How the Spirit Of Christmas Stopped A War.

In my previous post, I mentioned how the plans of Americans for a quiet Christmas were interrupted by World War 2 (or a small portion thereof). This time, I want to tell you the story of how Christmas interrupted World War 1 for the British, German, and French troops.

In December of 1914, the Great War in Europe had just started to change into the trench

Early War German trench

Early War German trench

warfare with which we are so familiar. The first months of the war had been months of movement, of battles over open ground and using whatever cover was available. Massive artillery barrages, eight-foot-deep trenches with floors of mud, and bayonet charges over machine-gun-swept “no man’s land” were all in the future. The Allies, or “Entente” powers (primarily Britain and France) had stopped the massive push by the “Continental” powers (mostly German) short of their target of Paris, and as both sides wearied of battle, and the weather changed to cold rain and mud, both sides began to dig in. By the middle of December, the trenches were still shallow, dug by hand using small shovels called “entrenching tools”, or E-tools. Both sides were looking forward to some rest, and some quiet.

The relationship between the Germans and British at the start of World War 1 were very different from that of early World War 2. Neither saw the other side as barbarians or animals. Many Britons had visited Germany prior to the war, and many Germans traveled to Britain. Some families had members in both countries. Indeed, the Kind of England and the Kaiser of Germany were cousins. Both countries looked upon the war more as a continuation of politics by other means than as any kind of holy crusade or attempt at crushing evil. And most of the soldiers on both sides were “lifers”, men who had chosen the military as a way of life. None had yet been subjected to years of constant fire, to watching all their friends be killed, or seeking shelter from terror-inducing barrages. All that was years away. Leading up to Christmas, there were a number of small cease-fires in local areas, to facilitate resupply and removal of the wounded. But what happened on that Christmas eve, happened in numerous places, and would ring down through the years, to be known as, simply, the Christmas Truce.

It started spontaneously at numerous places along the lines. German troops lit candles and

Scenes from Christmas Truce

Scenes from Christmas Truce

placed them on the rim of thei small trenches. Some German units put up small spruce trees with bits of foil, wire, and paper as decorations, lit by candles. Then, the British troops were amazed to hear … carols! Christmas carols, sung in German, then in English, as one small group at a time, the British joined in with their German opposites. Here and there, a German or British soldier would approach the “enemy”, and soon, dozens, then hundreds were out of their trenches and mingling in the middle, exchanging small packets from home and carious bits of food, including the infamous “bully beef”, a canned beef product once described as “twice as tough as shoe leather, and half as palatable”. Soon, some groups found, or made, footballs (“soccer balls”, to us Yanks), and impromptu football matches sprang up. Even some French units joined in, though these were rare as Germans had invaded their homeland.

Sadly, the High Commands of both sides found out. Specific orders were handed down on both sides to cease any “fraternisation” immediately. A few groups tried to maintain the camaraderie through Christmas day, but most went reluctantly back to their original positions. Though the truce was ended, both sides were reluctant to restart hostilities, and both sides’ commanders worked hard to bring their troops under control.

No more great holiday truces ever occurred again during the war. There were sporadic attempts at an Easter Truce in 1915, but command staff worked hard to keep their solders in line. And as 1915 wore into 1916, the early battles of the war began to draw blood on both sides in copious quantity, while officers often ordered barrages in “no man’s land” to keep their troops from crossing over. There have been some reports of a limited truce in 1916 in one small area of the lines. But in general, the war ground on, men died by the thousands and tens of thousands, and every day became a struggle to survive.

But for one moment in time, on one cold, shining December night, an entire world at war paused for just a few hours and celebrated all that brings us together. For one night, enemies became friends, and the guns were silenced. And today, 98 years later, that day stands as a shining example of how we all, despite our numerous differences, can come together in peace and harmony.

May God bless and keep the troops from all countries, all around the world, and bring them home, soon and safe.

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27 Responses to How the Spirit Of Christmas Stopped A War.

  1. aFrankAngle says:

    Wonderful post John … so here’s a good video to support the post.

  2. fasab says:

    Good post. The only bright spark in an obscene war with ‘lions led by donkeys’.

