The Spontaneous Christmas Ceasefire of 1914.

The Spontaneous Christmas Ceasefire of 1914.

A ceasefire is a situation where both sides in a conflict down their weapons and cease hostilities. Ceasefires can be short or long. The recent Gaza/ Israel ceasefire was a short one as was the Christmas ceasefire of the 1914 Great War conflict. However, unlike the Middle Eastern ceasefire, the 1914 one was spontaneous not prearranged. The spontaneous Christmas ceasefire of 1914 was an act of daring but also one of humanity.

Christmas Truce

Christmas Truce Photo from Brittanica.
World War One
 WWI started as a war confined to Europe but later would involve more countries as they took sides and sent troops to the conflict. It lasted from the summer of 1914 to late 1918 when Germany reluctantly admitted defeat. Many millions of civilians and soldiers died and many more would die after the war as The Spanish Flu outbreak spread worldwide with repatriating troops.
But by December 1914, it all was all just a few months into this brutal war that was promised to end all wars. Women had waved goodbye to sons, brothers and husbands in a wave of patriotism. ‘Don’t worry, I will be home for Christmas’ the men and boys had promised. There was no age check. Some lads were only fourteen. They like all the others would be lucky to survive the horrors ahead. Read such a story based on true lives in my historical fiction family saga Time Heal my Heart.
It was not over by Christmas

However, by this December in 1914, the reality of trench warfare had already descended on the troops. Weeks of heavy rain had turned the trenches and the No Man’s Land between them into mud. For the men on the Western Front, daily life was miserable for soldiers of both sides in the war.  Troops and their enemies were separated by only the small distance called No Man’s Land . This was only about 50 metres. It was called No Man’s Land because usually no man would dare go there for fear of his life. Even raising your head above the parapet of the trench could be fatal.The men in the trenches had seen battle, seen their friends die in front of them. It was not what they thought war would be like. It was not going to be over by Christmas as they had been promised. 

The ceasefire on Christmas Eve 1914

It all started five months after war’s outbreak on Christmas Eve 1914 along two thirds of a 30 km stretch of The Western Front. British troops in their trench heard the nearby German troops in their trench singing a Christmas carol in German. But the tune, whatever the language, is often the same so it was recognisable. To add to the spirit of this unexpected event, there were fir trees and lanterns visible along the German trench edge. In a midst of this brutal war how did this happen?

The spirit of Christmas cheer encouraged soldiers from both sides to call out to each other. No one dared raise their heads above the trench parapet for fear of death. Normally, stepping out of the trench was pure suicide. But one German soldier dared to suggest this.

Tomorrow, we no shoot, you no shoot,’

‘Tomorrow, we no shoot, you no shoot,’ he called out in English. Someone on the British side agreed. Tomorrow was Christmas after all. Why not, we could all be dead the day after. Life was fleeting in times of war and although everyone had promised the war would be over by Christmas, that now seemed a hollow promise.

There had been brief ceasefires before for each side to retrieve their fallen comrades from No-man’s land between the trenches. But this was different and lasted two days not just a few hours. This was a while considering the brutality of this war. On that long ago Christmas morning, the Germans emerged from their squalid muddy trench singing and bearing small gifts such as food and cigarettes. The British trusting this was not trickery, slowly raised their heads and then tentatively crawled from their trench too.

A miracle at Christmas

Hands were outstretched in friendship, gifts exchanged. It was a miracle at Christmas. The enemy were just like us. Human. Then from the German trench someone threw a football, and the game was on. Not a serious one, just a kick around in the thirty-yard space called No-man’s land. This incredible time of comradery was documented by soldiers from both sides and the photos live on as a witness to the event.

The soldiers, a few hundred in total, might have hoped that this was war end. Could this act of humanity end the war and create a permanent ceasefire. Then everyone could go home to their families and celebrate New Year.

But it was not to be. The pause in fighting was not planned nor universally observed. It had been pure spontaneous humanity at work in the hearts of men.  No commanders on either side had sanctioned such an act nor would they. Once the authorities heard of this event, they were furious and ordered a resumption of fighting. Those who refused would be shot. This news was tough to hear. It meant the soldiers had no choice. Shoot or be shot.

What carol did they sing?

Reports identify Silent Night as the carol initially sung by the German soldier in the trench. In his book on the truce, historian Stanley Weintraub identifies the singer as Walter Kirchhoff, a German Officer and sometime member of the Berlin Opera. Kirchhoff’s singing of the carol in both German and English is credited with encouraging the exchange of songs, greetings and gifts between the opposing soldiers.

Other ceasefires of WWI

There were other ceasefires during World War I, but none became famous like the Christmas ceasefire of 1914. In 1915 there was a brief one on the Eastern Front between German and Russian troops.

Ceasefires in wars allow for the retrieval of dead and wounded men. Also, in 1916 there was one on the Macedonian front to allow for the exchange of prisoners. Then again in 1917 a ceasefire was declared on the Italian front for similar reasons of retrieval of dead and wounded. There were also a few attempts at Easter ceasefires as well but they were short lived as not all troops dropped their weapons. Ceasefires have to be bilateral otherwise it is suicide for soldiers. None of these ceasefires however were for as long or as widespread as the Christmas ceasefire of 1914.

If you like real stories of families of this time in history, you may like my historical novels based on the true experiences of my grandfather, great uncle and their families set prior and during these WWI years. Whispers through Time and Time Heal my Heart tell their story. Discover these and others on my website. I also write weekly history blogs which are posted there.

Thank you for reading.



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