History The Grapevine

The Christmas Truce

This Christmas, a break from war.

On December 24th, 1914, German and British troops living in trenches opposite each other put aside their differences and came together to sing songs, trade souvenirs, and (maybe) play a little soccer in the name of Christmas. The event stood out as a hopeful instance of friendship and goodwill between two groups of men who were otherwise staunch enemies, having come here specifically to kill each other (not very friendly). The occasion, which would later be known as the Christmas Truce, is now a relatively well-known tale of the spirit of Christmas persevering in the worst conditions, but at the time, it was a divisive and unevenly-applied plan that grew up from the trenches and made the guys in charge mad as hell.

First, some quick background: the war is World War I, a clusterfuck of a conflict that started when the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Bosnian-born Serbian nationalist angered by Austrian rule over Bosnia. As a result, Austria-Hungary, the conjoined twins of history, declared war on Serbia and that was that. Except it wasn’t that, because Russia existed. Russia liked Serbia and saw the country as her little brother. So she declared war on Austria-Hungary. Meanwhile, though, Austria has a secret alliance with Germany, who joins in to help out their friend. But, uh oh! Russia has a secret alliance too, it’s with the United Kingdom and France! It even has a name: the Triple Entente. They join too. So now, exempting Serbia and its other, smaller, friends, it’s three versus two — except, fuck, SURPRISE! Germany and Austria were actually part of a triple alliance with Italy. They call Italy up and ask him to join. Italy says “fuck that” and backs out last minute. Luckily, the team has a sub: it’s the Ottoman Empire, who just said like five minutes ago that they’re not going to join the war, but now they’re attacking Russia.

The war opens up on two fronts, with Russia fighting the Central Powers, Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire, in the East, and Germany attacking France from the West. Before the war, France was suspicious of Germany, so she put up a shitload of defenses against their shared border to stop him from getting in. “Fuck that”, says Germany, “I’ll go around the defenses”. So instead of invading France head on as was expected of a nice, chivalrous invading power, Germany sent all of its guys into neighboring Luxembourg and Belgium in an effort to take the scenic route and jump in through a window.

For the most part, the German troops tear right through Belgium, but eventually, the Belgians, aided by the British and French, bolster their defenses and manage to hold the Germans back. The two sides fight for a long time, each trying to push past the other, but neither ever manages to go very far. They decide they’ll be here for a while and they don’t want to be shot, so they dig trenches in the ground to live in and defend themselves from bullets. This is the start of World War I.

At the time, it was called the “Great War” or “The War to End All Wars”, because it was widely understood that this war was so bad that everyone in Europe and beyond could agree that we would never have another, much worse war in the very near future. Either way, it’s wishful thinking: you don’t show up to a homicide trial and refer to it as your “first murder”. It implies there’ll be a second.

The War starts in July 1914, and within a few months there are already hundreds of thousands dead. A Europe accustomed to relatively slow wars fought by guys on horses is rattled by the introduction of machine guns, mortars, heavy explosives, toxic gases, and motorized vehicles. Most of the war is fought in the space between trenches, the no man’s land named for the speed with which anyone who tries to enter could be shot by the soldiers waiting in the opposing trench.

By December, conditions are even worse. Rainy weather turned quickly to freezing weather. Living, eating, and sleeping in a dirt hole under threat of murder is a tiny bit uncomfortable in gorgeous weather. It’s even less fun when you’re caked in frozen mud. Shit was bad.

Many Europeans expected the war would be wrapped up by Christmas, but things weren’t going according to plan. Down in the Vatican, the Pope came up with an idea: a ceasefire for Christmas. He drafted his speech and sent it out to Europe. The response was amazing. -ly bad. No one was interested. “That’s stupid” the war gang said. “We don’t want to do that, we want to keep warring.” So they made official orders: keep warring. Don’t stop.

But on Christmas Eve, 1914, British troops report Germans lighting up their trenches and erupting in Christmas songs. The music and merriment continued, and the Germans started addressing their supposed-enemies directly, with musical appeals like, “come out, English soldier, come out here to us”. The English officers ordered their soldiers to resist these attempts at coercing them into the no-man’s-land, which is fair; on one hand, it’s war, but on the other, “come out, English soldier, come out here to us” is some creepy Hansel and Gretel shit.

Nonetheless, the German appeals continued, according to some, they were strongest from the more chill and easygoing Saxons, who argued aloud, “we are Saxons, you are Anglo-Saxons, what is there for us to fight about?”

In fact, all down the line where calls for temporary friendship existed, they seemed to come from the Germans. Maybe it was that the Saxons were an exceedingly chill people, or maybe it was that way more Germans could speak English than Britons could speak German. Either way.

Eventually, the Siren call of carols and Christmas greetings became too strong, and the English had begun to respond with their own songs and loud tidings.

British soldier Frederick Heath writes, “How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”

Some of the British officers by this point had ordered their men to tentatively stand down and not fire unless fired upon, a front line policy later known as “live and let live”.

