One of the most well known stories of the First World War is that of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when it is said that German and British troops came together to sing carols and play a game of football..
Although this seasonal truce is the most well known, it wasn’t the only one to take place during the long years of World War One. But because it took place at Christmas, a time associated with peace and harmony, it is remembered and celebrated more than any other. But is it in fact more a Christmas tale, or a true act of union between British and German troops?
As 1914 drew closer, it became clear that the war would not “be over by Christmas” as many had hoped. So on 7th December, Pope Benedict XV proposed that there should be an official ‘Truce of God” in which hostilities would cease for the Christmas period on both sides. Although the suggestion was widely rejected, in an attempt to improve the morale of the men on the front line, 460,000 parcels and 2.5 million letters were sent to British soldiers in France. As well as these gifts, King George V himself sent a card to every soldier. The Germans also received gift boxes from their leaders with which to celebrate the season.
Although no official truce was called, Britain’s General Haig wrote in his diary on 24th December that, “Tomorrow being Xmas day, I ordered no reliefs to be carried out, and troops to be given as easy a time as possible”.
The German soldiers celebrated on the night of Christmas Eve, as is the custom in Germany. They lit candles and sang carols in their trenches. In the quiet of the air of No Man’s land, the singing carried to the British line, and soon the soldiers were singing together. A few men were brave enough to leave the trenches, and some even exchanged small gifts. Photos were taken of soldiers from the opposing sides talking together, and for a few brief hours, both sides of the war met as equals and not as enemies.
Despite the stories, however, there was no Christmas truce football match. There may have been a few small-scale kick-abouts, but no genuine match took place. Indeed, by the time Christmas day arrived, war had returned to the trenches.
As previously mentioned, this brief and unofficial Christmas Eve truce was not the only one that occurred during the conflict. It was, though, to be the last. Prior to December 1914 there were often quiet periods when soldiers tacitly agreed not to shoot at each other. But these lulls were stamped out by the commanders on either side of the war. It was feared that friendships would develop between the differing sides of the battlefield, and that the men would refuse to fire on each other. Communication between the trenches even began to be regarded as treason. In fact the Belgian, Indian and French were very angry that British troops had shown any signs of friendship towards the Germans at all.
As a consequence of the commander’s crackdowns, the small truces of the war’s first year were never repeated. Yet the sporting story of the unsanctioned Christmas truce remains vibrant in our imaginations; we like to believe that even in the midst of the horror of war we can recognise the humanity in our enemies and ourselves – even if only for a few hours.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.