On Christmas Eve one hundred four years ago, in 1914, the first Christmas during WWI, something unusual happened…and it happened spontaneously… triggered by the men themselves who were in the front line trenches.
The Illustrated London News described the event in its headline: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches” The newspaper printed this picture with a sub-caption that read “Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternizing on the field of battle at the season of peace and goodwill: Officers and men from the German and British trenches meet and greet one another—A German officer photographing a group of foes and friends.”
Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the unofficial cessations of hostility along the Western Front. The first truce started on Christmas Eve 1914, when German troops decorated the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yvon. The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent.
The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. In many sectors. The truce lasted through Christmas Day night in most sectors, but in a few it continued until New Year’s Day.
There were also other truces not unique to the Christmas period, and they reflected a growing mood of “live and let live”, where infantry in close proximity would stop overtly aggressive behavior, and often engage in small-scale fraternization, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there would be occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades, while in others, there would be a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised, or worked in full view of the enemy.
But the Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation and are often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history.