When Peace Broke Out At Christmas
John J. Dunphy
This column originally appeared in The Telegraph of Alton, IL
Both the Allies and Central Powers entered World War I during the summer of 1914 with confidence that their armies would quickly triumph. By December, however, both sides occupied trenches on the Western front that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Weapons such as machine guns, heavy artillery and poison gas ensured horrendous casualties. When the conflict finally ended four years later on Nov. 11, which we now celebrate as Veterans Day, 10 million servicemen and 7 million civilians had been killed, while 20 million had been wounded. The soldiers who so eagerly enlisted on both sides in 1914 would have been horrified had they known the carnage that awaited them.
By the first Christmas of the war, hundreds of thousands of soldiers had been killed. Battle-weary men hunkered down in their muddy, rat-infested trenches, separated from the enemy by 30 to 70 yards of area they called No Man’s Land, and tried to take comfort in recalling what Christmas had been like when they were at home with their families. Then, in the Flanders region of Belgium, something akin to a miracle happened. Peace spontaneously broke out at numerous points along a 27-mile segment of the front.
Germans traditionally love Christmas and celebrate that holiday with a passion. Indeed, Germans popularized the custom of setting up decorated evergreen trees during this season. One can scarcely imagine the shock that British soldiers felt upon seeing small Christmas trees — complete with with lighted candles on their branches — set up on the parapets of the German trenches. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade recalled the trees with candles that “burnt steadily in the still, frosty air!” The troops began caroling. “First the Germans would sing one of their carols,” Williams said, “and we would sing one of ours.” When the British troops began singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” he noted, “the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin Words ‘Adeste Fideles.’ And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing — two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
Josef Sewald, a captain in Germany’s 17th Bavarian Regiment, recalled his role in implementing this truce in his sector. “I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce.” For a time there was only silence, so Sewald repeated the invitation to cease fire. Then, “The British shouted ‘No shooting!’…and a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands — a bit cautiously!” The enemies quickly warmed to one another. John Ferguson, a corporal in the Second Seaforth Highlanders, recalled, “We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years.” Germans and British exchanged cigarettes and small souvenirs, he noted.
Enemy solders even engaged in football games (soccer games to us) in several sectors during the Christmas truce. Kennedy Hickman, in his online essay “World War I: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” states that the games were more akin to “kick abouts” than actual soccer games, however. Private Ernie Williams of the Sixth Cheshires is quoted in Stanley Weintraub’s “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” as stating, “I should think there were a couple hundred taking part…There was no sort of ill will between us.” These “kick abouts” were played on the frozen ground of No Man’s Land, where any soldier would have been riddled with bullets during hostilities. Lt. Kurt Zehmisch of Germany’s 134th Saxons Infantry Regiment observed, “Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as our friends for a time.” Soldiers even had Christmas dinners together.
Among the Allies, the British were the principal participants in the Christmas truce. Although some French and Belgian troops were involved in a few sectors, these soldiers saw the Germans as invaders of their homelands and found it difficult to put aside their animosity. No Americans were present, since the United States didn’t enter the war until 1917. Historians estimate that as many as 100,000 men laid down their arms during the Christmas truce. Although this spontaneous cease-fire managed to continue to New Year’s Day in a few spots, it generally ended on Dec. 26. The soldiers returned to their respective trenches and the war resumed.
There were a few brief truces on succeeding Christmases during the war, but nothing comparable to the 1914 cease-fire. A cross stands in Saint-Yves, Belgium at the site of the truce to commemorate this event. “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” an a cappella musical, was recently presented at Fontbonne University’s Fine Arts Theatre. The musical included many songs from the World War I era such as “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary” and “Keep the Homes Fires Burning,” but critics and audiences alike agreed that the most moving songs were the Christmas carols sung by the troops in their native languages.
Over the years, cynics have dismissed the Christmas truce as a farce by noting that the overwhelming majority of its participants returned to shooting at each other within 24 hours, which is all too true. The threat of court-martial and imprisonment — or even death by firing squad — for fraternizing with the enemy provided a strong motivation to return to combat. But the fact that the truce didn’t last in no way diminishes its significance. On Christmas of 1914, peace on earth and goodwill toward men trumped war.
John J. Dunphy is the author of From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois, Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947.