    • Thanks, buddy. The curse of fighting the last war seems to always lie on the top ranks, but brings its’ suffering to the grunts. One particularly aggravating term, at least for me, was invented by the British: “wastage”. Wastage was the number of soldiers killed on a given day on a “quiet” front, where no major operations were going on. “Wastage” regularly ran in the hundreds PER MONTH – and that was just for the British.
      Is it any wonder the French Army mutinied?

      • fasab says:

        I had an uncle who was there and managed to survive it although injured. Many stories when I was a saucer-eyed little kid.

      • Wow – I’d love to hear those stories sometime. A serious offer – if you want to write them down and don’t want to go through the “polishing” work, I’ll do it for you, my fee being the chance to read them. Think about it – no rush, I got plenty of time. Matter of fact, time’s about the ONLY thing I have in abundance. Time, and cat hair….. 😉

  3. Elyse says:

    Lovely story well told, John. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Elyse. My uncle-in-law was in the Great War, but I’ve lost track of both his name and a book about the division he served in. The Christmas Truce predates his arrival – he wouldn’t have gotten to France much before early 1917 – but doing this makes me think of him. And that’s always a great gift, as you know.
      You know what? His name just popped in my head – Sigurd M. Berg. Thank you, Elyse! You jarred my memory perfectly! Thank you SO much! 🙂

  4. El Guapo says:

    In many wars, the only difference between the soldiers is the orders they follow.
    Great story, John.
    Be nice if war could be reduced to a friendly snowball fight.
    Unlikely, but nice…

    • I think the ancients had the best idea. They assembled their hordes, then each sent out their toughest dude. If one guy whupped the other big time, the losing side just bugged out. Then again, with the British leadership, I’m not sure that would’ve worked too well. “Black Jack” Pershing, on the other hand, coulda kicked the Kaiser’s heinie all the way from the Channel Coast back to Prussia without working up a sweat! (And people thing Patton was an ornery SOB! 😀 )
      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. unfetteredbs says:

    I really loved this post John. Kind of hard to imagine, celebrating Christmas, crossing enemy lines,sharing presents and then the next day becoming enemies?? Hard to wrap your head around that– You did a nice job.

  6. Really nice post John, I loved it.
    This is how the corporate world works today, you have an amicable business lunch and then you try to take the other down.

  7. whiteladyinthehood says:

    Wow, John! Bravo to you. I say this all the time, but I really love to read a post where the words seems to flow out from the writer’s heart…it was inspirational and yet sad at the same time to me. I guess if there is a thing called, ‘human spirit’ – this was a perfect example.

    • Thank you very much. As both an historian and a re-enactor, i’ve grow inceasingly interested in the soldiers themselves. While was has wrought trememndous technological change, the behaviour of the average foot soldier changes VERY slowly. Early in the war, there was a great deal of “live and let live” – parties regularly went unmolested into “no man’s laand” to collect wounded and dead, and sniping between opposing trenches was very rare. It took both the massive turnover of both sides, especially the British, from professional soldier to draftee, and the brutalising artillery and machine-gun fire to change the view over to that of the enemy as a beast or an evil requiring destruction. This story is one of hope, of human spirit overcoming the horrors of war – and the sad tale of a more gentle era’s end. Bittersweet, indeed.

  8. mobius faith says:

    This has always been an inspiring story for me.

    • If you get the History channel, keep your eye out over the next few days. They did an hour-long show about the Christmas Truce, and it’s both very accurate and has some wonderful footage. Also, there is a new channel called “Shorts”, which plays 20-30 minute films from various eras. One shows Christmas 1939 on the Maginot Line, complete with altars set up for Christmas services right on the tracks normally used to haul shells. Absolutely incredible.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  9. benzeknees says:

    “May God bless and keep the troops from all countries, all around the world, and bring them home, soon and safe.” My thoughts exactly!

    • I was trying to come up with a sign-off line that would work in several languages, for the letter of condolence I write to foreign governments for their casualties in Afghanistan. I found that particular line translates quite well into several languages, including Romanian and Polish, so it just became my standard. It must sound pretty good – I’ve made acquaintances in Departments of Defence from Poland to Australia, Romania to Germany, and of course Britain and Canada!

  10. Pingback: Guest Post: John Erickson Learns a Lesson | rarasaur

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