World War I (1914-1918) is remembered as one of the most fiercely fought, brutally endured and largest scale wars in the history of mankind. It claimed the lives of over 19 million souls. For everyone involved, the memories of pain, loss, and separation lingered forever in their minds and are felt through the generations. There was, however, a singularly uniquely historical event at the outset of the war that filled the hearts of the troops with positivity and humanity and maybe, ours also.
World War I broke out in 1914 when the Germans made their way through Belgium to attack the major industrial cities of France on the Western front.
By September 1914, the British and French forces repelled the Germans outside Paris at the Battle of the Marne compelling the Germans to retreat to the Aisne valley to hold defensive positions.
The Allied troops later attacked the German front lines, and the battle raged violently on every inch of land. Both sides started to develop fortified systems of trenches to protect their captured area.
The trenches of the two sides stretched from the North Sea to the French-Belgian-Swiss border.
On 7th December 1914, Pope Benedict XV, along with a few neutral countries, made an attempt to call for an official truce between the warring governments in the name of Christmas. He asked, “the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”
Near Christmas Day, 101 British women sent Christmas cards to Germany and Austria carrying with them a message of peace.
The two sides of the front line
At Christmas, fewer weapons and ammunitions were provided to the battlefield, instead, they were replaced by presents, Christmas cards, food, and drinks.
In the trenches in Ypres, Saint-Yvon (Belgium) where the battle between the British and the Germans took place, on Christmas eve of 1914, German soldiers decorated the area around their trench festively. They also lit candles and placed them in the trench and on Christmas trees.
In their trench, the British soldiers saw the German trench shining so were on high alert to the German’s possible attack. Then they heard a sound drifting across the battlefield: ‘Stille Natch! Heilige Natch!’, the German ‘Silent Night’. A British soldier shouted, “They are singing, we should sing along!”. So, from their trenches on the other side of the battlefield, British soldiers also began to sing Christmas carols.
This was the most unforgettable moment for the soldiers, the moment that hymns replaced the fierce sound of gunfire on the battlefield.
Seasonal songs of joy and peace were joyfully exchanged between the trenches of both sides. Soon after, each side climbed tentatively out of their trenches into No Man’s Land to give each other small gifts such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. At that moment, the boundaries of the two warring sides were seemingly removed.
On another battlefield, on Christmas Day 1914, the very same year, German soldiers also called for a ceasefire. While the British officers had not responded, a British soldier recklessly stood up and lifted his head above the parapet. Upon his survival, the soldiers on both sides then, one by one, came out of the trenches and ran towards each other to shake hands and share cigarettes.
A British soldier wrote to his mother, “Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coal fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes, a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & the Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”
Captain Robert Patrick Miles of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry recounted in a letter posted in the Daily Mail: “Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course, our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.”
Soon after, the armistice was widespread along the Western Front. In Ypres (Belgium), men from both sides ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to shake hands to celebrate Christmas, shared photos and told each other stories about their families. Suddenly there appeared a ‘made-up football’ from the Germans, so the British and German soldiers rushed to the ball innocently like children. Immediately the soldiers of both sides turned it to a football match. The result of the beautiful, heroic and somewhat infamous football match was 3 – 2 to the Germans.
But this is not the only football match. According to the soldiers’ memory, there were dozens of such matches along the front lines during this historic Christmas Day truce.
Right after Christmas, soldiers on both sides were ordered to stop the ceasefire, anyone who disobeyed orders would be severely punished, and the fierce battle was resumed.
The events of the Ceasefire in memorial
Ever since, countless articles, TV programs and films have celebrated the events of the 1914 Christmas Day ceasefire. The events of that day will go down in history as a staunch reminder of the deeply felt humanity of mankind and the simple truth that our similarities far outweigh our differences, even with regards to our enemies. For those involved, for whom this was an unbelievably beautiful memory and a very rare peaceful moment in an otherwise brutal war, for just that one day they were allowed to be, not soldiers, but men, celebrating Christmas Day.
On 21st November 2005, the last veteran of the historic Christmas ceasefire in 1914, Alfred Anderson, died in Scotland at the age of 109.
Since 2011, the English Football League and the Organizing Board of the Premier League have co-launched the Christmas Truce Tournament, which is held annually in Ypres (Belgium), right where the football match took place on Christmas Day 1914. Along with the tournament are activities that show the brutalities of war, from which humanity can see the pricelessness of peace.