The Christmas truce (German: Weihnachtsfrieden; French: Trêve de Noël) was a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, during World War I. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides—as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units—independently ventured into "no man's land", where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another, in one of the truce's most enduring images.
It was not ubiquitous; in some regions of the front, fighting continued throughout the day, while in others, little more than an arrangement to recover bodies was made. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting such fraternisation. In 1916, after the unprecedentedly bloody battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the beginning of widespread poison gas use, soldiers on both sides increasingly viewed the other side as less than human, and no more Christmas truces were sought.
The truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a growing mood of "live and let live", where infantry units in close proximity to each other would stop overtly aggressive behaviour, and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there would be occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades, while in others, there would be a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised, or worked in full view of the enemy. The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation – even in very peaceful sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable – and are often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history.
- 1 Background
- 2 Christmas 1914
- 3 Later truces
- 4 Broader significance of truces
- 5 French–German truce
- 6 Austrian–Russian truce
- 7 Public awareness
- 8 Legacy
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
The first five months of World War I had seen an initial German attack through Belgium into France, which had been repulsed outside Paris by French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne in early September 1914. The Germans fell back to the Aisne valley, where they prepared defensive positions. In the subsequent Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to push through the German line, and the fighting quickly degenerated into a stalemate; neither side was willing to give ground, and both started to develop fortified systems of trenches. To the north, on the right of the German army, there had been no defined front line, and both sides quickly began to try to use this gap to outflank one another; in the ensuing "Race to the Sea", the two sides repeatedly clashed, each trying to push forward and threaten the end of the other's line. After several months of fighting, during which the British forces were withdrawn from the Aisne and sent north into Flanders, the northern flank had developed into a similar stalemate. By November, there was a continuous front line running from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, occupied on both sides by armies in prepared defensive positions.
Fraternisation – peaceful and sometimes friendly interactions between opposing forces – was a regular feature in quiet front-line sectors of the Western Front. In some areas, it manifested simply as a passive inactivity, where both sides would refrain from overtly aggressive or threatening behaviour, while in other cases it extended to regular conversation or even visits from one trench to another.
Tacit truces between British and German units can be dated to early November 1914, around the same time that the opposing armies had begun static trench warfare. At this time, both sides' rations were brought up to the front line after dusk, and soldiers on both sides noted a period of peace while they collected their food. By 1 December, a British soldier could record a friendly visit from a German sergeant one morning "to see how we were getting on". Relations between French and German units were generally more tense, but the same phenomenon began to emerge. In early December, a German surgeon recorded a regular half-hourly truce each evening to recover dead soldiers for burial, during which French and German soldiers exchanged newspapers. This behaviour was often challenged by both junior and senior officers; the young Charles de Gaulle wrote on 7 December of the "lamentable" desire of French infantrymen to leave the enemy in peace, while the commander of 10th Army, Victor d'Urbal, wrote of the "unfortunate consequences" when men "become familiar with their neighbours opposite". Other truces could be enforced on by weather conditions, especially when trench lines flooded in low-lying areas, though these often lasted after the weather had cleared.
The close proximity of trench lines made it easy for soldiers to shout greetings to each other, and this may have been the most common method of arranging informal truces during 1914. Men would frequently exchange news or greetings, helped by a common language; many German soldiers had lived in England, particularly London, and were familiar with the language and the culture. Several British soldiers recorded instances of Germans asking about news from the football leagues, while other conversations could be as banal as discussions of the weather or as plaintive as messages for a sweetheart. One unusual phenomenon that grew in intensity was music; in peaceful sectors, it was not uncommon for units to sing in the evenings, sometimes deliberately with an eye towards entertaining or gently taunting their opposite numbers. This shaded gently into more festive activity; in early December, E.H.W. Hulse of the Scots Guards wrote that he was planning to organise a concert party for Christmas Day, which would "give the enemy every concievable form of song in harmony" in response to frequent choruses of Deutschland Uber Alles.
The approach to Christmas
In the lead up to Christmas 1914, there were several peace initiatives. The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed "To the Women of Germany and Austria", signed by a group of 101 British women suffragettes at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached. Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." This attempt was officially rebuffed.
Though there was no official truce, roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The first truce started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yvon (called Saint-Yves, in Plugstreet/Ploegsteert – Comines-Warneton), where Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather described the Truce.
The Germans began by placing 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. The fraternisation carried risks; some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year's Day in others.
Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, wrote: "I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck."
Future nature writer Henry Williamson, then a nineteen-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day: "Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it?" 
Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported how the first interpreter he met from the German lines was from Suffolk where he had left his girlfriend and a 3.5 hp motorcycle. Hulse went on to describe a sing-song which "ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!"
Nor were the observations confined to the British. Leutnant Johannes Niemann: "grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy." 
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Adolf Hitler, then a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce.
Mike Dash said in 2011 that "there is plenty of evidence that football was played that Christmas Day—mostly by men of the same nationality, but in at least three or four places between troops from the opposing armies".
Games played between teams of opposing armies include that of 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment against "Scottish troops". Some accounts of the game bring in elements of fiction by Robert Graves, a British poet and writer who reconstructed the encounter in a story published in 1962. In Graves's version, the score was 3–2 to the Germans.
Another match was played in the sector of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, "recorded that a game was played in his sector "between the lines and the trenches," and according to a letter home published by the Glasgow News on 2 January, the Scots" won by 4–1.
Not all historians agree that any organised football matches took place. Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton in their book Christmas Truce say that the only references to football matches are either hearsay or refer to 'kick-about' matches with 'made-up footballs'. In one instance members of the Lancashire Fusiliers had a game where the ball was a tin of bully beef. Brown and Seaton also mention attempts to play organised matches which failed to take place. They conclude that serious football matches could not have taken place because of the state of ground in no-man's land.
In the following months, there were a few sporadic attempts at truces; a German unit attempted to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but were warned off by the British opposite them, and later in the year, in November, a Saxon unit briefly fraternised with a Liverpool battalion. In December 1915, there were explicit orders by the Allied commanders to forestall any repeat of the previous Christmas truce. Individual units were encouraged to mount raids and harass the enemy line, whilst communicating with the enemy was discouraged by artillery barrages along the front line throughout the day. The prohibition was not completely effective, however, and a small number of brief truces occurred.
An eyewitness account of one truce, by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day saw a "rush of men from both sides ... [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs" before the men were quickly called back by their officers, with offers to hold a ceasefire for the day and to play a football match. It came to nothing, as the brigade commander threatened repercussions for the lack of discipline, and insisted on a resumption of firing in the afternoon. Another member of Griffith's battalion, Bertie Felstead, later recalled that one man had produced a football, resulting in "a free-for-all; there could have been 50 on each side", before they were ordered back.
In an adjacent sector, a short truce to bury the dead between the lines led to official repercussions; a company commander, Sir Iain Colquhoun of the Scots Guards, was court-martialled for defying standing orders to the contrary. While he was found guilty and officially reprimanded, this punishment was quickly annulled by General Haig, and Colquhoun remained in his position; the official leniency may perhaps have been because he was related to H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister.
In the later years of the war, in December 1916 and 1917, German overtures to the British for truces were recorded without any success. In some French sectors, singing and an exchange of thrown gifts was occasionally recorded, though these may simply have reflected a seasonal extension of the live-and-let-live approach common in the trenches.
Evidence of a Christmas 1916 truce, previously unknown to historians, has recently come to light. In a letter home to his sister in Toronto, 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon told of a remarkable event that occurred on December 25, 1916, when German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines near Vimy Ridge to share Christmas greetings and trade presents. "Here we are again as the song says," the Ontario soldier wrote. "I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. ... We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars."
In the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to try to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. Troops were also rotated through various sectors of the front to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy. Situations of deliberate dampening of hostilities still occurred. For example, artillery was fired at precise points, at precise times, to avoid enemy casualties by both sides.[better source needed]
Broader significance of truces
Although the popular tendency has been to see the December 1914 Christmas Truces as unique and therefore of romantic rather than political significance, they have also been interpreted as part of the widespread non-cooperation with the war spirit and conduct by serving soldiers. In his book on trench warfare, historian Tony Ashworth describes what he calls the 'live and let live system.' Complicated local truces and agreements not to fire at each other were developed by men along the front throughout the war. These often began with agreement not to attack each other at tea, meal or washing times, and in some places became so developed that whole sections of the front would see few casualties for extended periods of time. This system, Ashworth argues, 'gave soldiers some control over the conditions of their existence.' The December 1914 Christmas Truces then can be seen as not unique, but as the most dramatic example of non-cooperation with the war spirit that included refusal to fight, unofficial truces, mutinies, strikes, and peace protests.
