The Christmas Truce of 1914

The Great War was supposed to be over by Christmas. That's what the men said to themselves and their families as they headed off to the Western Front in the fall of 1914.
History has told us otherwise as this horrific war, across the bloody battlefields of Belgium and France, stretched on for four years resulting in the deaths of nearly 11 million soldiers on both sides of the conflict, and an estimated 2 million civilian fatalities.

Amid all of this brutality there was a brief moment of peace and brotherhood though, that in some ways reemphasized the futility of this and most wars.

On Christmas Day, December 25, 1914 the guns fell silent in several spots along the front lines as the men, already weary from months of heavy fighting, tried to make the best of things. The Germans at Ypres, a region that otherwise bore witness to horrible carnage, brought a bit of humanity back to the area as they erected small Christmas trees along their trenches and decorated them with candles.

On their side the British pooled their meager food supplies and attempted to make a Christmas dinner, while singing hymns that reminded them of home. Despite the warring nations officially ignoring Pope Benedict XV's request for a truce over the holidays, the shooting had largely stopped. 

As early as November of 1914, German and British troops had observed temporary truces as they allowed each other opportunities to retrieve the dead from the 'no man's' land between their respective trenches and were already beginning to shout cordial greetings to each other.

Many British soldiers reported that German troops were very keen on any news on the English football leagues and would often shout across to the opposing trenches, asking for scores and how the league tables were shaping up.

Relations between the French and German troops were a bit more tense, but again there were recorded instances of periods of peace between the two armies.

It was within this climate on Christmas Day of 1914 that a rather wonderful thing started to happen in places along the Western Front. The Germans and the British started trading Christmas hymns back and forth, while giving the other side a warm round of applause when they had finished their particular songs. 

Christmas greetings were also shouted back and forth, before some troops slowly began to make their way into no man's land. 

From a recently released letter from the Royal Mail in the UK, Captain A D Chater of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders wrote the following to his mother in a letter about the days events:

“I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen.

“About 10 o'clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trench and came towards ours.

“We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.“

“From what I gathered most of them would be glad to get home again as we should – we have had our pipes playing all day and everyone has been walking about in the open unmolested.”

Joint burials were held for British and German troops, while the two groups of supposed enemy combatants shook hands and exchanged gifts such as tobacco and chocolate.

In the book 'Neat Little Rows', author Andy Ruddall wrote of his great uncle, Sergeant Harry Hackett of the Grenadier Guards, even exchanging addresses with two soldiers named Rudolf Mausoff and Ernst Pyrmont of the 55th Graf Bulow von Dennewitz so that they could get in touch after the war.

One of the more famous stories of the Christmas Truce is that of football matches being played between the two sides, and although there does, by some accounts, appear to have been a match played between the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, most of the 'football' that seems to have been played were impromptu kickabouts. With the men sharing gifts, along with a laugh and a joke on Christmas Day, occasionally if a ball or a decent sized tin can was available the men would start kicking it around.

Although attempts have been made to make this ceasefire about football, with UEFA in particular being slightly guilty of spreading that myth, football wasn't the reason for what happened that day. The causes for this fleeting moment of peace, that would never occur on this scale again for the rest of the war, were much bigger, or perhaps more human, than that.

The truce was about men who had much, if not everything, in common. They had hopes, dreams, wives or sweethearts, people that loved them, and the desire to experience the things they missed from home, such as the simple joy of kicking a ball around with friends and maybe trying to score a goal to brag about later.

In an era of madness, for a single day the best of humanity shone through and that's what the truce which happened one hundred years ago today was truly all about. Football is an escape from our day to day realities of life, and for some of the troops in the middle of one of the most devastating wars in history it may have provided a welcome escape from the spectre of death.

To quote Captain A D Chater, it was an extraordinary sight for those that were there, and a reminder that we're all human no matter what flag we stand under.

Merry Christmas.



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