St John the Baptist
Serving God and the Community of Leytonstone for 180 years
Christmas Truce 1914 – 100th Anniversary - Page 1
This year we remember the centenary of the World War I. Most of us know how it started and how the killing of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife became the direct reason of war. However, not many of us are aware that there was also a Christmas Truce in 1914 – the first year of the war. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides—as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units—independently ventured into "no man's land", where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another, in one of the truce's most enduring images.
How did the Christmas Truce actually happen? In the lead up to Christmas 1914, there were several other peace initiatives. The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed "To the Women of Germany and Austria", signed by a group of 101 British women suffragettes at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached. Also Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." However, this attempt was officially rebuffed.
After five months of war on the western front, and the battles of the Marne and the Aisne, fighting changed into a stalemate, as neither of the sides (the Allies and the German) could get control and was willing to give ground. By November, it changed into continuous front line from the North Sea to the Swiss frontiers, which was occupied on both sided by armies in defensive positions. Because of this non-activity, the fraternisation started to appear. It was either passive inactivity or regular conversations, and even visits from one trench to another. In early November, first and short truces were recorded – short friendly visits from one army members to another, evening truces to recover the dead soldiers for burials, or truces enforced by adverse weather conditions.
Christmas Truce 1914 – 100th Anniversary - Page 2
The first truce started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, by placing 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. Such fraternisation carried risks, as some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year's Day in others. There were also opponents to the Christmas Truce, such as Adolf Hitler, who at the time was a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, who issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops.
On Christmas Day, football matches were played – mainly by men of the same nationality, but also by the troops from the opposing forces. One of these matches was played by the Lancashire Fusiliers, based near Le Touquet on the northern French coast, against German soldiers, using a ration tin as the "ball".
Unfortunately, the Christmas Truce did not have much effect on the next years of war. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, such as in November 1915, when a Saxon unit briefly fraternised with a Liverpool battalion, but these truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; and this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting such fraternisation. In 1916, after the unprecedentedly bloody battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the beginning of widespread poison gas use, soldiers on both sides increasingly viewed the other side as less than human, and no more Christmas truces were sought.
Christmas Truce 1914 – 100th Anniversary - Page 3
This Christmas, let us take a minute to think about all soldiers killed in conflict and pray to the Almighty God to end all conflicts in the world. Let us remember all who gave their lives for others and for peace and let us never forget about their sacrifice.
There are some interesting facts about the Christmas Truce: