The True Story Of The 1914 Christmas Truce

It was Christmas Day in 1914 and World War I had been raging on for five brutal months. By the end of the war, 20 million would be dead and 21 million would be wounded

The "war to end all wars" was unprecedented in scale. Later, its dark legacy would include the origins of both trench warfare and shell shock. The nature of war had changed. It had become mechanized and efficient. But on Christmas of 1914, there was a small moment of hope.

In 1914, an informal ceasefire between German and Allied soldiers would later come to be known as the Christmas Truce of 1914, according to History. Many know the basics of the truce: Both sides refused to fire upon each other, instead choosing to celebrate Christmas. Soldiers, long away from their families, friends, and the ones that they loved, looked for comfort with the other side.

They even kicked around a soccer ball. But the Christmas Truce of 1914 isn't just a heart-warming story; it's history. With all the positives and negatives that the word "history" implies. There were good and bad things to come of the Christmas Truce of 1914 — and not everything that was reported was true.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 wasn't unique — it was part of a broader phenomenon

Many found it remarkable that soldiers in the heat of war would ever choose not to fight. But the reality is that most soldiers throughout the history of war haven't wanted to fight. The Christmas Truce wasn't unique, but instead part of a much larger, more significant, and meaningful trend.

The Christmas Truce was part of a "live and let live" philosophy that had emerged early during the First World War, according to the Imperial War Museums. In quieter areas, where there was little exposure to fire, soldiers had a mutual understanding — they didn't shoot unless they were shot at. In fact, they avoided combat whenever possible.

None of the soldiers wanted to be in combat with each other. They were fighting far away from their homes, many of them for a war that they didn't personally believe in. They had no reason to risk their own lives prematurely. Trench warfare made it possible for them to shy away from battle indefinitely.

Of course, the commanders weren't fond of this; they needed their kills if they were ever going to get home again. Commanders started actively looking for areas with fewer casualties and ordering bombardments and night raids to spur their soldiers into action. This led to exactly what one would expect: even if the soldiers survived, they were resentful and scarred.

There were peace initiatives before the Christmas Truce

Though the Christmas Truce occurred relatively early in the war, there had already been a number of peace initiatives. This is important: There were already many who didn't believe in the war or who felt that the war needed to be ended as soon as possible. This thought process undoubtedly trickled down to the troops themselves.

Before Christmas 1914, an Open Christmas Letter had been signed by 101 British women. These women questioned the very idea of the war, asking whether it was not instead the mission of all women to "preserve life." It was further an entreaty to British, German, and Austrian women to see all women as sisters and to relate to each other's goals.

At the same time, Pope Benedict XV was pleading with national leaders to hold a Christmas truce themselves. The Pope asked that "the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." And while the powers-that-be did not order any such truce, it did appear that some were listening. He would continue to advocate for peace throughout the war.

All this contributes to a greater understanding: The soldiers weren't the only ones interested in ending the war during World War I.

Before the Christmas Truce, the opposing troops already had some friendly relationships

So, now we've set the stage. We have a war in which troops were not eager to fight — and far less eager to die. But it's also important to realize that some of the opposing troops didn't just have neutral relationships with each other, but friendly ones.

Some Allied and German troops had been talking to and joking with each other even before the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Some academics believe that this had to do with the close proximity of the trenches. The distance between trenches in World War I was anywhere from 50 to 250 yards. The area between these trenches was known as the "No Man's Land." This, again, was unprecedented; never before had a war been conducted on so wide a scale with the enemy so close for so long.

Soldiers weren't just in close physical proximity to their enemy, they were also experiencing everything their enemy was experiencing. Moreover, they couldn't encounter the enemy without intentional acts of aggression on their side. Days or weeks of waiting understandably bonded soldiers not only to their own side but to the other, giving way to a cautious camaraderie. After all, if they aren't shooting at us, why would we start?

The Germans began the Christmas Truce with Christmas carols

How did the Christmas Truce begin? By all accounts, it was initiated by the Germans. The Christmas Truce began when Germans approached Allied lines singing Christmas carols. They also wrote signs saying not to shoot, pleading for peace, per History. And when the German soldiers appeared in No Man's Land without their guns, the Allied soldiers dropped their guards and began celebrating in earnest.

