World War 1

The Christmas Truce of World War I

Recalling the time, 100 years ago, when soldiers refused to fight each other

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WW1
The Illustrated London News

In his book Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, historian Stanley Weintraub presented the letters and diaries of the men who temporarily ended WWI for two weeks circa Christmas 1914. One wrote, "Never … was I so keenly aware of the insanity of war."

In the book Weintraub also quotes a 1930 comment delivered by Sir H. Kingsley Wood in the British House of Commons. Wood had been a major in World War I and a participant in the Christmas truce. He went on to become a cabinet minister after the war. Wood noted how many officials now labeled the refusal to fight as "degrading" and unworthy of a soldier. Wood disagreed.

"I … came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired," he said. The carnage resumed only because the situation was in "the grip of the political system which was bad." Rather than being degrading, the truce was a triumph of shared humanity over the ambitions of empire, something worth remembering 100 years after the fact.

The truce was a series of unofficial and widespread cease-fires that extended over two weeks. The truce between mostly British and German troops centered on the Western Front, defined by lines of trenches that stretched across France from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland. The trenches were often close enough for the combatants to exchange shouted words and to smell food their adversaries were cooking.

Life in the trenches consisted of extreme boredom broken by spikes of terror when an attack was launched. Young men left the comparative safety of their own trenches and crossed open ground into "no man's land" to try to reach the trenches opposite. Even successful attacks racked up huge casualties. The Battle of the Somme in France was waged between July 1 and November 18, 1916, and came to symbolize the cost of trench warfare; more than one million men were killed or wounded. An estimated 12.5 percent of troops on the Western Front died, often from wounds for which antibiotics were not yet available; the casualty rate (both killed and wounded) was estimated at 56 percent. In all, more than 10 million soldiers died in World War I.

It was natural for each side to wonder about the men living so close them who endured the same wretched cold and wet conditions, and who faced the same prospect of an early death. The top brass recognized the danger this curiosity posed to military order. On December 5, 1914, British General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien sent a warning to the commanders of all divisions: "Experience … proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a 'live and let live' theory of life…officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises."

Several factors contributed to the danger of "military lethargy." Many of the Germans spoke English well. Weintraub observed, "It is estimated that over eighty thousand young Germans had gone to England before the war to be employed in such jobs as waiters, cooks, and cab drivers." Moreover the British King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. The fact that the Front conflict occurred on French soil might have also mitigated hostility. Both the British and Germans were European and overwhelmingly Christian, which promoted a veneration for Christmas. Indeed, concerned that Catholics were fighting Catholics, Pope Benedict XV actively sought a Christmas truce in 1914 in order to prevent the "suicide of Europe." Although German officials reportedly entertained the idea, the British did not. But the soldiers may have paid attention.

Meanwhile, powerful factors acted against the likelihood of camaraderie. In the months since WWI had erupted in August, hundreds of thousands of troops had been killed or wounded. Soldiers on both sides had lost friends and witnessed horrible scenes of death and mutilation. Moreover, both sides had conducted massive propaganda campaigns aimed at stirring hatred toward the other.

Against this backdrop, a remarkable thing happened on December 19, 1914. British Lieutenant Geoffrey Heinekey described it in a letter home to his mother. "Some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of their wounded and so we ourselves immediately got out of our trenches and began bringing in our wounded also. The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us to bury our dead." Heinekey could not have been alone in concluding, "I must say they [the Germans] seemed extraordinarily fine men."

Incidents of fraternization kept occurring. A German philosophy student-turned-soldier named Karl Aldag reported that hymns and Christmas songs were being sung in both trenches. German troops foraged for Christmas trees that they placed in plain view on the parapets of their trenches.

By the time Christmas Eve arrived, so much interaction had occurred between the British and Germans that Brigadier General G.T. Forrestier-Walker had officially forbidden fraternization. In his book A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt, Judge John V. Denson quoted the directive. Fraternization "discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys offensive spirit in all ranks. … Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices and exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited."

