The Last Gasp of Peace: The Christmas Truce of 1914 and the Modern Profession of Arms
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2019.
The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is often considered “played out,” especially in historical circles, but it is a compelling tale; its best and most impactful role is on the young minds of the military who have not yet heard it. It is hard for most to come to terms with the horrors of the Western Front, and equally challenging to understand the willingness of soldiers to set aside their differences in the midst of so much death. The actions of the Christmas Truce do not echo with the heroism of Pickett’s Charge, the audacity of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. using his cane to direct landings on Utah Beach, or the bravery of the USS Johnston charging the Japanese fleet at the Battle off Samar. Over the last twelve years, I have returned to this story every year as a teaching moment for the airmen I have led, and now for the midshipmen I teach at the U.S. Naval Academy. It has been a valuable framework for me to remind them how serious their jobs are. It is odd to consider that I teach this to Air Force and Navy members, the services with the least appreciation for the trenches of World War I, but I think that is what makes it more important. Most members of these services bear the particular burden of executing combat without staring into the eyes of the enemy. But the lesson of the truce is important for all armed services. Members of the profession of arms should remember the Christmas Truce for everything it was, and they should learn about it because of all the things it was not.
At the end of the first four months of World War I, the armies in Europe had experienced what may have been the greatest military bloodletting in history. Between August and December 1914, 116,000 German and 189,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers were killed, but that still fell short of the 16,200 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force and 30,000 Belgians killed alongside the soul-crushing 300,000 French soldiers in the same four-month span. On the Eastern Front, Russian causalities approached 2 million.
The number of military dead from the first four months of World War I does not faze most historians. It is, after all, but a fraction of the overall toll of that war. However, for those just joining today’s military, modern context provides a stinging dose of reality. The total number of military personnel (American and coalition forces, as well as local military and national police) killed in the “Global War on Terror” from October 2001 to November 2018 was just over 125,000, with slightly fewer opposition dead. More men died on one side of the trenches in four months than were killed in combat across a war now stretching into its nineteenth year. That kind of loss, in human terms, much less the costs to military strategy and political capital, is truly unfathomable.
Among that level of death on both sides, the idea that a moment of friendly peace could spontaneously break out strikes the modern mind as almost nonsense, a mental non-starter. Yet, it happened. There was no particular location or unit where the truce began. It did not, like Athena, burst forth upon the fields of World War I fully formed. It grew slowly and sporadically in many areas at the same time. There was no unified plan or conspiracy to begin such truces, though senior leaders anticipated them. General Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, expressly forbade such action and promised punishments for those who attempted to arrange a truce. However, even threats from the top of the chain proved no match for the holiday spirit of the men in the trenches.
On Christmas Eve, 1914, the overtures began. Given the love of Christmas generally associated with Germanic culture and tradition, it is not surprising that German or Austrian forces instigated most of the breakouts of peace. All day long, German units dispatched low-ranking soldiers to supply depots in the rear lines to secure special food items, mail, and small hand-held Christmas trees complete with candles and decorations. Carl Mühlegg, a private in the 17th Bavarian Regiment stationed near Langemarck, accomplished the eighteen-mile roundtrip hike to deliver a tree to his captain. The officer solemnly lit the candles and wished peace for his soldiers, Germany, and the world. Mühlegg later wrote, “Never was I more keenly aware of the insanity of war.”
In isolated pockets along the Western Front, gunfire mostly ceased on Christmas Eve, and throughout the day the cessation spread. By the time dusk encroached on France, violence was the oddity. Most propositions of peace began reasonably innocuously. In the evening quiet, without the background din of artillery and rifle fire, soldiers exchanged shouts between the trenches to wish each other “Happy Christmas” as well as pass the traditional barbed comments and trash-talk expected from members of militaries. They shared these greetings with banners and chalkboards, but mostly through song, as German regimental songs were met with British renditions of popular music, and back and forth it went between the trenches. At nightfall, the Western Front took on a different appearance. Near Chapelle d’Armentières on the French-Belgian border, Christmas trees with lit candles lined the ramparts of German trenches “like the footlights of a theatre,” according to one British soldier. Against this backdrop, German renditions of “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) gently wafted over trench lines. The British listened awestruck. At the song’s conclusion, several British units, some even to their surprise, broke into applause or shot flares to signal their approval. The British demanded encores, and ad hoc caroling competitions developed up and down the Western Front.