Some believe that when the Germans began to sing Christmas carols, those songs were returned by the Allied side — broaching the silence between the two and paving the way for further positive relations. Either way, both the Germans and the Allied troops were soon celebrating Christmas in the No Man's Land.

One might wonder: Why? With the "live and let live" policy there was already a sort of unofficial truce; it didn't require mutual celebration. They could have simply stopped firing at each other, rather than celebrate with each other.

But apart from the obvious sentimentality of the season, there were some practical reasons for the Christmas Truce. Some soldiers used the time to collect the bodies of the fallen, which were laying frozen within No Man's Land. Still, for most, it appears that the time was truly used as a time of celebration, and a brief respite from all the killing.

Troops exchanged gifts, sung carols, and talked

How do you celebrate Christmas when you're in the middle of a battlefield? The soldiers certainly tried their best. In true Christmas spirit, troops exchanged gifts like food, buttons, hats, and cigarettes, as Time reports. Troops also exchanged stories — stories about back home, their hobbies, and the things that they liked. But there had to be a somber mood as well; the truce would not last forever and, eventually, the troops would need to start shooting again.

A significant number of Christmas traditions had been imported from the British to the German side. Seeing the German soldiers embrace traditional Christmas customs (such as erecting trees — a British tradition that had actually started in Germany) may have yielded a sort of comforting familiarity. A combination of seeing the enemy as real and familiar and yearning for Christmas back home made the idea of celebrating Christmas in the trenches a more appealing proposition, especially during the bitter and lonely cold.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the Christmas Truce was so unplanned and so unprecedented — but it still managed to spread across the battlefield, happening in separate instances at the same time. It seems as though there were a myriad of factors surrounding World War I that made this type of fraternization all the more likely.

They probably did play football during the Christmas Truce

If you've heard a single thing about the Christmas Truce of 1914, it's likely that there was a football — specifically, soccer — match in No Man's Land. But as with most things, the truth is a little more complex than the myth, per the New Republic.

Historically, it's unlikely that there was any type of organized match. For one, commanders were strictly against these types of truces: The truces were being carried out by individual soldiers. Troops did have soccer balls with them, and it's very likely that small games broke out, or that troops kicked the ball with each other.

So why is the idea of a great World War I soccer match so compelling? In part, it's likely because nearly all cultures praise sports as a way to bring people together. A Christmas Truce football match doesn't just validate the sport itself but also provokes even greater feelings of friendship and camaraderie.

Perhaps it's even better, then, that it appears that there were no scores taken and no referees, according to CNN. Instead, it was just young soldiers enjoying a sport that they enjoyed back home, and speaking a common physical language.

Soldiers might have thought the war would end soon

Even with all other factors in mind, a Christmas Truce still feels unlikely. After all, why break ranks and fraternize with enemy soldiers when you know that you will be back at their throats again the next day? It makes sense to stop shooting. It makes less sense to become friends.

But in 1914, it was still believed that the war would soon be over. In fact, many had been promised that the war would be over by Christmas. Even when that didn't happen, many still thought the war would end soon. It was unfathomable that a world war could go on for so long if only because of the sheer amount of resources devoted toward it.

It may have seemed futile — and unnecessarily dangerous — to even continue fighting when awaiting orders to return home. Soldiers who engaged in the Christmas Truce may have been expecting that the war might be over within a few weeks or even days, and, consequently, they may not have felt any particular compulsion to continue aggression.

Of course, in hindsight, we know that the battle waged far longer — World War I wouldn't end until 1918.

During the Christmas Truce, language barriers didn't stop the Germans

How did soldiers from Germany understand Allied troops — and vice versa? It already seems hard enough to explain to an enemy combatant that you aren't going to shoot them. It seems exponentially harder with a language barrier.

Just as the Germans had initiated the truce, it was also the Germans who broached the language problem. While not many of the British troops spoke German, there were Germans who spoke English, as they had worked in Britain before. This is also what had contributed to the number of yuletide traditions shared between the two groups.

