Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

The Christmas Day Truce

Many things are associated with the Christmas period which we know and love and we can generally count on having a great time during the festive period. Circumstances were very different when soldiers of the Allied and German armies put down their weapons and stopped fighting to enjoy some familiar activities during the Christmas period of 1914, World War One.

There is some disagreement as to exactly what happened in 1914, but through letters from soldiers to their families, we have been able to piece together some of the details. The war was less than six months old and fighting had been fierce. Despite the grim situation, on 7th December 1914, Pope Benedict XV proposed a period of no fighting in order to allow the troops to celebrate Christmas. This plea fell on deaf ears; there was no officially agreed truce between the major powers.

Despite this, when Christmas Eve arrived, many accounts suggest that both Allied and German troops began to sing Christmas songs in their respective trenches. Some of the songs appear to have been directed in a friendly manner to the opposite side, Germans singing ‘Merry Christmas’ and Brits responding with ‘Stille Nacht’ (Silent Night). The following day saw German troops leave their trench South of Ypres and walk through No Man’s Land towards their Allied counterparts. Initial concern that an ambush might be in place was quickly dismissed as soldiers found themselves face to face with their former enemies. Private Jack Chappell (1/5th Londons) wrote home that in the morning his battalion and the Germans opposite agreed not to fire. Gifts of food were exchanged and a football match was played, whilst both sides collected their dead and provided a dignified burial. No matter where troops found themselves, in France, the deserts of the Middle East, the ravines of Gallipoli or the African bush, the scenes of Christmas celebration and peace were ubiquitous.

Reports differ as to how the fighting resumed, from a signal flare to movement of new troops into the lines, but the truce was never repeated during WW1, as commanding officers suppressed any future festivities. Many authorities rightly believed that such fraternisation could prove damaging to the mission. Nevertheless, medical truces remained to bury the dead and attend to the sick, for example in Gallipoli between Australian and Turkish forces on 24th May, 1915. However, in the words of Prince William, the truce remains “wholly relevant today as a message of hope over adversity, even in the bleakest of times”.

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