From singing came the first overtures to cross No-Man’s Land. The signboards requesting “no fighting” and wishing each other Merry Christmas soon became requests to talk. On the French lines, German officers called “Kamarades, Kamarades! Rendezvous!” while waving white flags. As dawn broke on Christmas Day, the guns remained silent, other than areas of contact between Russians and Serbs, and where French Foreign Legionnaires were deployed in Alsace. The acts of friendship were varied, depending on the area, the nature of the troops on both sides, and the landscape of the battlefield. The most common was the exchanging of trinkets. Soldiers exchanged buttons, cap badges, insignias, and cigarettes, but the most prized exchanges were the small tins of sweets and tobacco given to members of the British Expeditionary Forces by the Princess Mary’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Christmas Fund and the German belt buckle emblazoned with the Gott mit uns (God is with us) slogan.
Less traditional acts occurred, as well. The soldiers held burial ceremonies in No-Man’s Land for the still unrecovered fallen soldiers of both sides. Soldiers from both armies attended, and a chaplain from each trench read the service, alternating between English and German. Food and drinks were shared, stories and letters exchanged, and soldiers swapped addresses so they could write to each other after the war. The 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers shared two barrels of beer with the Germans, though neither army had the stomach to enjoy the French beer, which both sides described, in the most positive words, as “rotten.”
Most famous of all were the football matches (soccer games, for we American heathens). In the areas where No-Man’s Land was not a ruined landscape of craters, soldiers took advantage of the truce to run freely in the open beyond the trenches. The vast majority of the matches were friendly pickup games or intra- and inter-unit competitions. However, there were several instances of cross-trench football in the Flanders sector. Often some of the best bartering was done as part of claiming victory in one of the matches, such as the kilt-clad Sutherland Highlanders challenging the 133rd Saxon Regiment to a match for a bottle of schnapps. There was no universally agreed upon victor of the matches in this 1914 World [War] Cup, with matches going in favor of both sides on multiple occasions.
The peace was not to last. As reports of the activities of the truce spread up the various chains of command, the response from senior leadership was less than enthusiastic. Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Forces, angered by the contravention of earlier orders to avoid such behavior, recalled that “I issued immediate orders to prevent the recurrence of such conduct,” and ordered punishments for those know to have fraternized with the enemy. The response was no more muted at the headquarters of the French, Belgian, German, or Austro-Hungarian armies, with threats of punishment mixing with orders to recommence bombardments. The newspapers and photographs made quite the sensation of the spontaneous peace, but despite the success of the truce in 1914 and the depth of its meaning to the soldiers, it never recurred.
The soldiers who crossed the trenches on Christmas Day were not a movement to end the war, and none expected the ceasefire to extend beyond the day. A British soldier recounted, “There was not an atom of hate on either side that day. And yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed.” After the day of peace, the soldiers parted ways with the understanding that they could be friendly, but not friends. One German solider offered a farewell to his counterpart, saying “Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country; I fight for mine. Good luck.” There were attempts at another truce in 1915, but on a dramatically more limited scale and duration. The events of the War overtook the minds of the soldiers. The spring of 1915 saw the sinking of the Lusitania and the opening of unrestricted submarine warfare, as well as the first zeppelin bombings of London and the first use of poison gas at Ypres. By Christmas of 1916, the solidarity of soldiers was replaced by animosity for the length, awfulness, and conduct of the war, and the feelings of the Christmas Truce never came again.
