When Britian entered the Great War in August 1914 there was great anticipation that it could all be over by Christmas the same year. Many thought it would be a short swift conflict with the various countries flexing their muscles and then everyone shaking hands and life returning to normality.
There was a natural longing to relax and be kind to one another at this time of year. With the weather changing for the good this helped things along. Christmas Eve was clear and crisp with a light frost on the ground, all helping to project the Christmas spirit on both sides.
In Europe, Christmas is normally celebrated on the 24th, Christmas Eve. The British soldiers had noticed that the Germans had decorated their trenches with candles, erected small Christmas Trees on the parapet and were singing Christmas Hymns. An officer from the Royal Irish Rifles reported back:
“The Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Christmas. Compliments are being exchanged but I am nevertheless taking all military precautions.”
Later that day, it appears that a couple of soldiers shouted across the gap if they would like to meet in the middle. Quite a risky thing to do but as a one or two soldiers climbed up over the top, no shots were fired. This was soon followed by more and more soldiers, all meeting in the middle of no-man’s land where they swapped photos, badges, cigars, cigarettes, bully beef, chocolate, all in the name of kindness.
“met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.”
“all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”
“A German soldier shouted ’Come out, English soldier, come over here to us.’ For some little time, we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So, we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity, and fraternity – war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn – a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines’ laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”
“Up until the morning of Christmas Day, everything was noticeably quiet, then occurred something I shall never forget. I was on guard, when I suddenly noticed a Frenchman had climbed onto the parapet of his trench. I had just taken aim when I noticed one of our men had climbed out too. The two of them advanced step by step towards each other and shook hands. The others from both sides followed their example. The Frenchman, who were mostly old, looked ill-nourished and poorly clothed. They begged for tobacco. We chatted for forty-five minutes then we all returned quietly to our trenches.”
“Today we have peace. Tomorrow, you fight for your country, I fight for mine. Good luck.”
Somme 1914-1918 Lessons in War – Martin Marix Evans
Not a shot was fired: Letters from the Christmas Truce 1914 – Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park
The Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914 – Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton