The Christmas Truce of 1914

The Christmas truce of 1914 saw around 100,000 troops on sections of the Western Front put down their weapons in a series of unofficial ceasefires. The origins and reasoning for this event are not entirely known, but it is estimated the ceasefires spread across approximately two-thirds of the 30-mile British Expeditionary Force (BEF) front.[1] It was a rare moment of peace during the First World War, described by some as ‘a kind of miracle’.[2] The Christmas truce was not only a rarity, but also unofficial and impromptu, making it an even more interesting topic for historians of how the soldiers of fighting armies can shape the course of war through their actions outside of just official commands. Something similar to the Christmas truce had been proposed earlier in December of 1914 by Pope Benedict XV, in order to allow for a period of peace and celebration for the soldiers.[3] This, however, was not chosen to be adopted by the fighting armies.

Whilst caution is required when looking at the truce, as it is one of the most ‘mythologised’ events of WWI[4], some commonly acknowledged events took place. Starting on Christmas Eve, allied soldiers across the British line heard the German trenches singing Christmas carols, and so decided they too would join in.[5] Carols and shouting between the trenches occurred throughout the day and night. After some initial reluctance (over whether or not the offer of peace was genuine), the two sides met in no man’s land. Photographs were taken, gifts of cigarettes and plum puddings exchanged, and the famous games of football played.[6] It is this image that is held most commonly in public memory and conversation, shown through contemporary examples such as the Sainsbury’s advert of 2014. This image should, however, not overlook more morbid uses of the ceasefires. Many troops took the opportunity of ‘calm’ to retrieve dead comrades, bury them, write home to families and repair the trenches that would see the fighting restart after Boxing Day.[7] The ceasefires were also not particularly welcomed by all, particularly the High Commands of both armies, who felt it might undermine the fighting spirit, and future attempts to hold similar unofficial ceasefires were stopped.[8]

Ultimately, the Christmas truce has been summed up as ‘one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare’.[9] It should also, I believe, be a reminder of the human nature of warfare. The men fighting on the Western Front were, after all, all just people away from home at Christmas. Perhaps it is understandable that the soldiers tried to take any positive they could at Christmas time. After all, many had hoped that the war would be over by this point, but this was of course not to be the case.


[1] Ray, M. (2018). Christmas Truce: World War I. Britannica. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/event/The-Christmas-Truce.

[2] Bajekal, N. (2014). Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914. Time. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/.

[3] History Editors. (2019). Christmas Truce of 1914. History.com. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/christmas-truce-of-1914.

[4] IWM. (2020). The Real Story of the Christmas Truce. Imperial War Museums. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-real-story-of-the-christmas-truce.

[5] History Editors. (2019).

[6] History Editors. (2019).

[7] IWM, (2020).

[8] IWM. (2020).

[9] History Editors. (2019).

Image: IWM Q 50719. Retrieved from https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022262

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