I find remarkably deep meaning in the events of the Christmas Truce for no other reason than that among so much destruction, no amount of hatred or bitterness could overcome their common humanity. This fact has compelled me to share this story with my airmen, and more recently, my midshipmen, every December. Among the roughly 2,000 servicemembers I have worked with in my career so far, there is a lasting impact for those who had the patience to read or listen. Each time, I recount the details of the truce and the horrors of the Western Front, I try to share the following lesson: Duty and humanity are virtues that bind all in the profession of arms, but they exist in tension with each other and must be precariously balanced.
The soldiers of World War I spent one day celebrating their common humanity and another 1,567 destroying it. The war would go on to claim the lives of an additional seven million soldiers. It was a brief and unrepeatable instance. No person in the trenches of 1914 had the authority to end the war, and their discipline as well as honor demanded that they return to fighting. Anything else would be mutiny or desertion. Wars are fought between nations, and soldiers are but tools of those political disagreements. Nor should the lessons of the Christmas Truce be taken strictly along religious lines. In 1968, U.S. forces decided to respect the North Vietnamese call for a seven-day ceasefire for the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year, and three days later the Tet Truce turned into the Tet Offensive. In 1973, Israel was attacked by an Egyptian-led coalition on Yom Kippur, which also fell within the holy month of Ramadan.
The most important lesson of the Christmas Truce has nothing to do with religion, holidays, or peace. I am not advocating that we do not seek to kill the enemy or destroy their capacity for war. Quite the opposite, actually. The image of those soldiers shaking hands in No-Man’s Land is meant only to remind us that the enemy is human. There is an inextricable bond of commonality, even between soldiers who fight against each other. Whether watching enemies in a neighboring trench or following them from thousands of miles away through the lens of an unmanned aircraft, it is incumbent on all members of the profession of arms to recognize the burden that comes with taking lives. We use terms like “military-aged male” because it makes the strike decision easier. We are not reminded that the target is a son, brother, or father with his own list of life goals and desires. The Christmas Truce should remind every service member of the incredible gravity of our role.
It is a difficult job. As service members, we stand ready to conduct violence on behalf of others. The reason we exist is to hurt people and break things. It is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, nor something to be considered in jest. We stand in defense of others, whether as soldiers or marines with the power of life or death over insurgents, or as airmen and sailors ready to release thousands of nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice. That level of responsibility, to the nation, to each other, and to mankind, is incredible and speaks to the trust placed in us by the citizens of the world.
Combat is the realm of soldiers, the dispassionate art of taking and holding the battlefield through victory over opposing forces by force of arms. There should be no anger or hatred in combat. Soldiers of each side are doing their jobs. Yet it seems that instances of respect between opposing forces have lessened significantly since WWII. Acts such as the Japanese sailors’ salutes of respect to the crew of the USS Johnston after their heroic last stand at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, or the escort of a crippled and defenseless B-17 by a German fighter beyond the range of antiaircraft fire, are much harder to find in the Cold War and post-Cold War world. To acknowledge the humanity of an enemy and yet pursue one’s duty to kill drastically increases the weight of those soldiers’ burdens as they accept the true moral cost of war. It is important that successive generations strive to fight wars with such a high moral bar.
I end every year in the same way. I remind my students of President Kennedy’s assertion at the Commencement Address to American University’s class of 1963, when he reminded us that “in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” Finally, I give a charge to everyone, whether airmen or midshipmen, and now to the world. I ask them to consider what anger they can let go, what hatred could be forgiven or feud ended, if only they are willing to step out of their trenches. What can one person accomplish, and what can all of humanity accomplish, if just for one day all the old hatreds were laid down, bread was broken with enemies, and all came to the stark realization that we are equally human?
Joe Eanett has spent the last 12 years on active duty as a U.S. Air Force officer in the security forces and intelligence career fields. He is currently assigned as an instructor of naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is a 2007 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and received a Master’s in Military History from Norwich University. He deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and supported the recovery efforts of the 2011 Japanese tsunami as part of Operation Tomodachi.
The opinions expressed are those of the author along and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force. U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: U.K. Government