Christmas Truce and the First World War

The approach of the first Christmas of the First World War there was a spontaneous outburst of hostility towards the killing. On 24th December, arrangements were made between the two sides to go into No Mans Land to collect the dead. Negotiations also began to arrange a cease-fire for Christmas Day. Edward Hulse, a Lieutenant in the Scots Guards, received a message from the Germans suggesting a five day period without war.

Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather later recalled: "On Christmas morning I awoke very early and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist.... Walking about the trench a little later... we suddenly became aware of the fact we were seeing a lot of evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over the parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced.... A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet, and looked about itself.... This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by our men, until in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in no-man's land. I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in a muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches."

Later that day Second Lieutenant Dougan Chater wrote to his mother: "I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o'clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trenches and some came towards ours. We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles so one of our men went out to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas."

Another officer serving on the Western Front remarked that a "German climbed out of his trench and came over towards us. My friend and I walked out towards him. We met, and very gravely saluted each other. He was joined by more Germans, and some of the Dublin Fusiliers from our own trenches came out to join us. No German officer came out, it was only the ordinary soldiers. We talked, mainly in French, because my German was not very good, and none of the Germans could speak English well, but we managed to get together all right." One of the German soldiers said, "We don't want to kill you, and you don't want to kill us. So why shoot?"

Bruce Bairnsfather, Christmas: 1914 (1916)
Bruce Bairnsfather, Christmas: 1914 (1916)

On other parts of the front-line, German soldiers initiated a cease-fire through song. On Christmas Day the guns were silent and there were several examples of soldiers leaving their trenches and exchanging gifts in No Mans Land. The men even played a game of football. According to The Guardian newspaper, the "German and British soldiers who famously played football with each other in no man's land on Christmas Day 1914 didn't always have a ball. Instead, they improvised. On certain sections of the front, soldiers kicked around a lump of straw tied together with string, or even an empty jam box."

Despite this cease-fire on the Western Front 149 British servicemen died on Christmas Day 1914. Sir John French, the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, reported that when he heard about the fraternization, "I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account, which resulted in a great deal of trouble."

Primary Sources

(1) Lieutenant Edward Hulse, battalion war diary (December, 1914)

A scout named Murker went out and 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.

(2) Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather was one of those who took part in the Christmas Truce.

A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a strong German accent, "Come over here!" A ripple of mirth swept along our trench, followed by a rude outburst of mouth organs and laughter. Presently, in a lull, one of our sergeants repeated the request, "Come over here!"

"You come half-way - I come half-way," floated out of the darkness.

"Come on, then!" shouted the sergeant. "I'm coming along the hedge!"

After much suspicious shouting and jocular derision from both sides, our sergeant went along the hedge which ran at right-angles to the two lines of trenches.

Presently, the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Machonochie's and a tin of Capstan, which he had taken with him.

On Christmas morning I awoke very early and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist.

"Fancy all this hate, war, and discomfort on a day like this! I thought to myself. The whole spirit of Christmas seemed to be there, so much so that I remember thinking, "This indescribable something in the air, this Peace and Goodwill feeling, surely will have some effect on the situation here to-day!"

Walking about the trench a little later, discussing the curious affair of the night before, we suddenly became aware of the fact we were seeing a lot of evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over the parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced.

A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet, and looked about itself. This complaint became infectious. It didn't take "Our Bert" (the British sergeant who exchanged goods with the Germans the previous day) long to be up on the skyline. This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by our men, until in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in no-man's land.

I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in a muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches.

This was my first real sight of them at close quarters. Here they were - the actual practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match.

The difference in type between our men and theirs was very marked. There was no contrasting the spirit of the two parties. Our men, in their scratch costumes of dirty, muddy khaki, with their various assorted head-dresses of woollen helmets, mufflers and battered hats, were a light-hearted, open, humourous collection as opposed to the sombre demeanour and stolid appearance of the Huns in their grey-green faded uniforms, top boots, and pork-pie hats.

