Unprecedented Pause: The Christmas Truce of 1914 and what it means for today

We’ve all heard the word “truce” a lot lately, especially in the context of the Israel-Hamas conflict. After intense negotiations, the combatants agreed to stop shooting for a few days to accommodate prisoner exchanges and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Then the two sides went back to killing each other.

In 1914, during the first Christmas of the Great War, a most astounding event took place. Fighting had begun in August, but by December, the combat was at a stalemate. Both sides dug trenches marking their front lines. In some places, they were as little as 100 feet apart. Enemies could hear each others’ conversations and smell their cooking.

The soldiers didn’t know it, but little would change over the next three years. They were at the beginning of a brutal conflict that would eventually claim more than 15 million lives. In December 1914, they had no idea of the horrors that lay ahead.

Despite tens of thousands of casualties on both sides, a vestige of Victorian civility on the front lines remained. What started with a few Christmas songs sung from the German trenches morphed into a happening that took on a life of its own.

Within a few hours on Christmas Eve 1914, entire units simply stopped fighting, thus giving birth to what is now known as the Christmas Truce. Stunningly, some 100,000 soldiers participated.

In 2004, David Brown of The Washington Post wrote, “The truce began on Christmas Eve, high point of the season for the Germans. In many places, it lasted through Boxing Day, the day after Christmas observed by the English. In a few parts of the line, hostilities didn't recommence until after New Year's Day, a holiday with special meaning for Scots and, to a lesser extent, the French.”

Despite exhaustive efforts by military historians to figure out how this phenomenon occurred, major questions remain. No one knows exactly where it started, nor do we know how tens of thousands of men hundreds of miles apart spontaneously joined in.

These German soldiers, probably in a farmhouse behind the trenches, try to make the best of it with their little tree. The inscription reads, “Christmas in Enemy Territory."
These German soldiers, probably in a farmhouse behind the trenches, try to make the best of it with their little tree. The inscription reads, “Christmas in Enemy Territory."

We do know that the fraternization began with caroling on Christmas Eve. In 2005, The New York Times quoted from a letter written by Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade.

First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up O Come, All Ye Faithfulthe Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.

"It was a Christmas card Christmas Eve," wrote one British soldier. "There was white beautiful moonlight, frost on the ground – almost white everywhere.”

Germany had sent thousands of small Christmas trees with candles to the front. Many soldiers put the trees on their parapets and lit the candles.

Christmas Day was cold but sunny and clear. A number of reports described German soldiers climbing out of their trenches saying, “Merry Christmas.”

Some carried signs saying, “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Cautious adversaries mingled, exchanging tobacco, food and emblemed items such as tunic buttons. The spiked German helmets were much in demand.

The pump was primed for barter

Official military records offer little detail about the truce. For the most part, senior leaders on both sides hated the idea; they feared soldiers would hesitate to kill an enemy they had celebrated with the day before.

Unknowingly, government leaders had sown the seeds for this truce.

Michael St. Maur Sheil, curator at the National WWI Museum, points out that both sides organized the wholesale distribution of Christmas parcels, “which can only have served to increase expectations of some form of relaxation at Christmas.”

In addition to the Christmas trees and candles, Germany sent "Libesgaben" (love-gifts) to each soldier. Packed in small wooden boxes, they contained tobacco, sweets and snacks.

On Christmas Eve, every British soldier received a card from King George V and a small brass gift box embossed with the profile of Princess Mary, his daughter. Astonishingly, the British suspended all military shipments (including munitions) for the time it took to transport and deliver 355,000 brass boxes containing candy, or a pipe and tobacco products.

In that context, it’s not surprising that No Man's Land became a place for singing, swapping gifts and even playing football (our soccer) with improvised balls.

The unit history of the 24th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces (Victoria Rifles) offers an exception to the dearth of truce mentioned in official records. For Dec. 25, the unit daily report describes “presenting the Germans with cigarettes and foodstuffs and receiving in return buttons, badges and several bottles of most excellent beer.”

Burying the dead

On a more serious note, the cease-fire allowed both sides to gather and bury their dead from No Man's Land. Some of the bodies had lain there for weeks, since it was too dangerous to retrieve them.

While most units took care of their own casualties, there were some joint services, one of which was described in The Washington Post on Dec. 25, 2004.

Soldiers from the 6th Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders met their foes in a 60-yard-wide No Man's Land and together buried about 100 bodies. The adversaries arranged a prayer service, including the 23rd Psalm.

"They were read first in English by our padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry," 19-year-old Lt. Arthur Burn wrote. "The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again."

The Rhode Island connection

Fraternization was much more common in the British sector than in the French or Belgian, primarily because so many Germans of that era had studied or worked in Britain and were conversant in English.

Several Americans who were serving in the French Foreign Legion experienced the Christmas Truce.

One of those legionnaires was Phillips Rader – an amazing man who trained as an artist, worked for Hearst newspapers and was an early aviation pioneer.

Flying as a mercenary during the Mexican Revolution in 1913, Rader and another pilot fired pistols at each other – earning them credit for the first “dogfight” in aviation history.