In the Comines sector of the front there was an early fraternisation between German and French soldiers in December 1914, during a short truce, and there are at least two other testimonials of similar behaviours in sectors where German and French companies opposed each other. In sections of the front where German and Belgian troops faced each other in December 1914, there was at least one such instance when a truce was achieved at the request of Belgian soldiers who wished to send letters back to their families, over the German-occupied territory of their own country. Richard Schirrmann, who was in a German regiment holding a position on the Bernhardstein, one of the mountains of the Vosges, wrote an account of events in December 1915: "When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over." He was separated from the French troops by a narrow No Man's Land and described the landscape as: "Strewn with shattered trees, the ground ploughed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms." Military discipline was soon restored, but Schirrmann pondered over the incident, and whether "thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other." He went on to found the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.
A particular manifestation of the Christmas truce in December 1914 occurred on the Eastern front, where the first move originated from the Austrian commanders, at some uncertain level of the military hierarchy. The Russian responded positively and soldiers eventually met in no man’s land.
The events of the truce were not reported for a week, in an unofficial press embargo which was eventually broken by the New York Times on 31 December. The British papers quickly followed, printing numerous first-hand accounts from soldiers in the field, taken from letters home to their families, and editorials on "one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war". By 8 January pictures had made their way to the press, and both the Mirror and Sketch printed front-page photographs of British and German troops mingling and singing between the lines. The tone of the reporting was strongly positive, with the Times endorsing the "lack of malice" felt by both sides and the Mirror regretting that the "absurdity and the tragedy" would begin again.
Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticising those who had taken part, and no pictures published. In France, meanwhile, the greater level of press censorship ensured that the only word that spread of the truce came from soldiers at the front or first-hand accounts told by wounded men in hospitals. The press was eventually forced to respond to the growing rumours by reprinting a government notice that fraternising with the enemy constituted treason, and in early January an official statement on the truce was published, claiming it had happened on restricted sectors of the British front, and amounted to little more than an exchange of songs which quickly degenerated into shooting.
- In the 1933 play Petermann schließt Frieden oder Das Gleichnis vom deutschen Opfer (Petermann makes peace: or, the parable of German sacrifice), written by Nazi writer and World War I veteran Heinz Steguweit (German), a German soldier, accompanied by Christmas carols sung by his comrades, erects an illuminated Christmas tree between the trenches, but is shot dead by the enemy. Later, when the fellow soldiers find his body, they notice in horror that enemy snipers have shot down every single Christmas light from the tree.
- The 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War includes a scene of a Christmas truce with British and German soldiers sharing jokes, alcohol and songs.
- The video for the song "Pipes of Peace" by Paul McCartney depicts a fictionalized version of the Christmas truce. The song was released in 1983.
- The final episode of the BBC television series Blackadder Goes Forth references the Christmas truce, with the main character Edmund Blackadder having played in a football match. He is also seen being annoyed that having scored it was disallowed for offside.
- The song "All Together Now" by Liverpool band The Farm took its inspiration from the Christmas Day Truce of 1914. The song is being re-recorded by The Peace Collective for release in December 2014 to mark the centenary of the event.
- John McCutcheon's song "Christmas in the Trenches," from his 1984 album Winter Solstice, presents a composite account of attested events of the truce from the perspective of a fictitious English soldier. (Mike Harding's song "Christmas 1914", from his 1989 album Plutonium Alley, and Garth Brooks's song "Belleau Wood", from his 1997 album Sevens, contain similar depictions of the truce.)
- The 1992 film A Midnight Clear depicts a Christmas truce loosely based on events from the 1914 truce, although the setting is moved to the end of WWII.
- In the intro of the 1995 episode "The River of Stars" of the series Space: Above and Beyond images of the Christmas Truce of 1914 were shown.
- The truce is dramatized in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël (English: Merry Christmas), depicted through the eyes of French, British and German soldiers. The film, written and directed by Christian Carion, was screened out of competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
- In 2011, the Premier League established the Christmas Truce Tournament in 2011, a football tournament for youth players from England, Belgium, France, and Germany. The tournament will be played annually until at least 2014, the centennial anniversary of the original Christmas truce.
- Silent Night, an opera based Joyeux Noël, received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012.
- Snoopy's Christmas, performed by The Royal Guardsmen, which is still a holiday favourite on some American radio 'oldies' stations and on many radio stations in New Zealand, depicts Snoopy and the Red Baron, who was Snoopy's in-universe archenemy, taking part in the Christmas Truce of 1914 somewhere behind the Rhine in German territory. The song depicts the Baron—who was a German war hero—as being the one to initiate the friendly contact once the pair had landed. The two part ways amicably, knowing they are destined to meet in combat again eventually.
