The First World War served as a paradox on many levels: It was the war which saw the introduction of aircraft carriers and fighter pilots strategically pitted against mounted cavalries and 19th century cannons. The international bloodletting marked the first conflict in which man’s technological advances in the art of raining widespread death was achieved on so great a scale.
A central image of this war is that of a soldier wearing a gas mask. This is because the conflict was defined by the use of poisonous gas as a weapon of warfare. By war’s end, gas was being used by all major belligerents of the conflict, creating excruciating deaths for no fewer than 1.3 million individuals on the receiving end of the vicious chemical weapons attacks.
The war remains the third bloodiest conflict in human history and directly claimed the lives of 16 million individuals and has indirectly been attributed to more than 120 million deaths.
Yet the level of bloodshed and death did not in anyway speed up fighting, as the early years of the war were characterized by trench warfare, which saw the two armies facing off along hundreds of miles of parallel trenches separated by roughly the length of a football field. The area between these two trenches was known as “no man’s land” and entering this bombed, shot up and barren landscape would equal certain death for soldiers.
To put it into the simplest and most honest of terms, the war was a living hell for millions of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict.
With the war stalled along the trenches, by winter of 1914 the conflict had entered an unbreakable stalemate with both sides’ advances stopped along the hundreds of miles of opposing trench line.
As Christmas quickly approached, war-wary civilians on either side of the conflict began begging their governments for peace. A group of 101 British women signed an open letter “To the Women of Germany and Austria” asking them to join them in begging their respective government’s to end the war.
The calls for a cease of fighting was also joined by Pope Benedict XV, who on December 7, 1914, begged for an official truce between the warring governments. When his calls for peace were rejected, he asked “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang,” this attempt for an official truce was also rebuffed by the national leaders on either side of the battle.
With the trenches generally being between 50 and 100 yards from each other and with English being a commonly understood language by many of the soldiers an unusual thing began to develop: Fraternisation, the peaceful and sometimes friendly interactions between opposing forces.
The proximity and commonly spoken language allowed the two opposing sides an opportunity to see the humanity of their enemy and by early December 1914 the men were frequently exchanging news and greetings with each other as well as arranging thirty-minute evening cease fires in order to treat their injured and remove the war dead.
National leaders from both sides of the war were troubled by their country’s soldiers fraternizing with the enemy. The young Charles de Gaulle called the practice “lamentable” while another French officer wrote of the “unfortunate consequences” when men “become familiar with their neighbors opposite”. Another young German soldier named Adolph Hitler was also extremely critical of the wartime comradery that had developed between the opposing trenches.
Despite their superiors’ objections, on Christmas Eve of 1914 all along the trenches more than 100,000 soldiers from both sides of the fight defied their commanding officers and simply refused to fight during the most holy of holidays.
Many of the German troops decorated the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, where British Captain Bruce Bairnsfather described the truce:
“The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, continuing until New Year’s Day in others.”
British Captain Robert Patrick Miles, penned the following words that fateful Christmas Day:
“Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.”
Sadly, Capt. Miles would be killed just five days later on December 30.
Another soldier told of how the ceasefire ended:
“We shook hands, exchanged looks of pity, then slowly turned and began walking back to our side. Once all men from either side had safely made it back into his trench, our captain fired three rounds into the air. The German leader did the same and then war resumed.”
High command from both sides were enraged by their armies defying their orders and making a temporary peace with the enemy and the following year strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides were issued prohibiting truces. By 1916, the fighting and bloodshed had grown so gruesome that battle hardened soldiers were no longer amenable to truce.
Belleau Wood, a song written by Garth Brooks and Joe Henry, chronicles this extraordinary event in military history. The final verse states:
Then I thought that I was dreaming, for right there in my sight,
Stood the German soldier, ‘Neath the falling flakes of white,
And he raised his hand and smiled at me, As if he seemed to say,
Here’s hoping we both live to see us find a better way…
Then the devil’s clock struck midnight, And the skies lit up again,
And the battlefield where heaven stood was blown to hell again.
The Christmas truce of 1914 serves as a powerful reminder of some undeniable truths: Unfortunately, evil exists and because of this some wars are absolutely necessary in order to safeguard against the very worst of humanity, genocide, slavery and pure evil. With this being said, it also serves as a reminder that some wars should never have been fought and beneath the national banners and volley of machine gun fire are sons, fathers and ordinary people who desire little more than the opportunity to live and one day grow old.
Merry Christmas, wherever you may be and may your holiday season be peaceful.
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