The Christmas Truce of 1914

I saw something on TV the other day about a truce that took place during the Christmas of 1914, during World War I, between British and German troops fighting in France.

It struck me as odd, albeit somewhat touching as well, that men dead-set on killing each other would then take a break to sing a few Christmas carols and share some make-shift gifts of cigarettes and helmets.

(Apparently, it struck some of the brass of both sides as odd as well — they expressed concern the first year it happened, and then basically banned the “fraternization” in future years.)

Wikipedia has some pretty neat coverage of the event, including some great archival photos and news clips. Here’s one of the news clips from a UK paper on December 26, 1914:

football-truce-christmas-1914

I want to be touched by all of this — and am. But at the same time, something just feels odd about the notion that the men all went out and wished other a Merry Christmas, then the Germans went back and gassed all the Englishman. It reminds me of that old t-shirt about the Marines that read:

Join The Marines. Travel To Foreign Places, Meet Exotic People, And Kill Them.

It also reminds me of the Thomas Hardy poem, “The Man He Killed.” (Written in 1902.)

The Man He Killed
BY THOMAS HARDY

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”

And here’s a pretty cool photo from Wikipedia:

British and German troops meeting in No-Mans's Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). (From the collections of the Imperial War Museums.)

British and German troops meeting in No-Mans’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). (From the collections of the Imperial War Museums.)

Do they know it’s Christmas, indeed.

More info here and here. And there’s a 2005 film about the Christmas Truce — it’s called “Joyeux Noel.” (That’s “Merry Christmas” in French.)


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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14 Responses to “The Christmas Truce of 1914”

  1. keirmeister says:

    I’ve had this DVD in my collection for some time and never got around to watching – until now.

    It was truly an uplifting (if bittersweet) movie, made even better by the fact that it’s based on a true story. It’s so strange to think that this happened exactly 100 years ago.

  2. Naja pallida says:

    The big part of it is that change in our methods of training, to dehumanize the enemy. To make sure that soldiers do not even respect them as fellow human beings, only targets to be eliminated. That’s how we’re fighting our wars in the Middle East. At no point does our foreign policy even consider that everyone we’re bombing, obliterating with drones, or undermining with our meddling are human beings, trying to live their lives – just that they’re enemies. Anyone who disagrees with us is to be eliminated, by any means necessary. The only freedom being defended is the freedom of war profiteers to laugh all the way to the bank.

  3. Naja pallida says:

    Random truces were actually not at all uncommon during WW1. Quite often there would be temporary truces when neither side had particular orders, and they’d hang out a bit exchanging rations, cigarettes, etc. As soon as new orders came down, it’d be back to their trenches and start over again. You have to remember, there were often weeks-long periods of time were they did nothing but hunker down in the trenches, waiting for the other side to do something. Often not more than a few hundred meters apart.

    There were also countless temporary cease fires to allow both sides to collect the dead from no man’s land. The day after Christmas in 1914 there was a truce in Flanders – if I recall correctly – to allow the collection of the some 3,000 dead that had been rotting between the lines for nearly two weeks.

  4. nicho says:

    The main point is that among the soldiers on the line. It wasn’t prsonal. They were just cannon fodder sent off by the politicians for whatever World War I was about, which was really nothin at all nobody was “defending freedoms.” We’re changed tactics these days,mand the soldiers have to be taught to depersonalize and to hate the people they’re being ordered to kill. Still no “freedoms” being defended.

  5. Mike F says:

    Oh, sure, NOW they want him on the docket, after playing the mouthpiece for Iraq and Afghanistan, and essentially turning a blind eye to torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity!

    Anybody else holding their breath for an appointment in the Hague for Zombie Cheney? Me neither.

  6. Indigo says:

    Whom the New York Times now wants prosecuted for war crimes.

  7. GeorgeMokray says:

    _Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce_ by Stanley Weintraub
    NY: Penguin Books, 2001
    ISBN 0-452-28367-1

    (70) Phillip Maddison’s creator wrote as himself, “I was talking to Germans with beards and khaki-covered PIckelhauben, and smoking new china gift-pipes glazed with the Crown Prince’s portrait in color, in a turnip field amidst dead cows, and England and German corpses frozen stiff. The new world, for me, was germinated from that fraternization. Adolf Hitler was one of those ‘opposite numbers’ in long field-gray coats.” Later, in the pacifist futility of the 1930s, [Henry] Williamson would write hopefully that Hitler’s wartime experience and the warm rapprochement in his sector might coalesce in memory to stave off another war, but Hitler had never welcomed the truce or such utopian dreaming.

    (71) Although he [Hitler] was out of the line in reserve, discussion arose about crossing into Niemandsland to share Christmas with the British. He refused. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” Hitler argued. “Have you no German sense of honor left at all?” More than patriotic scruples were involved. Although a baptized Catholic, he rejected every vestige of religious observance while his unit marked the day in the cellar of the Messines monastery to which they had retired on the 23rd.

    (94) “What were our men to do? Shoot?” asked Count Edward Gleichen, a brigadier with Boer War experience whose father was a cousin of Queen Victoria – a Hohenlohe-Langeburg who had emigrated to England and risen to Royal Navy admiral. “You could not shoot unarmed men. Let them come? You could not let them come into your trenches; so the only thing feasible at the moment was down – and some of our men met them half-way… we got into trouble for doing it. But after all, it is difficult to see what we could otherwise have done, unless we shot the first unarmed man who showed himself – pour encourager les autres.”

    (160) A future general, Captain Jack of the Cameronians, averse to the truce when on the line, had speculated in his diary a few days earlier, in almost Shavian fashion, about the larger implications of the cease-fire, which had extended farther than governments conceded, “It is interesting to visualize the close of a campaign owing to the opposing armies – neither of them defeated – having become too friendly to continue the fight.”

  8. Houndentenor says:

    I hold out hope that at some point the people will choose not to fight one of these senseless wars. They just won’t do it. I think as we become increasingly connected beyond national borders, ethic groups and religions, that becomes more likely all the time. It might be a naive hope, but it’s the time of year for such things.

  9. Houndentenor says:

    Joyeux Noel (2005) is a must see. This event has been referenced many times in both pop and art culture including the video for Paul McCartney’s song “Pipes of Peace” (in which McCartney played both a German and a British soldier. More recently the film has been turned into an opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUuCjGXxaCo

  10. 2karmanot says:

    Dick Cheney makes a perfect illustration of the power of cowards in high places.

  11. 2karmanot says:

    Well done John.

  12. Drew2u says:

    The takeaway is the further away from battle, the less humanizing war becomes. Those in the trenches do not make the decisions of who and when to fire, but those who make the calls, living elsewhere.
    If they did not start firing on their newly-gained comrades from the other country/side, then more than likely those soldiers would be charged with extradition or treason and be put to death.
    “Either kill your friend or be put to death.”

    The less human “the other side” becomes, the easier it is to demonize them. It is far easier to attack the abstract than to come face-to-face with it. Isn’t that how, in part, the Vietnam War ended was because war reporters were allowed in and the news media did its job and showed the atrocities of war?

    This story is ever-popular as a Christmas miracle, but there’s no miracle in these people slowly being ordered to start killing, instead of those in power having a sense of humility. While listening to this story over the weekend at a concert, it just made me think that if the powers that be stopped wagging their dicks around, peeing all over, that if they admit even they can make mistakes and adjust accordingly, that a lot of things – like Dick Cheney – wouldn’t happen.

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