In December of 1914 the new war was as fresh as the corsage of a girl at a Christmastime Boston cotillion ball.
In the United States in 1914, the war had yet to mangle the lives of American boys and wouldn’t do so until much later. In Europe, the war was less than five months old and the trenches still newly dug. While the casualties in Flanders were disheartening, the death tolls would become much worse in the years ahead – until the guns grew silent on November 11, 1918.
On Christmas Eve one hundred years ago, soldiers were still innocent enough – even naive enough – to believe they could fraternize with the enemy on the day of Christ’s birth – sing carols together, share cigarettes and booze, exchange presents, even play a game of soccer.
So they unofficially organized a ceasefire for Christmas Day. The Germans made the first move. They sent a chocolate cake to the British line on Christmas Eve, along with a note that proposed a truce so that the Germans could hold a concert. The generous British accepted the ceasefire and offered tobacco as their present to the Germans.
Even nowadays, the Christmas Day in No-Man’s Land on Flanders fields is remembered as a moment where the spirit of “Joyeux Noel” prevailed in what was otherwise a brutal, no-quarters-given war, the first to be called a world war.
During the ceasefire, more than 100,000 British and German soldiers lowered their guns. Soldiers exchanged gifts and played soccer with the enemy. There are many accounts of the Christmas Day ceasefire in diaries and letters. Nearly all are from men who later died in the war that stole away an entire generation of European men. One such soldier was Staff Sergeant Clement Barker, a British soldier.
Barker wrote to his brother, “…a messenger come over from the German lines and said that if they did not fire on Xmas day, they (the Germans) wouldn’t do so in the morning (Xmas day). A German looked over the trench – no shots – our men did the same, and then a few of our men went out and brought the dead in and buried them and the next thing happened, a football kicked out of our trenches and Germans and English played football.”
Other accounts say the two armies – only two hundred yards apart – sang “Home Sweet Home” together and then “God Save the King.”
The two sides even agreed to a warning system if the two sides were ordered by higher-ups to resume firing their guns. A British soldier wrote, “Then a German officer said to one of ours: ‘Look here, we don’t want to shoot you and you don’t want to shoot us. So the arrangement between us… is that neither of them shoot and if they have to begin they will fire three volleys over their heads as a warning.’”
The two sides were not totally lovey-dovey; at least one British regiment refused to take part, and Allied authorities prevented some regiments from playing soccer with the Germans.
British Major John Hawksley of the Royal Field Artillery wrote to his sister, “The Seaforths… would have none of it and when the Germans tried to fraternize and leave their trenches, the Seaforths warned them that they would shoot.” In a second letter, he wrote that the wished-for soccer game in their quadrant was stopped by “our authorities.”
Back in the ’70s, I first became familiar with the World War I Christmas truce when I saw an animation version on PBS television. Later, in 2006, I saw the film “Joyeux Noel,” a fictionalized account of the ceasefire.
There were impromptu efforts to agree to other ceasefires, but the battles of Verdun and the Somme and the use of poison gas by the Germans made the Allies angry and unwilling to fraternize. The war went on for four more years, with the loss of ten million lives.