It was nearly 108 years ago that on the night of December 24, 1914, the guns along the Western Front were mostly silent, and fittingly “Silent Night” — or “Stille Nacht” in German — was heard being sung on both sides of the lines. World War I — then known only as the “war” and eventually “The Great War” — had begun less than six months earlier, and while soldiers were hunkered down for the holidays in trenches it was still far from the horrors to come.
This was before the horrors of gas warfare, the constant artillery barrages, and of course before the futile attacks across no man’s land. There were already trench lines nearly from the English Channel to the Swiss border that stopped any forward movement.
Both sides hoped for a breakthrough in the spring, so on December 24, a few miracles occurred. Soldiers stopped shooting, and on Christmas morning, some soldiers came out of the trenches waving white flags. Peace didn’t break out, but it appeared there was a brief truce for the holy day.
“There is certainly a view that goes back to the 1960s that this was a truce along the whole front,” explained Professor Richard S. Grayson, head of the history department and professor of 20th-century history at Goldsmiths, University of London.
“It was far more patchy,” said Grayson. “Some sectors saw the soldiers climb out of the trenches to exchange well wishes, and perhaps shake hands. But in other sections of the trench lines there was certainly no truce.”
Something of Legend
The scene of soldiers crossing no man’s land to greet one another has become something of a legend, and like most legends, it has become bigger than life, and certainly bigger than what likely occurred. It has been written about countless times in the past century — although, during the war, the military leaders of the UK, France, and Germany tried to keep a tight lid on it. The last thing any commanders wanted was for their respective soldiers to suddenly have the desire to stop fighting and make a de facto peace with the enemy.
In fact, news of the actual truce went largely unreported for more than a week. It was only on New Year’s Eve that The New York Times reported that an unofficial truce had broken out. Accounts only circulated as families at home found out not through the daily newspapers from firsthand accounts in letters from the front lines. The British newspapers, the Mirror and Sketch, eventually printed front-page photographs of the soldiers mingling.
German coverage was even more muted and actually criticized those taking part, while in France the press censorship all but blocked news of the truce entirely, and only confirmed in an official statement that it was limited to the British sectors and was short-lived.
There likely were some French and Belgian soldiers who took part, but not many.
“The Anglo-centric view at the time may have been very different from the French and Belgian,” said Grayson. “We have to remember that Germany was occupying much of Belgium and parts of France, so soldiers from those two countries were far more hostile to the Germans who they rightfully saw as invaders.”
The Myth Took Over
The event only became famous because of more modern popular culture attempts to tell the story. Yet, throughout much of the 1920s, it was probably all but forgotten — except by those soldiers who had taken part in the Christmas Truce of 1914.
The 1st fictionalized account was the 1933 German play “Petermann schließt Frieden oder Das Gleichnis vom deutschen Opfer” (“Petermann makes peace”). Written by war veteran Heinz Steguweit, who was an early member of the Nazi Party, the play was far from uplifting as it ended with a German soldier shot dead by a sniper whilst singing Christmas carols!
As the Nazis were on the rise, the western media made little attempt to acknowledge the Christmas Truce had occurred. It was later chronicled as a brief sequence in the 1969 film “Oh! What a Lovely War,” a musical satire.
A similar scene served as the backdrop for the 1983 music video of Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace,” in which the former Beatle played both a British Tommy and German Jerry who met in no man’s land. It should be noted for being a fairly accurate depiction of the trenches at that stage in the war.
In 2014, the Christmas Truce served as the backdrop for an ad campaign from the UK-based Sainsbury grocery stores. Released to mark the centennial of the truce, it featured British and German soldiers singing “Silent Night,” and it then proceeds to chronicle how the men on each side came out to shake hands, play football and stop fighting.
As in other depictions, the sound of artillery sends the soldiers back to their trenches, where a German soldier finds a chocolate bar in his coat, a “gift” from his enemy across the lines. While it was made to mark the significant event, it was also produced to sell chocolate bars — ones that look much like the one that the German soldier found in his coat.
The 2005 French film “Joyeux Noël” is most notable for depicting the events from the perspective of German, Scottish and French soldiers. Yet, like most of the other portrayals of the Christmas Truce, it is rife with inaccuracies. In this case, the inclusion of the French soldiers was likely meant to broaden the international appeal.
“The film isn’t completely inaccurate,” said Grayson. “However, some Frenchmen today would say that no French soldiers would have possibly taken part, at least not to the scale seen in the film. It is heavily fictionalized with a grain of truth.”
Did any football matches occur?
One of the biggest debated issues of the truce is whether football (soccer) was ever played. It is possible given that there were a number of cases of fraternization that some balls were kicked around, yet, it isn’t clear if there were actually “organized” matches. A number of period letters to family suggest that the units did kick around the ball but in many cases, it is unlikely that the soldiers used a real ball — probably ration tins or coats tied up like a ball.
Most historians tend to agree that the football matches couldn’t have been much more than kick-about games given the terrain in no-man’s land. It is also believed that most of these matches were really played by soldiers on the same side playing together rather than with those from the opposing side.
“Any games of football were likely a British phenomenon,” said Grayson. “In the public’s mind there were organized matches, but the evidence is very patchy at best. A number of historians have found accounts of footballs being kicked around, but there likely weren’t organized matches. There is a photo that makes the rounds, but it is actually British against British troops, and more importantly, it was apparently taken during the Salonika campaign in the Balkans in 1915 — not on the Western Front in 1914.”
Origins of the Christmas Truce
Military commanders in 1914 likely didn’t expect a truce, but the conditions were set for one. In previous wars, armies weren’t typically situated across a narrow field. While fraternization has always occurred between soldiers, it would have been isolated to those on the picket lines.
The trenches of the First World War set the stage for such a truce.
“There was already a reduction in fighting because of the weather from late November, and any campaigns weren’t expected to begin until at least March,” said Grayson. “That is the one part missing from many of the retellings of the Christmas Truce of 1914 — that there had already been a wind down for winter.”
And it also wasn’t along the entire lines. Many British soldiers simply weren’t open to the overtures of the Germans.
“In some parts of the line, where there were efforts to make a truce, the British fired back,” explained Grayson. “What we’ve seen is that the newer recruits were more likely to put down their weapons. Those veteran soldiers who had been in the lines for months were far less accommodating.”
There were exceptions, Grayson noted. The Royal Irish Rifles had been engaged in the fighting since August, and some members took part in the truce. But the officers were still very wary and warned their men that the Germans couldn’t be trusted.
The biggest question asked in recent years is why there was a truce in 1914, and not in the subsequent years. The sad truth is that the war became so terrible that neither side likely was willing to give the enemy any quarter. In addition, in December 1915 Allied commanders tried to discourage any truce through a number of methods.
Explicit orders were issued not to fraternize with the enemy, while units were ordered to mount raids even on Christmas Eve. Of course, the artillery barrages pounded the lines so it was far from a “silent night.” There were reports of German overtures to the British in 1916 and 1917, but little came of it.
“One issue is that the wind down didn’t occur,” said Grayson. “While there was a bit of fraternization in 1915, it was truly dying out in 1916, and there was virtually no sign of it in 1917. However, there may have been limited encounters. Different soldiers are different individuals and may have different motivations.”
Yet, the horrors of the war had taken the toll on any chances of such truces, and it would be until at least 1918 that the bulk of the armies would truly have a silent night for Christmas Eve.