When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was automatically at war as well. There were a lot of parades and bravado as young Canadians marched off to enlist, expecting to defeat the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians and to be home by Christmas. It did not turn out that way, as the sides dug in for muddy and brutal trench warfare along lines in Belgium and France.
Canadians were not home for Christmas but something exceptional did happen at the front among German and allied soldiers. Estimates are that up to 100,000 British and German participated in an unofficial ceasefire along the Western Front. There was also a Christmas truce on the Eastern front which, although lesser known, involved Austrian and Russian soldiers.
In the West, the truce started on Christmas Eve, when German troops decorated the area around their trenches in Belgium. They placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then they sang carols, and the British responded with carols of their own. Men from the two sides called out Christmas greetings to each other. Soon after, they crossed No Man’s Land to exchange small gifts, such as food, tobacco, alcohol and souvenirs. They even played soccer.
Burying the dead
The truce also allowed a time where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines for burial. In some places, the truce lasted just through the night of December 25, but in others it continued until New Year’s Day and even beyond.
A soldier named Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange.”
Johannes Niemann, a German Lieutenant said this: “[I] grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy.”
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, a British commander, issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Adolph Hitler, then a young infantry corporal, also opposed the truce.
Some historians and politicians tend to minimize the Christmas truce and its significance. Others see it as a dramatic example of opposition to the dictates of war, including a refusal to fight, at least for a brief time. It would seem that over the years latter theme has won the day in cultural terms. There have been books, films, songs and plays written about the Christmas Truce.
The most notable film is a 2005 French production called Joyeux Noel, which was considered for an award at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Paul McCartney has a song about the truce, as does Garth Brooks. John McCutcheon’s powerful song “Christmas in the Trenches” from his 1984 album Winter Solstice, presents an account of the truce’s events from the perspective of a fictitious English soldier.
A Christmas truce memorial monument was unveiled in Frelinghien, France in 2008, and in December of this year Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, unveiled another memorial in Staffordshire, England.
This year, as well, the Martin Luther King Peace Committee at two British universities produced resources to enable schools and churches to mark the Christmas Truce. These included lesson plans, hand-outs, worksheets, PowerPoint slide shows, and full plans for assemblies, and carol services and Christmas productions. The authors said that they wanted to provide an alternative to the British government’s glorification of the First World War.
In Canada, a group called PeaceQuest – with affiliates in a number of cities – is making a similar effort in providing educational materials to be used in Canadian schools at all levels. PeaceQuest says on its website that it seeks “to mark the anniversaries of World War one with commemorations that emphasize peace.”
The 1914 Christmas Truce remains a potent symbol of the deep desire for peace, even when political leaders and generals have other plans.
This piece draws significantly on an entry published by Wikipedia encyclopedia.