100th Anniversary of the Christmas Truce during World War One

By the summer of 1914, Europe was thrown into World War One. As the war progressed, and battle lines stalled, trench warfare, supported by barbed wire became a way of life. In some places the trenches between the Allies and the Axis were thirty to forty yards apart. By December 1, it looked as if the war would not be over by Christmas. On December 7, Pope Benedict XV had asked the warring governments for a truce, but neither would have it. There would be no official truce on Christmas.

The wet weather leading up to Christmas had made the trenches a muddy and soggy mess. Water was everywhere, and conditions in the trenches were harsh. As battles were fought near Christmas, the bodies of the deceased still laid upon the ground. But as Christmas approached, there were a few informal truces that took place, which included the fraternization of soldiers. As Christmas Eve night approached, temperatures began to dive and a heavy layer of frost formed on the ground. What happened next was a truly remarkable historic event.

It seems that the first area of the Christmas Truce began at Ypres, Belgium. German soldiers began decorating their line of trenches with candles and singing Christmas carols. The British soldiers on the other side responded by singing carols of their own. Some of the songs were sung in German and English. Then shouting matches of season’s greetings and general greeting took place.

One British soldier recalled, “On Christmas Eve at about 4 p.m. we were in a line of advance trenches waiting to be relieved when we heard singing and shouting coming from the other trenches at right angles to us which line a hedge of the same field. Then the news filtered down. German and English officers had exchanged compliments and agreed on a truce and then started giving one another a concert. We all sang every song we could think of, a bonfire was lit and everyone walked about as though it were a picnic.”

One British soldier recalled that during the night, “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they sang ‘Silent Night’ – ‘Stille Nacht’. I shall never forget it; it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.”

Alfred Kornitzke, who was a German cook, was preparing a festive confection for his company, who were facing the Algerians. As the Algerians kept up the gunfire, Kornitzke, still wearing his baker’s hat, got fed up with all of the shooting at the Germans, as Christmas Eve was not celebrated by those of the Islam faith. Soon, he jumped out of the trench with a Christmas tree and began moving toward the Algerians line in No Man’s Land. “He did not stop until he was halfway between the lines. There he sat the tree down carefully, calmly took some matches…he had intended to use for his petroleum stove, and in the frosty star-filled night, lit the candles, one by one…Now, you blockheads, now you know what’s going on! Merry Christmas!” His Christmas greeting must have worked because with that, the Algerians ceased firing.

As Christmas morning came, many of the men began yelling out “Merry Christmas.” It wasn’t long before white flags were seen coming from the trenches and soldiers gathered in the middle of No Man’s Land. Captain Josef Sewald, of the 17th Bavarian remembered when he yelled over to his enemy from his trench:“We didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted ‘No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands.”

Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.British Captain Robert Miles recalled “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. A regular soldiers’ peace!” As the soldiers came out of their trenches and began to mingle, they exchanged small gifts of food, tobacco and alcohol. Uniform buttons were also traded. One English soldier recalled, “In my mouth is a pipe presented by the 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.”

The Jenaer Volksblatt, a German paper, had a very witty piece written about the Christmas Truce. “Yesterday about four o’clock in the afternoon there was a fierce and terrible onslaught of Christmas packages onto our trenches. No man was spared. However, not a single package fell into the hands of the French. In the confusion, one soldier suffered the paling of a salami two inches in diameter straight into his stomach…Another had two large raisins from an exploding pastry fly directly into his eyes…A third man had a great misfortune of having a full bottle of cognac fly into his mouth.”

Details were sent out into No Man’s Land to recover the corpses of fallen soldiers for a proper burial. Church services were also held. It was reported that soccer and football were played. It seemed as if those once considered enemies had become the bests of friends. The men talked about their homes and their families, girlfriends and wives.

However, military strictness was observed with regard to positions and trench layout. According to Lance Corporal George Ashurst, 2 Lancashire Fusiliers, one German soldier came out of his trench bearing a flag of truce. He was met by another British soldier and escorted to the British trench, but since he was not blind folded “he had to be made a prisoner of war.” The German soldier protested and was upset. Other soldiers took the opportunity to view the enemy’s machine gun emplacements on the trenches.

There were at least five documented Americans serving in the French Foreign Legion that participated in the Christmas Truce, Eugene Jacobs of Pawtucket, R. I., Victor Chapman, a Harvard man from New York, Phil Rader, George Unard, and African American cook from Galveston Texas, and John Street from St. Louis. John Street was killed the day after Christmas by a German bullet. Phil wrote a letter about the Christmas Truce that was published in several American newspapers. He recalled, “For 20 days we had faced that strip of land, 45 feet wide between our trench and that of the Germans—that terrible no-man’s land, dotted with dead bodies, crisscrossed by tangled mazes of barbed wire. That little strip of land was as wide and as deep and as full of death as the Atlantic Ocean, as uncrossable as the spaces between the stars, as terrible as human hate. Christmas morning fell on it as brightly as if it were a lover’s lane or the aisle in some grand cathedral.”

By dusk, this remarkable event was, for the most part, over. Never again in history would there by a truce such as the one observed by the men in 1914. Soldiers quickly wrote letters home about what had happened. Phil Rader recalled, “Shouts filled the air. What miracle had happened? Men laughed and cheered. There was a Christmas light in our eyes and I know there were Christmas tears in mine. There were smiles, smiles, smiles, where for days there had been only rifle barrels. The terror of no-man’s land fell away. The sounds of happy voices filled the air. We were all unhumanly happy for that one glorious instant, in which we all—English, Portugese, Americans and even Nadem, the Turk, and that savages, as we had been, cave men as we were, the awfulness of war had not filled the corners of our hearts, where love and Christmas live.” Indeed it was a miracle, a Christmas miracle.

As army censorships read mail from the participating soldiers that was being sent back home, it was revealed that an unofficial truce had taken place. The events that unfolded during Christmas were treasonous in the eyes of the high command in all of the armies. Their leaders were furious. However, there were several sectors of the battlefield where Christmas did not stop the war and fighting continued. Then again, there were certain areas of the battlefield where the Christmas Truce lasted until after the New Year of 1915. But in those areas, where the truce was observed, would leave a lasting memory on those who participated in the Christmas Truce. Phil Rader recalled the day after Christmas, “The sun was shining down again on a world gone mad.”