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On Christmas Eve, 1914, something remarkable happened on the western front during the First World War.
Soldiers in the trenches on both sides of no man’s land ceased fighting. Not only did they stop fighting, but they came out of their trenches to meet each other to celebrate Christmas.
It has become one of the most mythologized events of the war and one of the oddest events in military history.
Learn more about the Christmas Truce of 1914 and what really happened on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
On Christmas Day, 1914, no one had thought the war would still be going.
When the war began in the summer, both sides thought that it would be over by autumn. In fact, the phrase often used by the troops was that they would be home by Christmas.
Instead, what happened is that the war devolved into a stalemate. The main German advance early on was stopped at the Battle of the Marne. Both sides dug in, and the result was the trench warfare that the conflict became known for.
What the soldiers quickly found out was that the trenches were horrible. You lived every day under the constant threat of artillery attack. If you should happen to stick your head over the wall of the trench, it is likely that you’d be instantly shot.
Assuming you kept your head down and stayed in the trench, you would have to live in wet, filthy conditions. Diseases were rampant, and there was a good chance you’d live with rats.
The odd thing is, as bad as the trenches were, it was probably better than the alternative, which was to be ordered over the walls of the trench in an attack, which meant almost certain death.
As each side began digging trenches, the lines became longer and longer as each side tried to avoid being flanked by the other side.
By December 1914, a line of parallel trenches ran from the Swiss border to the North Sea.
There were forces at work that tried to encourage calmer heads to prevail. Pope Benedict XV called for a cease-fire, even if just for Christmas. He asked, “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”.
However, the governments of both sides would have none of it and refused to stop fighting.
The animosity between the two sides wasn’t necessarily personal. There were reports of contact between troops on both sides. Usually, this was nothing more than medical staff who, under a white flag, would negotiate short, localized cease-fires where each side would collect their dead from no man’s land between the trenches.
Depending on where on the line they were, the soldiers would often shout at each other.. Both sides would complain about the weather and life in the trenches. Germans would inquire about the English football leagues.
On Christmas Eve, the men on both sides of the front line were homesick. The promise of the war being over by Christmas had clearly not been achieved.
Instead of being at home with their families, they were stuck in a wet, cold hole in the ground.
Around 10 pm on Christmas Eve, the British troops began to notice something.
First, the Germans had lined their trench with candles. Then, they started to hear things.
A British machine gunner named Bruce Bairnsfather, after the war he recalled, “Away across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices.”
He turned to one of his fellow soldiers and said, “Do you hear the Boches kicking up that racket over there?”
The Germans were celebrating Chrismas Eve by singing Christmas carols.
After listening to several German songs being sung, the British decided to reply with songs of their own.
At one point, British troops sang “O Come All Ye Faithful” in English, and the Germans sang along singing the Latin lyrics, “Adestes Fideles”.
Eventually, and we don’t know who did it, a German soldier shouted in broken English, “Come over here.”
Needless to say, being invited over to the enemy trench is probably not the most compelling invitation.
However, one of the British soldiers shouted back, “You come half-way. I come half-way.”
…..and, they did.
Again, we don’t know who the first soldiers were to step out over the wall of their trench, but it must have been terrifying. Going over the wall usually meant instant death.
However, they did go over the wall, and they weren’t killed.
Soon, other soldiers from both sides joined them. They were all quite literally fraternizing with the enemy.
They began to shake hands and exchanged small gifts with each other. They shared wine, schnapps, cigarettes, and candy. They began singing songs with each other. They swapped buttons and their hats.
As Bairnsfather noted, “Here they were—the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side.”
This wasn’t an isolated event with a few soldiers in one location. The truce spread up and down the front.
It is estimated that as many as 100,000 troops on both sides took part in the truce. British, French, Belgian, and German forces also took part. There were even reports of similar events taking place on the Eastern Front. The truce was by no means universal, but it was widespread.
The truce went into Christmas Day. There were several reported cases of football matches that were played between the two sides. Most famously, the German 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment played the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from Scotland.
The Scots were victorious, winning 4 to 1. A rare international victory.
I should also note that German versions of the story have them winning 3-2.
While cameras were discouraged on the front lines, there were several soldiers who had personal cameras with them. They took the photos which documented the Christmas truce.
Some soldiers reported giving or getting haircuts, and there was at least one reported case of a pig roast in no man’s land.
In many parts of the Western Front, the unofficial truce extended beyond Christmas. There were reports of some places extending their truce all the way out to New Year’s Day.
The truth was many of the soldiers didn’t want to fight. They didn’t want to be there, and they didn’t see the point in fighting over a few inches of land. Furthermore, why try to kill the men you just met and shared a moment with?
News of the Christmas truce was quick to spread to the rest of the world. The first newspaper to break the story was the New York Times, as the United States was still a neutral party as of 1914 and had no restrictions of news from the front. It was later reported in the allied countries, and it was reported in Germany, although not as extensively.
Not everyone was a fan of the Christmas truce. The generals hated it, as did several of the rank-and-file soldiers.
One German soldier said, “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor left?”
That German soldier’s name? Corporal Adolf Hitler.
British General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien wrote in a confidential document, ‘This is only illustrative of the apathetic state we are gradually sinking into,’
On December 29, just a few days after Christmas, the German high command sent a general order that banned all fraternization with the enemy, and said that “every approach to the enemy…will be punished as treason.”
There were attempts at other similar truces throughout the war, but the officers on both sides were now wise to it and strongly discouraged it.
On Christmas the next year, the Allied generals discouraged truces by scheduling attacks and conducting artillery barrages on Christmas Day.
What did develop was a system known as “live and let live.” These were just standing agreements between the two sides that were often just shouted between the trenches. These would include things such as agreeing not to shoot at each other during meal times and allowing for a time when each side could retrieve their fallen comrades.
Fundamentally, the soldiers in the trenches were fighting a different war than the generals who ran things did. The generals fought the war looking at maps. The soldiers were often so close to the enemy they could hear them and smell what they were cooking.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was unlike any other event in the history of warfare. Previously, soldiers would meet on an open field, fight, and then someone would win, and the survivors would go home. When they weren’t fighting, they weren’t in proximity to each other. Moreover, they seldom fought in December.
After World War I, mechanization kept belligerents far apart from each other, and the mechanized nature of warfare kept units on the move.
The First World War was probably the only war in history where something like this even could have happened.
The Christmas truce has become one of the most celebrated moments of the first world war. It has become the subject of songs, plays, movies, and books.
There is a memorial to the Christmas Truce, which was created at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, England. When the memorial was unveiled in 2014, a football match was held between teams representing the British and German armies.
For the men who took part in the Christmas truce, it was something they would never forget.
It was probably best summarized by the aforementioned Bruce Bairnsfather, who noted, “Looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.”
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener FairNews235 from Apple Podcasts in Canada. They write:
Hi! This is an amazing podcast. My dad got me addicted to it. I love it, and listen to it when I’m going on a long road trip. My friends don’t understand why I listen to an informational podcast, but I don’t care! This is amazing and is short enough to not get bored, but long enough to learn something. Thanks, Gary for this awesome, informative podcast.
Thanks, Raelyn! Let me put this as succinctly and clearly as I can: you are right, and your friends are wrong. Using any opportunity you can to learn, especially on long road trips, is nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t matter if it is this podcast or something else, learning is making yourself better, and any opportunity you use to better yourself is a good thing.
Feel free to play this for your friends if they still don’t understand.
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