When Germany invaded in August 1914, Rader booked passage on the first ship he could get. He was one of a handful of Americans who were “first to the war.” Like many later members of the famed Lafayette Escadrille, the fastest route to aerial combat was enlistment in the Legion, then transfer to aviation.

Rader was also freelancing for United Press. He regularly sent reports home from the front. His work was well-received and syndicated nationwide.

German and British troops mingle in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day 1914.
German and British troops mingle in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day 1914.

Come December, Rader was still in the trenches. And, as he wrote in his Christmas dispatch, he shared a trench that special day with Eugene Jacobs of Pawtucket. (Jacobs survived the war after serving the longest stretch in the French Army of any American soldier. The Journal did a story on his Legion experiences in 1930.)

Rader’s vivid description of the truce appeared in March 1915.

“For twenty days we had faced that strip of land, forty-five feet wide, between our trench and that of the Germans, that terrible No-Man’s Land, dotted with dead bodies, criss-crossed by tangled masses of barbed wire.”

On Christmas morning, there was no shooting. Rader slowly raised his head. “Other men did the same. We saw hundreds of German heads appearing. Shouts filled the air. What miracle had happened? Men laughed and cheered. There was Christmas light in our eyes and I know there were Christmas tears in mine. There were smiles, where days before there had been only rifle barrels. The terror of No-Man’s Land fell away. The sounds of happy voices filled the air.”

Publicity about the truce

Most of what we know about the Christmas Truce comes from unofficial sources, including war correspondents such as Rader. As time passed, a clearer picture of its scope emerged from letters soldiers wrote to their loved ones, as well as personal diaries.

The truces were not reported for a week; political hawks thought it might sap the will to fight. The New York Times finally broke the story on Dec. 31. British papers quickly followed, printing numerous first-hand accounts from soldiers in the field on "one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war” (South Wales Gazette, 1 January 1915).

The British press printed front-page photographs of mingling and singing between the lines. According to military historian Stanley Weintraub, the media reaction was positive. The Times underlined the "lack of malice" felt by both sides, and the Mirror fretted that the "absurdity and the tragedy" would return all too soon.

In Brown’s story in the Post, he quoted Member of Parliament Murdoch Wood. A soldier who had experienced the truce, Wood said in 1930, “If we had been left to ourselves, there would never have been another shot fired.”

While the truce was widespread, it was not embraced everywhere. Warmongers on both sides decried it as   “weakness” that would undermine the soldiers’ fighting spirit.

Tellingly, Adolf Hitler, then a corporal of the 16th Bavarians, was one of those hard-liners. He allegedly chastised his fellow soldiers: “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor?”

The increasing miseries of trench warfare and mud, along with staggering losses suffered during the battles of 1915, wiped out the last feelings of sympathy among enemies.

“At Christmas 1914, the kind of hatred that only chlorine gas can inspire did not yet exist in the war,” wrote Brian Dunning for a 2015 podcast.

The first zeppelin bombing of England occurred in January 2015. Chlorine gas first appeared in April, and in May a German U-boat torpedoed the passenger liner Lusitania, further fanning the flames of hatred.

Dunning concluded, “If we were forced to draw a single line between when the war was merely bloody and when it became truly barbaric, this was it.”

Soldiers were no longer amenable to a truce.

The rest of the Rader story

In 1915 Rader was able to get a direct transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. He spent the next two years protecting London from zeppelin raids. Of the 21 pilots in his unit, he was one of only two to survive.

In April 1917, the United States joined the war, and by June Rader was living in East Greenwich, training new pilots for Uncle Sam’s woefully undermanned Air Corps. According to The Providence Journal, Rader was in demand as a public speaker, and he became well known in Rhode Island. His son was born here as well.

Returning to his account of the truce, Rader wrote that “a German lieutenant said, ‘I want your photograph.’ He readied his camera as we enemies stood with our arms about each others' shoulders …

Phillips Rader, a well-known early aviator and Royal Flying Corps veteran, sits in the cockpit of an Army training plane in East Greenwich in 1917. Gallaudet Aircraft had a contract to train Army pilots, and Rader was the chief instructor. An experienced newspaperman, he had written about the Christmas Truce while serving in the French Foreign Legion in 1914. He was killed in a training accident in June 1918.

“The lieutenant said he would mail the photos to us after the war ended.”

As dusk fell, Sheil reports that a German bade Rifleman Eade of the 3rd Rifle Brigade a prophetic farewell:

“Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country. I fight for mine. Good luck!”

Rader wrote that the sound of rifles was heard far down the trench the next morning. But a couple of legionnaires, including an American named John Street, an evangelist from St. Louis, were still basking in the glow of the Christmas camaraderie. They jumped up and shouted morning greetings to the Germans they had made friends with the day before. “There was a sudden rattle of rifle fire, and Street fell dead with a bullet through his head. The sun was shining down again on a world gone mad.”

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: The Christmas Truce of 1914: Why were soldiers able to lay down arms?