Then, at some point between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the first soldiers started climbing from the trenches to meet in the middle and shake hands. This part hits different in the middle of a pandemic, but I appreciate the gesture.

At dawn on Christmas across the line, German soldiers followed suit, clambering out of their earthen bunkers and hailing their neighbors with English Christmas greetings. Some raised signs that read, “you no shoot, we no shoot”, which is honestly just a great creed to live by regardless.

The English were skeptical at first, but the Germans came unstrapped, having left their guns at home, so eventually they gave into temptation and climbed out of their own trenches to join them. They met in the middle and exchanged gifts of cigarettes and plum pudding, which, knowing the English, is probably made out of horse blood.

Across the front line where troops of different flags fraternized, some sang songs, some lit German Christmas trees, and some may have played soccer, Brits vs. Germans. That one’s dubious — depending on the source, soccer games either definitely happened or definitely didn’t happen and you’re an idiot for thinking they did.

Even among the jubilant warriors, not all was joyous. Many used this brief reprieve from gunfire to collect and bury their dead.

And even then, the spontaneous stoppage in shots fired was limited in scope. The best estimates suggest about two thirds of the British-German line in southern Belgium observed the truce, or some hundred thousand people. Elsewhere, the night wasn’t so silent. There’s no way of knowing whether or not Germans made the same offers to the French that they had made to the British, but if they had, the French weren’t as receptive. Understandably, given that the Germans were trying to take over their country.

Meanwhile, on the Eastern front, a critical snag in the potential peace process: the fans of the olden days in the Russian Empire were still using the Julian calendar instead of the cutting-edge Gregorian. As such, they wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas for weeks. For more about that, support local writers and read the piece “What Day is It? Part 2” by, uh, me.

Even where the truce was enacted, at some point, it had to end. According to the Smithsonian, an institution that falls on the “the soccer game happened”, side of things, the camaraderie came to an end when Germans found out Scottish folks didn’t wear underwear beneath their kilts and laughed so hard their superior officers sent them back to the trenches.

When the war resumed across the line, instances of officers offering displays of respect to their counterparts in the opposite trench were decently common; in one set of trenches, the German and British officers fired shots into the air and saluted each other, one having raised a festive “Merry Christmas” flag. Then, more war. Smithsonian writes thart “many, perhaps close to the majority, of the thousands of men who celebrated Christmas 1914 together would not live to see the return of peace”.

In the years thereafter, German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch said, “How marvelously wonderful, and how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.” But when Christmas came in 1915 amid a still-stale backdrop of trench warfare, sporadic attempts to revive the truce were put down immediately.

To us, the Christmas Armistice is a heartwarming tale of the perseverance of the Christmas Spirit in wartime. To the higher-up officers of the British and German armies, it fucking sucked.

Military HQs put forth all their efforts to make damn sure it wouldn’t happen again, and it didn’t. The idea of German and British soldiers not killing each other because an Austrian royal got shot? Unbelievable. Speaking of Austrians, Hitler famously hated the Armistice. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime”, he’s reported as saying, “Have you no sense of German honor?” Hitler himself spent a remarkable zero days in the trenches, so you know he’s an expert on the topic. Also, he’s Hitler.

Even after the fact, the British Rifle Brigade continued to dispute the idea that a soccer game occurred between the combatants, explaining that it “would have been most unwise to allow the Germans to know how weakly the British trenches were held”. There you have it.

The Commander of the 10th French Army, Victor d’Urbal, lamented the “unfortunate consequences” that occur when soldiers “become familiar with their neighbors opposite”.

The Commander of the British Second Corps, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, called this close proximity “the greatest danger” to wartime morale and ordered local commanders to prohibit “friendly intercourse with the enemy”. In a separate memo, he added “troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a ‘live and let live’ theory of life.”

The nerve.

Instead of engaging in further armistices and acts of good will, the war would be waged for an additional three years and end with more than 25 million people dead or wounded. At the war’s end, bigwigs from around the world gathered to create a lasting and formidable peace that fell apart just over twenty years later when Hitler’s Germany, seeking vengeance for perceived slights and condemnation from the first war, got hyped up on amphetamines and invaded all of Europe. Where was their sense of German honor?

Amid its backdrop, the Christmas Armistice is a celebration of human goodwill and the perseverance of holiday spirit in wartime. But that it’s impressive is kinda… super disappointing. This was a war that didn’t have to happen. Choosing to play soccer during a war is great, but you know what’s better? Not having a war. You can still play soccer, you just have to ask Belgium to use its fields. You won’t even need massive trenches.

The message of the Christmas Truce is usually that these soldiers found a way to celebrate despite the grave realities of their situation, and good for them, for real. But the reality is that that situation was imposed on them by other people. Christmas spirit shines through in the worst of times, but maybe it’d shine brighter if the guys in charge got out of the way.

bengrapevine · The Christmas Truce

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