On Christmas Eve, a hard frost fell. In his book The Truce: The Day the War Stopped, Chris Baker reported on the events of December 24, 1914. "98 British soldiers die on this day, many are victims of sniper fire. A German aeroplane drops a bomb on Dover: the first air raid in British history. During the afternoon and early evening, British infantry are astonished to see many Christmas trees with candles and paper lanterns, on enemy parapets. There is much singing of carols, hymns and popular songs, and a gradual exchange of communication and even meetings in some areas. Many of these meetings are to arrange collection of bodies. In other places, firing continues. Battalion officers are uncertain how to react… ."

Some officers threatened to court-martial or even to shoot those who fraternized, but the threats were generally ignored. Other officers mingled with enemies of similar rank. The Germans reportedly led the way, coming out of their trenches and moving unarmed toward the British. Soldiers exchanged chocolates, cigars, and compared news reports. They buried the dead, some of whom had lain for months, with each side often helping the other dig graves. At its height, unofficial ceasefires were estimated to have occurred along half of the British line. As many as 100,000 British and German troops took part.

On Christmas morning, the dead had been buried, the wounded retrieved and the "no man's land" between the trenches was quiet except for the sound of Christmas carols, especially "Silent Night." In one area, the soldiers recited the 23rd Psalm together: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… ." Soccer and football matches broke out. In some areas of cease-fire, soldiers openly cooked and shared their Christmas meal.

Fraternization continued thereafter but to a diminishing degree, because the high commanders were now acutely aware of the situation and responded with threats of disciplinary action. For one thing, the interaction made many troops doubt if the reports they read in their own newspapers were true. One officer wrote a letter, which was published in the The Daily News on December 30 and one day later in The New York Times. He commented, "The Germans opposite us were awfully decent fellows – Saxons, intelligent, respectable-looking men. I had a quite decent talk with three or four and have two names and addresses in my notebook. … After our talk I really think a lot of our newspaper reports must be horribly exaggerated." These were the first reports on the Christmas truce, because news was suppressed as a threat to "national security."

The English officer Lieutenant A.P. Sinkinson became even more critical of his own government. He wrote, "As I walked slowly back to our own trenches I thought of Mr. Asquith's [British P.M.] sentence about not sheathing the sword until the enemy be finally crushed. It is all very well for Englishmen living comfortable at home to talk in flowing periods, but when you are out here you begin to realize that sustained hatred is impossible."

The atmosphere of goodwill needed to cease. And, so, slowly fraternization was quashed. On New Year's Eve, some singing and shouting of messages occurred, but the truce was over.

Weintraub's book concludes with a chapter entitled "What If?" What if the Christmas truce had continued and soldiers who refused to fight? In summarizing the chapter, Denson comments:

"Like many other historians, he [Weintraub] believes that with an early end of the war in December of 1914, there probably would have been no Russian Revolution, no Communism, no Lenin, and no Stalin. Furthermore, there would have been no vicious peace imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty, and therefore, no Hitler, no Nazism and no World War II. With the early truce there would have been no entry of America into the European War and America might have had a chance to remain, or return, to being a Republic rather than moving toward World War II, the 'Cold' War (Korea and Vietnam), and our present status as the world bully."

War is against the self-interest of average people who suffer not only from its horrors but also from its political fallout. Those who benefit from both are the ones who threaten to shoot those who lay down their guns: politicians, commanders and warmongers who profit financially. But even the powerful and the elite cannot always extinguish "peace on earth, goodwill toward men," even in the midst of deadly battle.

NEXT: Suspended San Jose Cop: "Threaten me or my family and I will use my God given and law appointed right and duty to kill you."

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  1. Good piece. This might well be one worth finding a way to repeat annually. As far as I can tell WWI was one of the more idiotic in modern history. No one really wanted it. They just couldn’t bear the thought of losing face with their fellows.

    1. There were plenty of politicians who wanted it, and plenty of people who were prepared to listen to the politicians’ lies.

      plus ?a change, plus c’est la m?me chose

      1. Okay. Such as?

        I mean, sure, I’ll completely agree with you that there were plenty of politicians and plenty in the public willing to go to war. But, that’s a little different from what I’m talking about. As far as I can tell, no one was actively campaigning for war before August 1914 (and I’m restricting myself, I guess to the Great Powers). My impression is that the world went to war because no one was willing to step back and risk looking like a weakling.

