The Christmas Day the guns of the Western Front grew silent

This post just three days after Christmas is by Mike Staton.

This post just three days after Christmas is by Mike Staton.

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.

British and German soldiers stand together during the unofficial Christmas Day truce of 1914. As the war progressed and million were maimed and killed, such ceasefires became harder to make happen.

British and German soldiers stand together during the unofficial Christmas Day truce of 1914. As the war progressed and million were maimed and killed, such ceasefires became harder to make happen.

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.”

Newspapers of the time featured the Christmas Day truce on their front pages. Here British and German officers stand together for a portrait.

Newspapers of the time featured the Christmas Day truce on their front pages. Here British and German officers stand together for a portrait.

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.

German and British soldiers share cigarettes in no-man's-land during the 1914 Christmas Day truce. It makes you wonder why the hell their leaders went to war.

German and British soldiers share cigarettes in no-man’s-land during the 1914 Christmas Day truce. It makes you wonder why the hell their leaders went to war.

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.

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19 Responses to The Christmas Day the guns of the Western Front grew silent

  1. Wranglers says:

    Great job Mike, this is very interesting. I have heard it before and saw parts of the movie, but I enjoyed the way you bought out the facts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen those photos before. Cher’ley

    Like

    • Mike Staton says:

      Thanks, Cherley. I first saw the animated version back in the mid ’70s in Lancaster, Ohio, and I thought it was extraordinarily well done. I’ve always been fascinated by World War I, which in many ways led to World War II, the Cold War and this Age of Terrorism. Interestingly, World War I was triggered by an act of terrorism, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.

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  2. Wranglers says:

    I recently became aware of the ceasefire when a play was put on where I live, by highschool students I think it was, re this historical day. Your writing about it is well put and very interesting. Thanks for the interesting post.
    Neva

    Like

    • Mike Staton says:

      I’ve been writing the occasional feature story on World War I starting in August as important events take place. I plan to continue to do so on my FB author’s page in 2015 for battles, etc. in 1915.

      Like

  3. I really enjoyed this post Mike. I’d heard of the event but have never heard the facts or seen the pics. What a heartwarming story for the holidays. Thank you for sharing !

    Like

    • Mike Staton says:

      Heartwarming, but at the same time sad to know that it took place in 1914 and most of the men that got to celebrate Christmas without bullets and shells flying overhead were wounded or killed within the next year or two, if not even less time.

      Like

  4. Doris says:

    Beautifully written, eternally sad. What we do in the name of peace and war. Doris

    Like

  5. Nancy Jardine says:

    That this could happen one day and then the firing resume the next is almost inexplicable now. Mike- you got it perfectly in saying that there was an innocence that is now lacking in late teenagers. Christmas tradition had a strong hold on the Brits and the Germans back then and was a compelling enough notion for them to set aside their orders for a small time. I also think that by then using any excuse for a ceasefire would have been very appealing to those who’d been in the hell- hole of the trenches for years. Great post.

    Like

  6. katewyland says:

    I recently saw the movie and was fascinated by the presentation. I had heard about the truce many times over the years, but had never thought of the consequences. In the movie the British group was transferred to another area and the officer disciplined. Makes sense. Would be hard to attack men you’d celebrated with. I suspect the truce was possible due to the tradition of the honor code among officers. Doubt it would happen today.
    Good post.

    Like

    • Mike Staton says:

      I recently read an article about modern war… people at Nellis AFB outside Vegas control drones flying over Syria and Iraq and launch smart missiles toward targets that may or may not include civilian bystanders. Yep, I’m with you, no need for it today.

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  7. I love this story — it always brings tears to my eyes. I’ve heard it told in song as well and it’s very moving. Well told, Mike!

    Like

    • Mike Staton says:

      Thanks, Gayle. I probably could have linked to the animation as well as the song. I just get focused strictly on the words, and forget about doing links. I think it’s been several months since I linked to my novels and facebook author’s page. Lol.

      Like

  8. erinfarwell says:

    Love this story. I’ve read many versions of it and you do it justice, my friend.

    Like

    • Mike Staton says:

      Thanks for the compliment, Erin. In researching online, I always try to find interesting facts that would pique my interest if I were reading a feature story on the 1914 Christmas truce.

      Like

  9. sstamm625 says:

    Wonderful post, Mike. I did not know about this. What a moving story! Sometimes humanity does shine through. Thanks for this.

    Like

  10. S. J. Brown says:

    Well I learn something new everyday. Thanks for educating me. Too bad that Christmas spirit can’t last all year.

    Like

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