On Christmas Eve 1914, when WWI was well underway, soldiers lay in their trenches ready for the enemy to attack. But soldiers on the both sides of the Western Front had misgivings about killing their fellow man on a day that celebrates Peace on Earth. These men defied the orders of their superiors and for a day laid down their rifles and celebrated Christmas in No Man’s Land. Through the eyes of British, French, and German soldiers we see how fragile it was, and how brave these men were to celebrate peace in a time of war.
“What a different sort of Christmas Eve”
On Christmas Eve 1914 a young British Rifleman named Graham Williams was on guard duty for his section of trench while his eyes gazed upon the desolate land of the Western Front. World War I wasn’t even five months old, but Williams had already witnessed many of his brothers in arms fall to the German enemy.
As he gazed off into No Man’s Land, the area about the length of a football field between his trench and the German trench across from him, he thought to himself, “What a different sort of Christmas Eve this was from any I had experienced in the past.”
There was a perfect half moon that night, and the cloud cover had lifted, giving Williams a clear line of fire in front of him. He was expecting an attack that night and was on high alert. His Captain received word earlier in the day, that the Allied high command expected a ferocious German assault.
But Williams was having trouble coming to terms with the fact that he might be fighting on this most special of nights. Would the Germans really attack on Christmas Eve? After all the fighting he’d been through, he didn’t find it hard to believe, and because he was in the most forward trench in the British lines, he would be the first to know it if they did attack.
Both sides were suspicious of each other and were trying their best to make each other’s lives miserable. The Germans and the British engaged in constant shelling of each other’s lines, and rarely did it let up. The sound was as deafening as it was constant, and then there was the added strain of worrying about where those shells were landing.
Despite the fact that both sides had been given nearly identical orders, that an attack from the enemy was imminent, Williams noticed a lull in the firing. He couldn’t be sure, and he wouldn’t let up, but the thought that there just might not be an attack tonight began to creep in.
Williams could hear his heart in his head, and he took deep breaths as his eyes scanned the line. It was so cold that he could see his breath when he exhaled, but he was thankful for that. October and November had been unseasonably warm, but also wet, making for terrible muddy conditions in his trench.
Mud was one of the biggest enemies for soldiers on both sides in 1914, as trenches were full of water, and exploding shells made them cave in constantly. Williams and his fellow soldiers lived, breathed, and ate in the mud. They didn’t dare stick their heads over the parapet for fear of enemy snipers.
Mud was a fact of life for soldiers on the Western Front for the duration of WWI. But on Christmas Eve 1914, the first frost of the season settled in and made the ground beneath them solid. Though Williams was standing on the firestep, set two feet off the ground to put him in a better position, that night there wasn’t a mud puddle beneath him.
Instead, it was the night before Christmas and his comrades were fast asleep on the solid ground, and the creatures stirring were in the trench straight across from him. Williams pulled his rifle to his shoulder; the enemy was moving.
He was ready to go over the top
A thin layer of fog had settled in over the ground in No Man’s Land, and Williams could see hints of movement in front of him. He thought about waking up his fellow soldiers, but he couldn’t be sure what the Germans were up to.
He suspected an attack, but attacks were usually preplanned and included heavy artillery bombardments prior to waves of German riflemen rushing through No Man’s Land. The amount of action he’d seen in the past month had been nearly relentless, as commanders on both sides were determined to make Christmas as miserable as possible for their enemies.
The war that started five months prior was supposed to have already ended. Williams couldn’t imagine that he’d be spending Christmas manning the front lines instead of at home with his family. But when the Germans invaded Belgium and France, he answered his country’s call to arms and arrived on the Western Front in November.
By then, the Western Front as we know it had stabilized after an enormous German onslaught came within a breath of taking Paris. In that first month, the battle lines were constantly shifting, but Williams didn’t know then that his British comrades would spend three more Christmases in basically the same place as he was now. But none would be quite like this one.
