A World War I interlude among British and German troops shows how even bitter foes can work out rituals of cooperation
‘The Christmas Day Truce of 1914,’ a lithograph by Arthur C. Michael published on Jan. 9, 1915, shows British and German soldiers out of the trenches of World War I, arm in arm and exchanging headgear. Arthur C. Michael/The illustrated London News Picture Library, London, UK/Bridgeman Images
Robert M. Sapolsky
On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one…. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench…
So wrote a British soldier named Frank Richards, referring to the first Christmas of World War I, one hundred years ago this Thursday. Up and down the four hundred-odd miles of trenches on the Western Front, men risked their lives with similar acts, meeting opposing soldiers in “no man’s land.” Wary and unarmed, they made their way out of their trenches, taking steps that, a day earlier, would have guaranteed their death at the hands of sharpshooters and machine gunners a hundred yards away.
The relaxation of hostilities spread, and what has come to be called the “Christmas truce” took hold. Soon, soldiers were holding joint burial services for the dead. They began trading goods. British soldiers had been given holiday tins of plum pudding from the king; German soldiers had received pipes with a picture of the crown prince on them; and before long the men were bartering these holiday gee-gaws that celebrated the enemy’s royals. Eventually, soldiers prayed and caroled together, shared dinner, exchanged gifts. Most famously, there were soccer matches at various locations, played with improvised balls.
The truce mostly held through Christmas and, in some cases, even to the New Year. It took senior officers’ threats for fighting to resume, and such comprehensive battlefront peacemaking never happened again during the Great War. Courts-martial were brought against those involved later in even brief Christmas truces to retrieve the dead. READ MORE: The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce – WSJ.