        1. If anything, this is sort of the inverse of reality. The cultural milleu throughout Europe in the decade leading up to WWI was filled with nationalism and distrust of the various Great Powers, while most heads of state (save Kaiser Wilhelm who did indeed want the war) were seeking to avoid war.

          1. How is that contrary to my point. The decision-makers amongst the Great Powers didn’t want war. That was specifically my point. They failed to back off because they didn’t want to lose face (presumably with the voting public).

            1. My bad. I mistook that first sentance as complete agreement with tarran’s point, and I think that was the issue I had.

              This was more an act of the population duping the heads of state into war than the other way around.

        2. Well, possibly. But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort *not* to have a war. You see, Bill, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: the British, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.

          There was a tiny flaw in the plan.

          It was bollocks.

          1. The plan worked reasonably well for the latter half of the 20th Century, but primarily for the reason that Western Europeans were basically kept out of the loop.

            The natural state of Western Europe is war. The only, ONLY reason they haven’t had a war in the last 70 years is because the adults have been making them play nice. If outside hegemony (whether it’s American or Russian) ends, they’ll be back at each other’s throats in a decade or two.

            And no, the EU hasn’t made it better. If anything it has made nativism more prevalent.

            1. When the EU started up I tended to express considerable skepticism. My liberal in-laws were shocked; surely I didn’t think the French still held a grudge against the Germans for WWII! I told them that as far as I could tell the French still held a grudge against the Germans for siding with Wellington against Napoleon.

              There were days when I wished I knew whether I should be investing in Euros for rarity value or avoiding them as the next Confederate currency. I think, all things taken together, that it’s going to be the latter.

        3. Another aspect was mobilization plans.

          The Germans knew they could mobilize faster than the French, who could mobilize faster than the Russians, and the Germans expected Britain to say out; their treaty with Belgium was just a piece of paper.

          The Germans thought they could repeat 1870 and knock France out fast enough to shift their fores to fight Russia before Russia had mobilized.

          The problem was that once any power began mobilizing, the others would too, and if any power backed down and paused the mobilization, the expenditures would continue for nothing with the tremendous risk that the other countries would continue mobilizing, while they lost ground.

          All it took was the slightest tremor to start the mobilization race, and then it was unstoppable.

          That’s why I think it was one of the dumbest wars in history, leaving aside Jenkin’s Ear and other such silly wars. It was started stupidly, fought stupidly, and ended stupidly. There was nothing good about it.

          1. What about the War of 1812? The Boxer Rebellion?

            1. As far as I can see, they at least had recognizable disputes — the Brits were impressing American sailors, the Americans hadn’t followed through on a lot of treaty promises following independence. The Boxers wanted foreigners out of China.

              But WW I? The assassin wanted independence and the various parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire all hated each other. But national disputes among Germany, France, Britain, and Russia? Nothing even close to it.

            2. On top of impressing American sailors the British were also impeding our trade with the European continent (including outright stealing cargoes) and were getting increasingly belligerent on the Canadian frontier.

              Besides the Revolution and maybe WWII I can’t think of a more justified foreign war in American history.

          2. And there was nothing good about the “peace” that followed. The Top Men had gotten the world into the trenches, the Top Men had dictated the miserably stupid strategies followed, the Top Men had done their level best to screw up what few good ideas anybody had (Churchill’s attack on Gallipoli might well have worked, if he had been allowed to make it when he wanted to instead of several months later.). If a big deal wasn’t made about punishing the Germans, the common man might just get it into his head that since his government seemed to be being run by dots, maybe it was time for some changes.

            That worked about as well as all the Top Men’s OTHER plans.

            The political tenor of Top Men may shift from decade to decade and era to era, but the tendency of their Top Heads to be solid biscuit never changes.

  2. Sounds like a whole lotta smack to me dude.

    http://www.AnonWayz.tk

    1. We know your love for violence. You are a terrible piece of code.

      1. An errant pointer eaten by an angry array – out of bounds.

  3. We also just passed the 100th anniversary of the war on drugs.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki…..cs_Tax_Act

  4. …with an early end of the war in December of 1914, there probably would have been no Russian Revolution, no Communism, no Lenin, and no Stalin. Furthermore, there would have been no vicious peace imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty, and therefore, no Hitler, no Nazism and no World War II.