As the fog in front of Williams began to dim, bright lights appeared in clusters on the other side of No Man’s Land. There was a glow about the lights and a flicker, as Williams slowly began to realize they were candles.
The Germans had been issued tiny pine trees by their high command to help them celebrate Christmas (after all, the Christmas tree is a German tradition). The soldiers across from Williams wanted their enemies to see the trees and experience them for themselves. All of the sudden, Christmas trees illuminated by candles were beginning to appear all up and down the German line.
Williams wasn’t the only one to notice the sight of, “makeshift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air!” Other soldiers on sentry duty did the same thing that Williams did and, “awoke those… asleep in the shelters, to ‘come and see this thing, which had come to pass.'”
Startled as they awoke to Williams’ impassioned plea to have a look, the British soldiers could barely believe their eyes. But if what they saw was confusing, then what they heard was absolutely baffling. A strange sound from the enemy began to fill the air in No Man’s Land.
Christmas Carols in No Man’s Land
Just when their hearts began to relax, and just when the soldiers got their hopes up that maybe tonight there would be no fight, a true Christmas miracle took hold of the men lining the Western Front. Williams and his men lay down their rifles and listened as the Germans began to sing.
“Stille nacht. Heilige Nach. Alles schläft. Eynsam wach,” or the lyrics to the song Silent Night in German. When they were done, a brief and potent silence hung over the Western Front. Then someone on the British side started singing, and his comrades joined him with, “Noel, Noel. Noel, Noel. The First Noel, the Angels did say…”
When the British finished singing “The First Noel,” the Germans began clapping and cheering. Then nearly right after, the Germans started singing another carol, until each side was united in the most unique action of WWI; the serenading of their enemies entrenched on the opposite side.
When Williams and the British began singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” the Germans got really excited and joined them. They sang the Latin version, Adeste Fideles, and for a brief moment, enemy soldiers were enjoying a moment together that was unique to all of human history. While other truces had been achieved in warfare, never before had so many regular soldiers on both sides defied their commanders in the name of peace on earth.
First friendly encounters
“This was really a most extraordinary thing,” wrote Williams. “Two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” Then the most extraordinary thing happened: Brave soldiers on both sides of the line began to come out of their trenches. On some parts of the line, enemy combatants actually met in No Man’s Land and shook hands.
To think that these men were at each other’s throats just hours earlier, and the hope of Christmas cheer enabled them to trust their enemy, and even create a Christmas memory with them. But as the weary men began to look upon No Man’s Land with clear eyes for the first time, their thoughts went to their fallen brothers.
While pleasantries were exchanged on Christmas Eve 1914, most of the men began searching for the fallen, as No Man’s Land was a sea of torn up earth and dead bodies. As midnight approached, both armies started taking the time to honor the fallen and hold a Christmas service for the living.
A French unit held a service just 150 feet from the German trench, and although no pleasantries or guarantees had been exchanged that they would hold their fire, the Germans didn’t fire a shot. But not everywhere on the line did each side respect the other or come close to calling a truce.
On Christmas Eve a German officer said, “Is it possible? Are the French really going to leave us in peace today..? Is it our imagination or is it maybe meant to lull us in to a false sense of security? We all kept on our guard.”
Some of the soldiers had lost comrades that day, and when the Germans showed their trees, they wanted to fire. In one instance, a single shot ruined everything. “Oh, the folly of that bullet… All at once their singing stops…What a pity.” Thus was the frailness of the peace on Christmas Eve 1914, as soldiers returned to their trenches, and locked rounds in the chambers of their guns.
A White Christmas in France
It couldn’t have been a more picturesque scenery for the Christmas gathering that was about to turn into a party. When the fog cleared it revealed a No Man’s Land, which had always been a decaying picture of the earth twisted in morbid chaos, was all of the sudden a fluffy white scenery coated with a thin layer of snow.
Even though it was cold, the men slept well that night on the duck boards that lined the bottom of the trenches and in the dry dugouts. The weather helped them sleep that night, but perhaps it was the hope of a Christmas miracle that left them in a dream they didn’t want to wake up from.