A first-hand account notes that a German shouted, "A merry Christmas, we don't fire!" early on during the truce — at least, in one instance documented by a lieutenant in the British Royal Berkshire Regiment. Signs were written in English as well — and carols were sung in it. Eventually, the Christmas Truce would include British, some French, and German troops. But it began through German familiarity with the British language and customs.

World War I was a complex time in terms of German identity. And the ripples of the war would lead directly into WWII just a couple of decades later. But at least during the Christmas Truce, there was obvious evidence of German camaraderie.

Some believed nearly half of the British frontlines participated in the truce

While it's impossible to know exactly how many British troops were involved in the Christmas Truce, it's estimated that about half the British frontlines eventually participated. Not all of the truces were upheld, but the vast majority were. In some places, evidence suggests that firing never ceased — and that some soldiers who were attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces, per Time.

The Christmas Truce was also always a truce, not a real ceasefire; it was always known that troops would be shooting at each other the next day, even if it was suspected that the war would be over shortly. Many see the Christmas Truce as an inspirational act of peace and humanity. Of course, it is. But that's not all it was.

The Christmas Truce can, in many ways, be better seen as an act of subversion and disobedience. Soldiers and commanders had differing opinions on the war, with commanders wanting to push forward aggressively, and soldiers lacking the inspiration to fight. Especially on the German side, a significant gap was already emerging between those giving the orders and those following them. Consequently, the act of fraternizing could be seen not as an act of friendship but rather an act of rebellion on all sides.

British commanders tried to stop the Christmas Truce

What were the commanders doing when the Christmas Truce was occurring? They certainly weren't happy about it.

Orders were sent that said "on no account" were British soldiers allowed to have communication with the German soldiers. One such order to this effect was preserved and auctioned in September 2016 and was originally sent to a British commanding officer in Flanders, according to BBC. Commanders were already having issues with the "live and let live" philosophy — they were definitely not going to provide for soldier-driven truces.

Soldiers were already hesitating to shoot at each other because they really didn't have to; the entire issue with trench warfare is that both sides could turtle down indefinitely. After the truce, commanders not only ordered soldiers to resume firing but also vowed that a similar truce would not begin again.

This disconnect between soldiers and their superiors is part of what fed into the feelings of betrayal and disobedience within the troops to begin with — and a great deal of what would later take a heavy toll on even those who survived.

During the Christmas Truce, the weather conditions were harsh

With all that being said, it's possible that there wouldn't have been any fighting on Christmas Day regardless.

On the day of the truce, snow fell, and the weather conditions were below freezing. Some believe this accounted for the uncharacteristically Christmas-like feel of the battlefield. Not only would freezing soldiers not feel like fighting, but they would have likely felt uniquely discouraged.

The conditions of the trench provided almost no protection against the cold, per War History Online. As trench warfare was in its infancy — and many had expected the fighting to be over early — few considerations had been made. Snow, sleet, hail, freezing rain; soldiers were subject to it all. Frostbite occurred frequently, sometimes leading to amputation. The trenches themselves were cold and hard, and often vehicles and machinery failed to work.

Knowing what we know about the conditions, it's easy to see why soldiers might have awakened Christmas Day and realized they really weren't in the proper mindset to shoot against other soldiers — especially other soldiers as lonely and far away from home as themselves.

The Christmas truces ended in 1914 — with one potential exception

By 1914, it was still early in the war. While troops were already disillusioned and prone to rebellion, the war would stretch on for years after. And after the Christmas Truce of 1914, there was never another widespread truce on the frontlines.

Americans found themselves discouraged that no such truces occurred in 1915, perhaps hoping that the spirit of peace and kindness would prevail. But by 1915, it was evident that the war was going to continue for some time; truces would only have prolonged the inevitable. Ultimately, soldiers wanted to be able to return home.

That's not to say that no truces ever occurred, just none at so wide a scale. In 1915, a first-hand account of a Christmas Truce was recorded by a soldier named Robert Keating, the BBC reports. Once again, it appeared the truce was initiated by German soldiers on the Western Front, and that it was honored among Allied forces.

War isn't just terrible; it's weird. Frequently, those who are fighting are the last who want to be — and the last who benefit. Truces, fraternization, and other small acts of rebellion have always existed and will always exist. But since that Christmas of 1914, none have been on so grand a scale as to create a legend.