The horrors of World War I were such that following the conflict President Woodrow Wilson was moved enough to boldly promise that it would be the war to end all wars. Although that particular prophecy was short-lived, the Great War is still seen today as one of mankind’s darkest hours and the most recognisable symbol for the futility of war.
Nonetheless, during that period of hell on earth, there was one brief moment when man’s humanity and desire for peace shone through. And even though the Christmas Truce of 1914 was only to last a few days, never to be repeated, it remains a beacon of hope, amongst all the hopelessness that is war.
This account of the Christmas Truce actually begins with the road to war, covering a number of the factors that ultimately led to World War I. This is followed by a look at the early attempts at a truce in the December of 1914.
The Christmas Truce itself is then discussed, looking in turn at the events that took place on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, in 1914, before examining the part that football may have played within the truce.
Finally, the legacy of the Christmas Truce is considered, especially in the context of the centenary celebrations of 2014, and why football has become the overriding symbol for the truce in modern times.
The Road To War
By the turn of the century, Europe was a hotbed of alliances, political intrigue, familial jealousies, nationalistic fervour and imperialistic ambitions.
The main European powers of Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary and Russia all vied for their place in the new century, cautiously forming strategic friendships, all the time remaining wary of potential enemies.
Things finally came to a head, in the summer of 1914, in the seemingly unassuming town of Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, on the morning of 28th June, a team of Bosnian Serbs assassinated the heir-apparent to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
In the preceding decades, Europe had become the proverbial powder keg just waiting to explode and Franz Ferdinand’s assassination provided the spark it needed.
Within a month of the assassination, the whole of Europe was at war—a new type of war, a World War, and the likes of which the planet had never known.
Please note that the article What Started WW1? – The Road To War provides you with a more in-depth summary of The Road To War. Meanwhile, What Were the 4 Main Causes of WW1? and the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand provide extremely detailed accounts of both the long term and immediate causes of World War One.
Early Attempts at a Truce
Such was the death toll (almost one million dead) and the nature of the fighting in the first few months of the war, it was not long before there were humanitarian cries for the conflict to be stopped.
One such call was from the Vatican, with Pope Benedict XV calling for a truce as early as December. Unfortunately, these pleas for peace largely fell on deaf ears and in fact resulted in a crackdown by the generals.
The British hierarchy had long been anxious of possible fraternising between enemy troops, given the very nature of trench warfare and the close proximity of the soldiers. By December 1914, with the Christmas period now on the horizon, strict orders were given by the British Divisional Commanders that any friendly intercourse with the enemy was completely prohibited.
In the lead up to Christmas, a high volume of mail and gifts were sent to the troops at the front from Great Britain and Germany. King George V sent out a Christmas card to every British soldier, sailor and nurse, while Kaiser Wilhelm II sent little Christmas Trees to the German soldiers to put up in their trenches.
King George V’s only daughter, Princess Mary, was very active during the war and helped set up a number of projects to give comfort to British servicemen and assistance to their families. One of Princess Mary’s projects was the Christmas Gift Fund, through which £100,000 worth of gifts were sent out to the British soldiers and sailors fighting in the war.
These cards, gifts and Christmas trees, as well as the letters and photos from loved ones, were sent in the hope that the soldiers would feel the spirit of Christmas, however small. The weather would also play its part in achieving that goal, when on Christmas Eve a hard frost helped to make the conditions in the trenches a little more bearable.
Despite all the gifts and letters that were sent out and the fact that Christmas Eve had arrived, it first appeared that the war was to continue as normal. Indeed, back in England, a German aeroplane dropped a bomb on Dover, which just so happened to be the first ever air raid in British history. It is believed that the actual target had been Dover Castle, which was being used as a military base at the time, but the bomb landed in a garden near Taswell Street, in Dover, blowing a gardener out of a tree and leaving a 10 ft-wide crater.
Back on the Western Front, there was sniper fire and deaths on both sides in the morning, but then during the early evening, the first signs of a seasonal goodwill appear when the British soldiers look out over no man’s land, only to see Christmas trees with candles lighting up the parapets on the German trenches. This incredible sight is accompanied with the singing of carols and hymns by the Germans, which the British reciprocate in turn.
