What was the Christmas Truce?

The Christmas Truce was the ceasefire for that holiday in 1914 during the First World War. It was carried out by English, French and German soldiers, as well as Belgian and Scottish soldiers, who interrupted the attacks and carried out peaceful activities. Five months into the war, both sides hoped to win soon and be home on Christmas Eve, but in the end they only laid down their weapons for one day in an unusual and humane gesture to celebrate Christmas.

The story occurred mainly on the Western Front, located between Belgium and France. The soldiers fought with rifles, grenades and artillery in a trench war that stagnated until the Allies prevailed in 1918. In some sections of the front only a few dozen meters separated the trenches. The details have been collected in letters to relatives of those who were on the front line.

Christmas truce due to exhaustion

The soldiers had already exchanged gestures before the Christmas Truce. It was not unusual for there to be small truces to recover the dead or exchange information. Already in December, the Germans sent the English a cake accompanied by a note inviting them to stop fighting for a captain’s birthday. That night the Germans sang during a brief truce without a hitch.

The English and Germans suffered the same desperate situation. The winter temperatures were very cold, they lived surrounded by mud in the ditches dug into the ground and the sanitary conditions were terrible, which is why many soldiers fell ill. Momentary ceasefires were often organized to collect wounded and deceased comrades in no man’s land. Despite the propaganda and the order from the generals from the rear not to abandon the trenches in case the enemy attacked, any possible motivation faded in the first months. The mobilized soldiers were more alien to the ideological fervor and the reasons that had led to the war. Rather than killing enemy troops, they fought to survive.

Football, trees and exchanges: what really happened?

The Germans also took the first steps in the Christmas Truce. On December 24, for example, they decorated trees with candles on their parapets. According to some accounts, the Germans also sent the English a message proposing not to shoot the next day. That night peace was respected and songs and Christmas carols were heard from both sides.

On Christmas Day, thousands of soldiers ended up gathering in no man’s land, the strip of territory that separated the trenches. The truce allowed them to collect their casualties, they got to bury the fallen together and in many cases they talked and carried out other friendly activities. The most famous scene is that of soccer, which were probably games with objects that acted as balls, rather than organized matches. There is more evidence of tobacco, alcohol and other shared gifts, and some soldiers returned to their trenches with buttons and helmets from the opposing uniform. In some points, the informal truce lasted until the next day and in others it was extended for several more days.

Spontaneous exceptions

The Christmas Truce has gone down in history with an aura of a Christmas miracle, recorded in photos and illustrations showing German and British officers together, and in popular culture. One of the movies based on this true story is Joyeux Noel (2005), by Christian Carion. However, shooting was never suspended in other parts of the front. The high command did not allow cessations of hostilities and, when they found out, they tried to censor them. Alarmed, they ordered an end to them because they believed they would damage the troops’ war spirit. So that the Christmas truce would not be repeated in subsequent years, both sides prohibited fraternizing with the enemy, even under threat of court-martial.

This was not the only truce during the First World War. Trench warfare was sometimes governed by an agreed system of “live and let live,” a behavior of nonaggression and cooperation that emerged spontaneously. Furthermore, this momentary balance, when it occurred, was fragile and little more than a shot was likely to spoil the tacit agreement not to shoot.