    And subsequently no Twinkies, Slinkies or penicillin. Pass.

    1. And subsequently no Twinkies, Slinkies or penicillin.

      Maybe, maybe not. We don’t know. We can’t know.

      It seems inevitable that penicillin would have been discovered, but you don’t know what else would be different in that alternate universe so maybe the discovery would have happened earlier or later than it did in our universe.

      Not being contentious, but as much as I enjoy alternate histories they’re just speculation.

  5. I heard the bells on Christmas Day

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nk77EOgapg

    1. (150 Christmases ago)

      1. Hmm, maybe 1863

        1. The 1914 truce was turned into the ballad Christmas In The Trenches by John McCutcheon.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJi41RWaTCs

          Kevin R

  6. I don’t think this could happen today. Not least cause the folks in the Middle East – where most of the fighting is these days – aren’t all so enraptured with “Christmas”.

    Ah well – Merry Christmas anyway, Reasonoids!

    1. Unless National Reloading Day occurs on the same day on both sides.

    2. WW2 was the last US war in which at a major adversary was also a predominantly Christian country.

      1. Very salient point to the topic.

  7. I wish it were true that the more we learn about the idiocy of (most) war the less likely we are to engage in one again. Seems like we always listen to the “It’s different THIS time” memes virtually every time.

    1. World War I was called “the war to end all wars.” Of course, it was the kickoff to a series of wars.

      But it’s probably true that more democracies will mean less war.

      1. Our constant state of war kinda shows that democracy doesn’t inherently provide for less war. Maybe a super majority style democracy would make for less war. It’s tough to get 75% to agree to anything. IT would also improve our level of liberty I’m guessing.

        But maybe your correct. Merry Christmas

        🙂

      2. Not more *democracies* – more *trade*.

        1. In your mind does increased trade with North Korea change its politics away from war?

          As I see it free trade can only be a moral good if the nation in question has at least as much liberty as you.

          Otherwise you’ve got to tax the hell out of their imports to make the slave wage products competitive with local products (and do right by your citizens).

          Importing free-traded slave wage products enables those conditions to continue there, and compels those within your economic circle to deal with those imported market forces (slavery).

          Its the same concept as women shaming other sluts. What is the value of their vagina if other cows are giving the milk away for free? You can argue prudes are branding themselves as elite products, but sluts are certainly downgrading aggregate demand.

          Unless trade translates into economic prosperity for the masses (cuz ruler just keeps all the money) it will never translate into ‘democracy’. Some measure of decentralized wealth is a precondition of a republic.

    2. Well, statistically speaking war is both becoming less common and less costly.

      The trend (even for America) is positive, and has been for a long time.

      If given the choice between decade+ low-intensity conflicts with casualty figures measured in thousands or 20-30 year periods of peace punctuated by 4-5 year wars with casualty figures measured in tens of millions, I’ll take the former.

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  9. With ten enlisted/draftees for every officer, it would have been simple to end WWI at that point…as long as each grunt was willing to shoot any officers who started to punish those who refused to keep fighting. It did happen in Russia, but, except for small unit actions, not so much in other wars.

  10. When it comes down to it, the soldiers on both sides of the trenches had more in common with each other than their own leadership.

    It’s amazing to me how long people can go without seeing who the real enemy is.

    1. Mussolini experienced WWI and came to the exact opposite conclusion.

  11. The war on Zombie Christmas continues unabated!!!

    Homeowner told to take down zombie nativity scene…

    http://www.myfoxchicago.com/st…..vity-scene

    1. +1 gold, frankinscence, and BRAAAAAAINS

  12. So basically, had that truce extended, Germany would have gotten to keep much of France? And almost all of Belgium?

    Because you know, that’s kinda why they were fighting Germany invaded France and the French and British and others were fighting to get it back.

    It’s not like they were fighting for the “fun” of it.

  13. I guess the conversation started like This:
    “- Hey, and you think you wear silly hats? Just look at what our government forces us to wear on our heads!”

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  27. This is a first-rate article that captures so much– the spirit of Christmas, Liberty, and just the right dash of ‘What Might Have Been’. Great work and research, Wendy! Merci beaucoup!

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  29. Recommend seeing General Hindsight’s video of the Christmas Truce of 1914. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fX7Qud9gO38

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