The first attempts at communication between the enemy also begin along the front, starting with Christmas messages being shouted out by both sides. This is followed by more practical communications concerning local cease fires taking place, in order to collect bodies from no man’s land and to bury the dead. However, despite this, in some places along the front, sniper fire continues regardless.
The seasonal goodwill experienced along the Western Front on Christmas Eve, continued through the night into Christmas Day, where soldiers on both sides began to shout out to the enemy that they wanted to meet up in no man’s land and wish each other a Merry Christmas.
It must have been incredibly nerve racking for the first brave souls to venture out over the top, from the relative safety of the trenches, but gradually more and more soldiers joined in this extraordinary event, in numerous places all along the front, and made the journey to meet up with the enemy.
First-hand reports from the soldiers, on both sides, who took part in the Christmas Truce of 1914, tell of the surreal experience of meeting and shaking hands with the very people they had been trying to kill only a few days before.
Although the unofficial truce did not take place everywhere, it is believed that more than half of the British forces took part in one way or another, with soldiers exchanging news and stories with their fellow man, some even swapping addresses. Presents and small gifts were also exchanged, with cigarettes, cigars, alcohol and food all changing hands, as well as souvenirs and keepsakes, such as buttons and hats.
Letters from the British soldiers that took part, some of which would eventually be printed in local newspapers up and down the country, are a wonderful insight into the events that took place during the truce. Letters such as the one written by Rifleman C.H. Brazier, which was published in the Hertfordshire Mercury, on the 9th January 1915:
On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ.
Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve
There were also reports from professional writers who experienced the Christmas Truce first hand, such as Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, the prominent British humorist and cartoonist, who wrote:
I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. …
The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.
In some areas along the Western Front, the Christmas spirit continued into Boxing Day, but for the majority of troops there was certainly a feeling of an inevitable return to arms, which was summed up perfectly in a letter from Private C Rands – B Company, 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment, which was published on the 2nd January 1915, in the Croydon Advertiser and East Surrey Reporter:
If you were all out here you would never think we were at war, but still it won’t be like this for long, only over the holidays… The war is jolly fine if it’s like this all the time, but I expect by the time you get this we shall be shooting at them again for all we are worth.
Meanwhile, although the senior officers at the front had taken rather a pragmatic view towards the truce, news of the fraternisation with the enemy had got back to HQ, who were determined to put an end to such behaviour. Certainly, incidences of open fraternisation soon disappeared all along the front, but nonetheless a relaxed atmosphere remained for several days afterwards, with little or no firing from either side.
In some places along the Western Front there was even a truce of some sort on New Year’s Eve. Songs were sung and salvos were fired into the air at midnight, but fraternising did not take place to the same extent as during the Christmas Truce.
The Football Match
One of the most disputed facts concerning the Christmas Truce is whether or not an organised football match took place between the enemy.
Association Football (or Soccer as it was known in Britain in the 1890’s, in order to distinguish it from Rugby) had already become the people’s sport by 1914. And so there is every chance that spur-of-the-moment kickabouts broke out along the front during the truce. However, there is no evidence to suggest that an organised game took place.
Despite this, in recent years, the football match has become the overriding symbol of the Christmas Truce and was especially celebrated during the events that took place to mark the Centenary of the armistice.
The Centenary of the Truce
In 2014, there were a series of events throughout the United Kingdom to mark the Centenary of the Christmas Truce. And a recurring theme throughout these events was that of football.
As early as May of that year, a Football Remembers education pack was sent out to more than 30,000 schools across the country.
Then, towards the end of the year, as the centenary approached, a Football Remembers memorial was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
And another “football” event which took place was a game played between British and German forces at Aldershot Town’s football stadium, on the 17th December 2014. The British won the game 1-0.
UEFA also commemorated the special part that football may have played in the Christmas Truce with a memorial service in Belgium.
Summary of the Christmas Truce of 1914
Over one hundred years on, the Christmas Truce of 1914 still holds a very important place in our hearts. And the question of whether or not a football match really did take place back then is perhaps not the most important issue here.
What is perhaps more important, is that this generation understand the spirit of the truce. And if a football match helps achieve that goal, then surely it is a good thing.
And finally, while it is paramount that our generation never forget the horrors of World War One, it is perhaps just as important to remember those wonderful moments in history where, despite overwhelming odds, man’s humanity is able to shine, even if it is only for a fleeting moment.