On 24 December 1914 British, French and German soldiers cast down their weapons and met between the trenches in what is now known as the Christmas Truce.
The image of these men, separated by geography and politics but not by age or interests, exchanging gifts, singing carols and laughing together has lived on in the popular imagination as a bright counterpoint to the worst horrors of the war.
The Christmas Truce of December 1914 was not technically one single truce. Rather it was a series of unofficial ceasefires, although an official truce had been proposed by Pope Benedict XV.
It was not the first unofficial truce of the war either – on 11 December the Essex Regiment recorded that, being as they were only 30 yards from the Germans, they shouted across trench lines to call a meeting with the German troops.
The bleak midwinter
The Christmas truce was all the more remarkable for that it came after months of bitter fighting. The war in 1914 had culminated with the Battle of Ypres, which had ended just a month earlier amidst heavy snows and worsening weather.
December had been quieter as both sides dug in, but the ferocity of the earlier fighting had already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and decimated the small but experienced British Expeditionary Force.
Nevertheless, the truce shows that the soldiers on both sides could sympathise with their opponent’s predicament. The Germans and the Allies had entrenched after the hardest fighting of the war, and had huddled in frozen trenches perhaps wondering what the enemy were doing just a few hundred yards away.
The armies were so close, in fact, that many of the local truces started with a simple call from one trench to another after the crescendo of shell fire had faded away.
Many of the Germans spoke English and so the two sides were able to communicate. They shared an enthusiasm for football, complaining about the weather and reminiscing about sweethearts left at home meant that the men of both sides got on remarkably well.
These extraordinary scenes started on Christmas Eve, in Ypres salient of all places. A change of mood was signalled initially by the Germans, who decorated their normally forbidding trench with candles and even Christmas trees.
When the British soldiers heard carols drifting across the air in No Man’s Land, they began to sing their own, and call over to the Germans. Slowly, hesitantly, men headed over the top and began to congregate between their lines, where they swapped cigarettes, alcohol and even parts of their uniforms.
The German Pickelhaube helmet, with its distinctive spike, was an immensely popular souvenir. On a more sombre but equally symbolic note, both sides buried their dead unencumbered and conducted services for them together.
The beautiful game
There is some evidence that British and German soldiers rolled up their sleeves and had a game of football. The author Robert Graves later wrote a fictionalised account of one of these matches, and concluded that it had ended 3-2 to the Germans.
Sadly, by the dawn of 1915 all the men were back in their trenches and faced with the sobering reality of almost four more years of war. Fraternisation with enemy troops had been banned by both sides even before Christmas, with the Generals worried that it might be harder to fight an enemy who had showed a human face.
Some soldiers also thought that the truce was a nonsense which obstructed the winning of the war, including a young corporal called Adolf Hitler, who vociferously condemned what had happened to his men. Even at the time, however, there were some who recognised the elusive magic of what had happened in the midst of a terrible World conflict.
In Britain, the Daily Mirror wrote of the truce with regret that the “absurdity and the tragedy” would have to begin again.
Fighting began to pick up again in the days after Christmas but in places the peaceful mood continued. Some sources record that there was still singing at New Year although outright fraternisation had ceased. The French, on whose invaded territory the truce was conducted, were in many cases more suspect of the truce and a few French civilians reacted with hostility to fraternising soldiers.
Eventually normal war conditions resumed yet despite calls from Smith-Dorrien no one was prosecuted for the truce. This legendary event was not repeated on any subsequent Christmas of the war.