Christmas on the Front, 1914.
This YMCA Christmas card was sent by an American soldier in 1918, four years after the events of the 1914 Christmas Truce. (Image: ohiomemory)
By: Michael Fouts
World War I was one of the most destructive events in human history. Over the course of the four year conflict (1914 – 1918), around 10 million military personnel lost their lives and an additional 6.8 million civilians perished. Interestingly, when hostilities broke out in the late summer of 1914, many in Europe believed that the war would be over by Christmas. Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859 – 1941), the king of Imperial Germany, infamously told his soldiers that they would be home before the leaves had fallen from the trees. But when the fighting rolled into the winter of 1914 and there were still no signs of a breakthrough from either side, the soldiers on the front lines were faced with the reality of spending Christmas in the trenches.
By late November 1914 the Allied and Central Powers had fought to a standstill in France and Belgium. Commanders on both sides decided to create defensive trenches in order to hold the ground they already had. The result was an interconnected web of trenches that stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. These fortifications were primitive and inhospitable.
Trenches in World War I were very uncomfortable, especially during the cold winter months. The image above shows French soldiers inside of a trench located in France (c.1914-1918). (Image: ohiomemory)
Between the opposing lines was a area known as “No Man’s Land”. During attacks, soldiers would have to cross this open space, which essentially became a death trap due to heavy machine gun and artillery fire. The dead and wounded remained where they fell in No Man’s Land.
No Man’s Land was the name given to the deadly, open space between the opposing trenches. The image above shows British soldiers on a desolated battlefield near Cambrai, France (c. 1917). (Image: ohiomemory)
Against this backdrop of death and destruction there were still spontaneous moments of fraternization amongst enemies. Perhaps the most memorable of these moments was the event known as the “Christmas Truce of 1914”. In recent years, the idea of the Christmas Truce has regained some public popularity, especially in Great Britain. In December 2014, the British and German Armed Forces put together soccer teams for a match to commemorate the truce. Also in 2014, a popular British supermarket chain created a Christmas video advertisement portraying British and German soldiers in 1914. Soccer games and souvenir exchanges only tell part of the story, though.
The truce was actually unofficial and even disparaged by military commanders on both sides. There was still fighting that occurred on Christmas Day. Most French and Belgian soldiers were not so receptive to the idea of camaraderie with their German adversaries since the war was happening in their homeland. There were also reports of harsh rule in German occupied territories. Therefore, the cease fire only happened on mass between British and German troops. In particular German soldiers from Saxony, who were remembered as being very amiable toward the British.
The image above shows two British soldiers (far left and third from the right) with German soldiers of the 104th and 106th Saxon Regiments in Belgium on Christmas Day 1914. (Image: Imperial War Museum, Grigg J Selby (Mr) Collection. Q 11718)
Of course not all British and Germans were so open to the idea of celebrating Christmas with the enemy. One British soldier noted in a letter, “Our [British] chaps at once went out and when they were in the open Prussians fired on our men killing two and wounding several more. The Saxons, who behaved like gentlemen, threatened the Prussians if they did the same trick again.” Despite incidents such as these, it is estimated that up to 100,000 German and British troops took part in some form of the informal truce.
Many of the details that we know about the Christmas Truce come from the firsthand accounts of the soldiers who were in the trenches. Stories of singing Christmas carols and food exchanges were common. Some also remembered the temporary truce as a time to gather and bury their fallen comrades in No Man’s Land. One British infantryman wrote in a letter back home, “A truce had been arranged for the few hour of daylight for the burial of the dead on both sides who had been lying out in the open since the fierce fighting of a week earlier.”
The truce of 1914 was the first and last of its kind during World War I. In its immediate aftermath, German and British commanders took steps to ensure that fraternization between the soldiers didn’t happen again. A cease fire on the Western Front did not happen again until the Armistice of 1918.
If you would like to learn more about the Christmas Truce of 1914, please visit these links:
Why do you believe that the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 continues to capture the public attention 100 years after it happened?
Read through these excerpts and then create a list of the items that the soldiers exchanged with the enemy during the truce.
Why do you think that soldiers traded these specific items?
Were there other things that the soldiers did during the truce?
Postcard sent by an American soldier in 1918. (Image: ohiomemory)
The United States did not join World War I until 1917. Look through these primary sources to find out more about the lives of Ohioans involved in the conflict.