trench and legendarily beat the Germans 3-2 (“Letters From The Front 1”). Men were astonished to see the friendliness exchanged by so many. The placing of Christmas trees and candles on German parapets also instilled Christmas joy because both side did indeed share the same “Christmas imagery, centred around the fir tree from the vast forests of the European north” (Terraine). In addition to the socializing, this time gave troops time to retrieve deceased men from no-man’s-land and give them a proper burial, which was extremely dangerous during normal wartime. This organic fraternization allowed both sides to take a break from the horrifying hostilities men constantly faced and give troops a slight sense of normality on a special day that meant so much to both sides. Although not all were lucky enough to partake in the truce, many brigades were able to cease-fire and fraternize with their neighbors. The peace took places mostly on British lines, including soldiers from commonwealth countries, and German lines. Belgian, Danish, Russian, Austrian, and French troops were not excluded from the armistice. Unfortunately, truces between French and German regiments were less common because of the extremely strong French feelings against the Germans (Lower). Many of these regiments continued their day with normal warfare. Although many nations fraternization occurred among many nations involved in the war, the trust between them during the truce was not as strong as that of the British and German, but still gave soldiers an opportunity to see the humanity in their foe (Lower). A Belgian soldier wrote a letter describing his recollection as “one of imperishable beauty” (“Letters From The Front 2”). The truce was very widespread, taking over two-thirds of the British front (Brown, Seaton). Not all men were lucky enough to participate but an impressive majority was able to ceasefire for a short while. In some areas the truce was refused because the soldiers genuinely believed and agreed with what they were fighting for in addition to their strong feelings against their opponents (Lower). Officers and those in charge did not necessarily tolerate the fraternization by the troops. Some felt inclined to obey orders and resume war but were still inspired by the truce. Others absolutely disagreed with mingling with the enemy only thinking of the dangers of socialization and did not allow an armistice. A British officer of the Rifle Brigade in his letter published in The Times was very against the truce and explained that his “captains were new and, not having seen the Germans in their true light yet, apparently won’t believe the stories of their treachery and brutality” (“Letters From The Front 2”). This dehumanization of their rivals by portraying them as monsters by many officers came from their lack of front line action. Most officers lived very comfortably, miles away from the trenches, therefore, not experiencing the horrors that their men faced daily. An officer in the British Highland Regiment wrote on December 28th, “…we went out and told them that we were at war with them, and that really they must play the game and pretend to fight; they went back, but again attempted to come forward to us so we fired over their heads, they fired a shot back to show they understood, and the rest of the day passed quietly…” (“Letters From The Front 2”). This detachment from direct combat made enforcing orders, continuing or restarting warfare, or at least ceasing fire and not allowing their men to socialize with the enemy much easier. Not all regiments were stopped from fraternizing with the enemy; the truce was upheld for different lengths of time along the stretches of trenches throughout the Western Front. Although many officers strongly opposed the armistice, after seeing the extraordinary interaction they temporarily let go of their suspicions and saw it as positive for their men to really inspect their enemy, and also saw it as an opportunity to strengthen their very poorly built trenches (Brown). Unfortunately total peace did not come out of the truce. Some stretches began firing as soon as nightfall on Christmas Day and others the day after Christmas. Combat was resumed for the most part by the New Year mostly because of the gradual fading away of the truce, but for some lucky men warfare was put off well into the beginning of 1915 allowing them to be at peace with their enemy before reengaging in an extremely fatal war (Brown, Seaton).

This encounter touched many around the world, and dissolved the hate many soldiers had for their foes, but it was made clear that another ceasefire was not allowed. For some it made it much harder to fight from seeing their opponents as humans instead of the monsters as they were described in propaganda. Unfortunately, men were forced to put aside their feelings and continue to fight because headquarters did not sanction the truce. It was stated by those in power during the truce that those who participated would face grave punishments. Although that did not happen, headquarters guaranteed that in the case of another truce, those involved would be given the death penalty. This along with other preventative methods such as being more aware of what was happening on the front lines did not let another truce occur. The soldiers decided on the truce, not their superiors and this disagreement helped ensure that another truce or a continuation of the armistice did not happen (Lower). Another reason a second truce did not occur was the change in warfare in early 1915, especially by the use of poison gas. The inhumanity of warfare was increasing with the bombing of British cities by German planes and the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine, both creating more causalities than had been seen prior to 1915 (Cleaver, Park). Nevertheless this loss of life reaffirmed British and other allied hate for the enemy making them less inclined to feel sorry for their opponent. The Truce of 1914 was an extraordinary moment in human history. Men from both sides enduring the same horrors of war put aside their differences to celebrate a beloved holiday. Much to the liking of those in power and the disliking of men involved in direct combat, the truce was not permanent and did not last very long. Not all regiments were lucky enough or willing to be involved, but many were, and this changed many men’s feelings towards their enemy. Headquarters suppressed soldiers’ feelings of kindheartedness towards their opponents in an attempt to ensure another truce would not be held until the war was over. Sadly the Christmas Truce of 1914 did not change the course or the outcome of the war, but instead it showed that even amongst cruelty and hatred, humanity has the ability to find the little bit of faith, kindness, and compassion hidden at the deepest part of the soul.

Bibliography

Brown, Malcolm, (ed.) Meetings in No man's Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in the Great War, 2007.

Brown, Malcolm & Seaton, Shirley, The Christmas truce, 1984.

Cleaver, Alan, and Lesley Park. "The Christmas Truce." The Christmas Truce. Christmastruce.co.uk, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

"First World War Casualties." First World War Casualties. HistoryLearningSite.co.uk, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

"Fraternizing Between the Lines. - View Article - NYTimes.com." Fraternizing Between the Lines. - View Article - NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 31 Dec. 1914. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

"Letters From The Front." Times [London, England] 1 Jan. 1915: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

"Letters From The Front." Times [London, England] 2 Jan. 1915: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Lower, Thomas. "The Heritage of the Great War / First World War 1914 - 1918." The Heritage of the Great War / First World War 1914 - 1918. Greatwar.nl, 27 Mar. 9999. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

Terraine, John. "Christmas 1914, and After." History Today December 1979: 781-789.

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