TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Christmas truce of 1914

By Ken Bridges
Special to the Herald Democrat
A postcard released by the Historial de Peronne, Museum of WWI, shows Egyptian cavalry troops on camels in 1914 during the World War I.

It was once called the War to End All Wars, but World War I dragged on year after year.  Governments were shattered, lives were destroyed, and many more wars came in its wake.  But for one moment in 1914, there came a Christmas miracle.  The soldiers in the trenches stopped fighting, and for a moment, there was peace on the battlefield.  This came to be called the Christmas Truce.

The governments of both sides had enticed their young men to sign up and head for the front lines, promising glorious victories in no time at all.  Instead, the casualties mounted, and the battles became increasingly brutal.  Pleas for peace from President Woodrow Wilson, the pope, and millions around the world were ignored by the warring government.  The war that was supposed to be over in a few months was now mired in a stalemate with no end in sight.

A file photo taken in 1914 shows a postcard released by the Historial de Peronne (WWI Museum) of a meat distribution in France to Algerian soldiers from the French colonies during WWI.

            And Christmas 1914 arrived.  Allied troops in Belgium and France had been dug into trenches for months.  Their German counterparts across the fields of barbed wire, shrapnel, and artillery craters of no-man’s land were in the same shape.  It was cold.  Dustings of snow covered the shivering troops.  They were all tired, they were hurting, and they were far from home.  The madness of the summer and fall months had become a Christmas Eve sitting in the mud with cold food, longing for the simple Christmases of the past with friends, family, warmth, and laughter.

            Then the stillness of the night on that Christmas Eve was broken.  Some of the soldiers began singing Christmas carols.  Other units up and down the front line began picking up the tune and singing it, from one army to another.  And then the troops on the other side of no-man’s land began singing with them.  The songs were the same, whether they were sung in Belgian, French, English, or German.  The meaning was the same.  The memories of past Christmases were suddenly not so far away. 

A photo released by the Historical Museum of WWI of Peronne and taken  Aug.  31, 1914, shows U.S. troops upon landing in Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France early in World War I.

            The soldiers shouted Christmas greetings to one another.  Eventually, informal truces were arranged, and they agreed to come out of the trenches to greet one another in the spirit of Christmas.  They did not wait for orders, they simply followed their hearts and their consciences.  The troops walked toward each other, shook hands, and wished each other well.  They put aside their arms and exchanged drinks, food, and small gifts of tobacco and chocolates from home.  As dawn broke, the truce continued.  Troops arranged soccer games between the units and between the opposing armies.  German troops allowed French and Belgian troops across the lines to send Christmas letters to their families in occupied territories.  The singing and laughter continued through the day.  Small gestures of human decency marked Christmas between the throngs of troops that had been at each other’s throats just days earlier.  It has been estimated by historians that perhaps 100,000 troops participated in the Christmas Truce.

For a few hours, it no longer mattered who was right or who was wrong or even who was winning.  The ideologies and the colors of the flags and the uniforms no longer mattered.  What mattered for those few hours was their common humanity and the spirit of the holiday.

This postcard released by the Historial de Peronne, Museum of WWI, shows indigenous soldiers from French colonies in winter uniforms in France in 1914 during the World War I.

The spirit of the truce would not last, unfortunately.  By Christmas night and into December 26, the troops had mostly returned to the trenches.  In some areas, the truce would stretch on for a few more days.  While the Christmas Truce was remembered by many on the front lines, commanders made sure there was no repeat of the informal cease-fire in 1915 or beyond as they ordered raids and artillery barrages on those Christmas Days.  News of the informal truce was suppressed on both sides.  In the months and years afterward, the world continued to disintegrate, dragging the United States into the war by 1917.

The war would continue for three more blood-stained years.  In the end, more than 15 million people had died and much of Europe lay in tatters.  But in the middle of the fighting, the armies stopped for a few hours to remember what Christmas meant.  For that short time, they realized that even the harshest of differences could be put aside.  They remembered that peace was always an option.  For a few hours, they cast aside their fears in the pursuit of hope and joy and the dream that the spirit of the day did not have to end.  They recognized what Christmas was about: a day of giving, of peace, and of brotherhood.  In a world torn apart by division and fear today, the Christmas Truce is a gift for the world even more than a century later.

A photo taken in 1914 shows a postcard released by the Historial de Peronne (WWI Museum) of Indian cavalry troops from the British colonies in France.
Ken Bridges

Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.