- The song "Let the Truce Be Known" by Orphaned Land takes inspiration from the event, but refers to it with Jewish and Muslims soldiers rather than British and German.
- A TV advert by the UK supermarket Sainsbury's for Christmas 2014 focused around the Christmas truce.
A Christmas truce memorial was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, on 11 November 2008. Also on that day, at the spot where, on Christmas Day 1914, their regimental ancestors came out from their trenches to play football, men from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers played a football match with the German Battalion 371. The Germans won 2–1.
In 2014 the Northumbria and Newcastle Universities Martin Luther King Peace Committee produced resources to enable schools and churches to mark the December 1914 Christmas Truces. These included lesson plans, hand-outs, worksheets, PowerPoint slide shows, and full plans for assemblies, and carol services/Christmas productions. The authors explained that their purpose was both to enable schoolteachers to help children learn about the remarkable events of December 1914, but also to use the theme of Christmas to provide a counterpoint to the UK government's glorification of the First World War as heroic. As the Peace Committee argues, 'These spontaneous acts of festive goodwill directly contradicted orders from high command, and offered an evocative and hopeful – albeit brief – recognition of shared humanity' – and thereby, they argue, give a rereading of the traditional Christmas message of 'on earth peace, good will toward men.'
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- Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War, Max Hastings. William Collins 2013. [Page not given]
- Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War, Max Hastings. William Collins 2013. [Page not given]
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- Brown (2005) pp. 75–76. The unit in question was the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, a battalion of the volunteer New Armies, which were just arriving in France for the first time in late 1915 and early 1916. Griffith mentions Christmas Day was "the first time [he] had seen no-man's land"; his men were, quite possibly, also on their first tour in the front lines this day.
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- Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War, Max Hastings. William Collins 2013. ("Twenty-year-old Gervais Morillon wrote to his parents: ‘The Boches waved a white flag and shouted “Kamarades, Kamarades, rendez-vous.” When we didn’t move they came towards us unarmed, led by an officer. Although we are not clean they are disgustingly filthy. I am telling you this but don’t speak of it to anyone. We must not mention it even to other soldiers.’ Morillon was killed in 1915.")
- Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War, Max Hastings. William Collins 2013. ("Elsewhere twenty-five-year-old Gustave Berthier wrote: ‘On Christmas day the Boches made a sign showing they wished to speak to us. They said they didn’t want to shoot … They were tired of making war, they were married like me, they didn’t have any differences with the French but with the English.’ Berthier perished in June 1917.")
- Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War, Max Hastings. William Collins 2013. ("Belgians likewise clambered out of their positions near Dixmude and spoke across the Yser canal to Germans whom they persuaded to post cards to their families in occupied territory. Some German officers appeared, and asked to see a Belgian field chaplain. The invaders then offered him a communion vessel found by their men during the battle for Dixmude, which was placed in a burlap bag attached to a rope tossed across the waterway. The Belgians pulled it to their own bank with suitable expressions of gratitude.")
- Richard Schirrmann: The first youth hosteller: A biographical sketch by Graham Heath (1962, International Youth Hostel Association, Copenhagen, in English).
- Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War, Max Hastings. William Collins 2013. ("On Christmas Day in Galicia, Austrian troops were ordered not to fire unless provoked, and the Russians displayed the same restraint. Some of the besiegers of Przemyśl deposited three Christmas trees in no man’s land with a polite accompanying note addressed to the enemy: ‘We wish you, the heroes of Przemyśl, a Merry Christmas and hope that we can come to a peaceful agreement as soon as possible.’ In no man’s land, soldiers met and exchanged Austrian tobacco and schnapps for Russian bread and meat. When the Tsar’s soldiers held their own seasonal festivities a few days later, Habsburg troops reciprocated.")
- Weintraub (2001), pp. 179–80. The "greatest surprises" quote is from the South Wales Gazette on 1 January 1915.
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- Simple Gifts: 25 December 1914 on YouTube - R.O. Blechman presents "Simple Gifts" (1977 animation TV special) DECEMBER 25, 1914 segment inspired by the legendary Christmas Truce. Captain Hulse's letter narrated by David Jones.
- Private Ronald Mackinnon letter from the truce of 1916.