All quiet on the Western Front
On Christmas Day 1914 all was quiet on the Western Front and not a soldier was stirring, not even a sniper. Since the lines settled months earlier, the men never had a morning without shelling, machine gun fire, bombs exploding, or sniper fire. But on that Christmas Day, a cold fog settled in over No Man’s Land, as each side waited for the other to make a move.
It started simply enough. A British soldier wrote “Merry Christmas” on a board, and then down the line, a German soldier posted another board saying, “You no fight, we no fight.” It didn’t happen everywhere, but slowly, hundreds of individual Christmas truces were made throughout No Man’s Land.
A British soldier named Wilbert Spencer remembered (and later wrote about) how it all started. First, the Germans got up out of their trenches and waved. Then the British and French did the same thing. Each side had shown good faith, and no one fired a shot.
Then more men came out on both sides. Spencer then witnessed two German soldiers come out. They asked to speak with an officer. Spencer’s Captain got up and called Spencer to go with him because he spoke fluent German. The two sides spoke, and when they were done, Spencer had negotiated the Christmas Truce of 1914.
A forbidden peace
“They were willing to have an armistice for [four] hours… can you imagine? – both sides came out, met in the middle, shook hands, wished each other compliments of the season, and had a chat. A strange sight between two hostile lines.”
The Christmas Truce that ensued was completely unique in all of history. Commanders on both sides had forbidden this sort of activity and did everything they could to stop it from happening. But all over the Western Front, on both sides of the line, soldiers were defying their officers’ orders and for once, greeted their enemy with pleasantries, instead of trying to kill them.
There are no exact figures, but it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides took part in the Christmas Truce of 1914. It was a party unlike any other, and just like any other Christmas party, each side began exchanging gifts.
The first instance came when a British and German officer met in No Man’s Land. Neither one could speak the others’ language, but somehow, they agreed to not shoot at the other until the following day. The German officer then gave the British captain beer, while the captain gave the German a “generous supply” of plum pudding. The Great White Elephant gift exchange of 1914 was on.
As the cold day progressed, from the English Channel all the way to Alsace, men were laying down their rifles and bringing Christmas gifts into No Man’s Land, transforming it from the most desolate place on earth and into a multinational Christmas party.
The British had just received parcels from their loved ones at home. They brought out plum cake while the Germans brought beer. They exchanged smokes, and the British brought everything from chocolate and jam and coffee. And according to reports, the most coveted gift of all was the German Pickelhaube, which was the iconic spiked helmet of the German soldier.
Christmas dinner and games
The party all over No Man’s Land demanded strong drink and good food. In one part of the battlefield, two rabbits appeared and both German and British soldiers took off after them. “Laughable to see the Germans and ourselves helter-skelter after the Christmas dinner,” said one British Private.
In another part of the line, the British brought a pig for Christmas dinner. They cooked it right out there in No Man’s Land and then shared it with their German enemies. One German soldier even found an English barber on the battlefield, and soldiers looked on in awe as the German calmly allowed his enemy to cut his hair.
In Wulverghem, Belgium a 19-year-old British soldier named Ernie Williams was standing inside No Man’s Land and enjoying the company of his comrades and his enemies. Then suddenly a football (soccer ball) was punted onto the battlefield from the German side.
If it hadn’t been for the rare cold day in late 1914, there’s no way the infamous football match in history would’ve taken place. Instead of slogging through mud, the men were running on hardened ground, and the Germans and British engaged in a may lay that has been recounted ever since. Ernie Williams took part in the match and described it great detail.
Much has been reported about this football game, and there are even claims that it was a myth. But there were games in No Man’s Land, as the world’s game was shared in a world war between enemies for the first time. Scottish troops were known to dribble or even punt a football onto the battlefield prior to attacking, but never had there been a match in No Man’s Land.
Williams joined a game that had dozens of Germans and dozens of English on each side. Impromptu goals were set up, and despite the fact that there was no ref and no score-keeping, the Germans and British played together that day.
The first World Cup
Williams claims he was pretty good then and he even “had a go at the ball.” The game in Belgium wasn’t the only football match that took place that day, as another report came into the London Times. On January 1, 1915 they published an account of a game given by a British Officer.
He claimed that his regiment took on the Germans and ended up losing 3-2. Skeptics point to a lack of evidence that this happened, but there were other witnesses who attested to the score, and if the British made it up, then why would they say they lost? It was okay though, because Germany wouldn’t beat England for another 54 years after.
Grinches on both sides
What Christmas would be complete without its fair share of Grinches? In this case, the biggest Grinch in history had no stomach for fraternizing with the enemy. The Young Corporal Adolf Hitler sat in his trench, “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so?”
“Such a thing should never happen in wartime,” Hitler said. “Have you no German sense of honor left at all?” His comrades suggested that go meet the enemy, but the German Corporal refused, and stewed as they met their enemy in No Man’s Land.
The angst felt by Hitler was shared at different parts of the line as well. A Captain in the British Army captured just how fragile the peace was, and how the feeling of goodwill during the war was not shared everywhere.
Captain Billy Congreve wrote that, “We have issued orders to the men not on any account to allow a ‘truce,’ as we have heard that they will probably try to. The Germans did try. They came over towards us singing. So we opened rapid fire on them, which is the only truce they deserve.” Even so, it must be noted that more front-line soldiers participated in the Christmas Truce than didn’t.
An enduring truce
As the day went on and the sun began to fade toward the horizon, it started dawning on both sides that the truce was coming to an end. After a day of gifts, food, drinks, football, and good cheer, the Germans and British exchanged hugs and handshakes.
In one section, a British soldier brought a camera, and after a day of snapping pictures, the Germans wanted to collect. They agreed to call a truce again on New Year’s Day. Others called it off until then too. But when the sun fell that day, most of the soldiers, back in their trenches, were going back to fighting the war.
A German soldier wrote: “It was a Christmas celebration in keeping with the command ‘Peace on earth’ and a memory which will stay with us always.” While a British soldier wrote: “This experience has been the most practical demonstration I have seen of ‘Peace on earth and goodwill towards men.'”
Another British soldier wrote: “Even as I write I can scarcely credit what I have seen and done. This has indeed been a wonderful day.” It was a day that was unlike any other for soldiers in this war or any other — and their commanders were not happy with them.
The real Grinch
“I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is [fraternizing] to be allowed between the opposing troops,” wrote General Horace Smith-Dorrien, who was second in command of the British Expeditionary Force, in a message to his commanders after he got word of the Christmas Truce.
“To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly [meetings]… I am calling for particulars as to names of officers and units who took part in this Christmas gathering, with a view to disciplinary action.” But because so many soldiers too part in the truce, no one was punished for their actions.
Why the Christmas truce?
The biggest learning from WWI is arguably the fact that people and soldiers will pay extremely heavy prices for their commander’s blunders. Leaders on both sides of the war left their soldiers feeling duped as promises of “home before Christmas” gave way to realities such as trench warfare.
An estimated 20,000,000 people would die in WWI, with a near equal amount being wounded. The meat grinder that took place on the Western Front was already in full effect when the Christmas Truce of 1914 came, and perhaps it was the exhaustion of both armies that brought them together. Either that, or the mutual respect that came from cutting their teeth against each other every single day.
Whatever the reason, for one of the most unique moments in the history of Christmas, the Christmas Truce of 1914 rightly so lives on as lore in modern times as a testament to the fact that the best in human nature can prevail in the ugliest of situations.
Just one week before the Christmas Truce, future Prime Minister Winston Churchill foreshadowed the whole event, and managed to put it into context at the same time when he wrote, “What would happen, I wonder, if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found of settling the dispute?” It’s safe to say it would’ve been a lot different.