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Davis Journal

The WWI Christmas Truce – the full story

Jan 02, 2024 03:16PM ● By Braden Nelsen
An illustration from the London News about the 1914 truce. Courtesy image

An illustration from the London News about the 1914 truce. Courtesy image

FRANCE—Since 1914 the story has almost become a legend: embattled young men from either side of World War I engage in an unofficial ceasefire to celebrate Christmas together. The story conjures up powerful images and even stronger feelings, but, what is the actual story? What happened to cause these men to disobey the wishes of their countries, and lay down their weapons, if only for a day?

Many depictions of the event would have modern recipients believe that the truce happened in one spot and was between two small groups of British and German soldiers, but the truth is far from that depiction. In fact, sources cite that over 100,000 troops from either side of the conflict participated in unofficial truces all over the Western Front, from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and even the Russian Empire on the Eastern Front. 

The accounts of the truce come to the modern era in the form of preserved correspondence from either side – letters home from soldiers who express with surprise and delight each occasion. In some cases, the truces were just as dramatic as modern depictions show. Young men tentatively left their sodden trenches, and, unarmed, proceeded into no-man’s land to greet the men they had been shooting at not hours before.

Often these encounters started with the exchanging of pleasantries, which quickly turned into playful jabs, and ribbing, then, across the war, laughter replaced the sound of artillery and gunfire. They exchanged gifts and souvenirs, they sang songs together, they gave one another haircuts, and chocolate. It was, in the words of one soldier, “a short peace in a terrible war.”

Contrary to most depictions, however, many of these truces extended beyond Christmas Day. In some areas, the fighting wouldn’t resume until after the New Year. It was the general consensus among both sides, that each seemed tired of the fighting, and of the war, although the conflict had only been going on for five months, and would rage on until 1918. It seemed that those young men of 1914 realized if only for a moment, the futility of war. 

It seems that they realized it even before Christmas as well. Accounts of informal truces, and visits from, and to opposing trenches occurred in the months leading up to the major truce on Dec. 25, as each side expressed a genuine concern for the other. Combatants were regularly allowed by the other side to retrieve their dead and bury them, and a general spirit of respect, and humanity prevailed…at least in 1914.

In other instances, the truces were much more simple, and abbreviated. Some truces consisted of carols sung for one another, while the participants stayed in their respective trenches, and others were as simple as a ceasefire, with a “Merry Christmas” shouted out over the silence. It was a much-needed respite, but one that only lasted, at least in that capacity, that year.

The following years saw sporadic truces, but, with orders from high command on both sides to regard a truce as treason, they were much fewer and farther between. The famous truces of 1914, and subsequent ceasefires across the years did prove something, however: regardless of race, religion, or creed, there are things that everyone has in common, and one such commonality is the desire for peace. The young men in 1914 realized it, and hopefully, it won’t be long before the young people of this generation do as well.