By December 1914, just six months into the greatest clash of arms the world had ever seen more than a million men had already died on the Western Front.
What had begun as a great German advance through northern France toward Paris had been halted and rolled back and the mobile tactics of the early months had long since descended into the static and deadly sterility of trench warfare and as the first Christmas of the war approached, and with the opposing forces in some places less than 70 yards apart, the Commanders on all sides were aware of the dangers of fraternisation for just as easily as insults could be exchanged across the front-line so could seasonal greetings and messages of peace.
Such a thing if it were to occur would set a dangerous precedent, and had to be prevented.
On 5 December 1914, General Horace Smith-Dorrien, the Commander of the British II Corps issued the order:
“Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing, are strictly prohibited.”
When Pope Benedict XX demanded that, “All Nations cease their clash of arms while Christendom celebrates the Feast of the World’s Redemption,” Britain and France refused outright, as also did the Germans after initially receiving the Pope’s message favourably.
Despite this on the evening of 24 December 1914 the guns on many sectors of the Western Front fell silent.
The Germans had earlier placed small Tannenbaum Christmas Trees above their trenches and their decorations glistened in the fading early evening light. As the night wore on the sound of Carols being sung could be heard wafting across the desolate wastes of no-man’s-land with Silent Night a particular favourite.
After every song the British would applaud and cry out for more before reciprocating with some Carols of their own.
But the war had not ceased – on Christmas Eve, 98 British soldiers were killed, mostly by sniper fire.
On the Armentieres sector of the front as the sun rose on a crisp and bright Christmas Day morning something extraordinary happened. It was described by an Officer of the Gordon Highlanders:
“The men were having breakfast when a cry went up that the Germans had left their trenches. Springing to arms they could scarcely believe their eyes when they looked over the parapet and saw a number of the enemy standing in the open in front of their trenches, all unarmed. Some of the enemy shouted No Shoot! After a while a number of our men left the trench and began to walk toward them.” On another sector a small group of German Officers approached a British trench. They were met in no-man’s-land by the British Officer in charge with whom they shook hands and greeted with the words, said in perfect English – “We thought it was only right and proper to wish you all a very Merry Christmas.”
Such incidents were occurring all up and down the Front Line, sometimes they were the result of negotiated agreements that allowed both sides to collect their dead from no-man’s-land in other places the firing simply ceased.
Elsewhere, British and German troops openly fraternised swapping gifts and exchanging addresses, they also shared coffee and cigarettes and some British Officers allowed themselves to be photographed standing alongside their German counterparts.
A football was provided by a Gordon Highlander and in the ensuing match, properly officiated, the Germans won 3-2.
But still the war continued and on Christmas Day, a further 81 British soldiers were killed.
On Boxing Day the British and German troops again met in no-man’s-land and agreed not to fire upon one another but when Staff Officers visited the front later in the day they were shocked by the calm and quiet and ordered that the firing recommence immediately. It did, but both sides deliberately fired above the heads of the other.
On Boxing Day – a further 62 British soldiers were killed.
The unofficial truce lasted in some places until 3 January 1915 when the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force Sir John French found out about it and exploded in fury. He wrote in his memoirs:
“I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local Commanders to strict account.”
German Units that were known to have fraternised with the enemy were transferred to the Eastern Front and their Officers accused of being cowards and disciplined, in some cases they were even court-martialled and demoted.
The response of the English and French was more muted, it being thought better not to dwell on it should it ever happen again.
The war was ordered to recommence but neither side fired until a time agreed by both sides.
The Christmas Truce was over but it had been a brief moment of humanity in an inhumane world and of sanity in that most insane of wars.