These devils, I could see, all wanted to be friendly; but none of them possessed the open, frank geniality of our men. However, everyone was talking and laughing, and souvenir hunting. Suddenly, one of the Boches ran back to the trench and presently reappeared with a large camera. I posed in a mixed group for several photographs, and I have ever since wished I had fixed up some arrangement for getting a copy.

(3) Second Lieutenant Dougan Chater, letter to his mother (25th December, 1914)

I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o'clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trenches and some came towards ours. We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles so one of our men went out to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.

(4) Lieutenant J. A. Liddell, letter to his parents (29th December, 1914)

On Christmas Day everyone spontaneously left their trenches and had a meeting halfway between the trenches. Germans gave us cigars, and we gave them chocolate and tobacco. They seemed very pleased to see us! Some had lived in England for years, and were very buckled at airing their English again.

(5) Captain P. Mortimer, diary entry (26th December, 1914)

The enemy came out of their trenches yesterday (being Christmas Day) simultaneously with our fellows - who met the Germans on neutral ground between the two trenches and exchanged the compliments of the season - presents, smokes and drinks - some of our fellows going into the German lines and some of the Germans strolling into ours - the whole affair was particularly friendly and not a shot was fired in our Brigade throughout the day. The enemy apparently initiated the move by shouting across to our fellows and then popping their heads out of their trenches and finally getting out of them altogether.

(6) Second Lieutenant Drummond was one of those involved in the Christmas truce in 1914.

The German climbed out of his trench and came over towards us. My friend and I walked out towards him. We met, and very gravely saluted each other. He was joined by more Germans, and some of the Dublin Fusiliers from our own trenches came out to join us. No German officer came out, it was only the ordinary soldiers. We talked, mainly in French, because my German was not very good, and none of the Germans could speak English well, but we managed to get together all right. One of them said, "We don't want to kill you, and you don't want to kill us. So why shoot?"

(7) Lieutenant, Kurt Zehmisch, diary entry, (December, 1914)

Möckel from my company, who had lived in England for many years, called to the British in English, and soon a lively conversation developed between us...

Afterwards, we placed even more candles than before on our kilometre-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination - the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake. It was a wonderful, if somewhat cold, night.

(8) Gustav Riebensahm, 2nd Westphalian regiment, diary entry, (December, 1914)

The English are extraordinarily grateful for the ceasefire, so they can play football again. But the whole thing has become slowly ridiculous and must be stopped. I will tell the men that from this evening it's all over.

(9) Luke Harding, The Guardian (11th November, 2003)

A new book by a German historian last night cast fresh light on one of the most extraordinary episodes of the first world war and revealed that the celebrated 1914 Christmas truce took place only because many of the Germans stationed on the front had worked in England.

The book, Der Kleine Frieden im Grossen Krieg, or The Small Peace in the Big War, shows that the German and British soldiers who famously played football with each other in no man's land on Christmas Day 1914 didn't always have a ball. Instead, they improvised. On certain sections of the front, soldiers kicked around a lump of straw tied together with string, or even an empty jam box...

According to Jürgs, the fraternisation involving mostly Catholic Saxon and Bavarian regiments was only possible because many of the German soldiers spoke good English as they had previously been employed in Britain. "They had worked as cab drivers and barbers in places like Brighton, Blackpool and London," he said. "When war broke out in August 1914 they were forced to go home. Some even left families behind in England."

One German soldier had worked in the Savoy; when the war started British soldiers would apparently shout "Waiter!" across their newly dug positions. Another German infantryman described how on Christmas Day, when both sides climbed out of their trenches and over the barbed wire, a British Tommy had set up a makeshift barber's shop in no man's land. The barber was "completely indifferent" to whether his customers were German or British, and charged a couple of cigarettes per haircut, Bavarian Josef Sebald observed. "This was war... but there was no trace of enmity between us," he added.

The informal ceasefire stretched all across the 500-mile western front where more than a million men were encamped, from the Belgian coast as far as the Swiss border. The truce was especially warm along a 30-mile line around the Belgian town of Ypres, Jürgs notes. Not everybody, though, approved. One Austrian soldier billeted near Ypres complained that in wartime such an understanding "should not be allowed". His name was Adolf Hitler.