The myth of the Christmas Truce

You’ve almost certainly heard some variant of the story. In the first December after the outbreak of World War Ⅰ in 1914, in the midst of the bloody and wearing trench warfare that became the defining symbol of the fighting on the Western Front, the soldiers on opposing sides spontaneously dropped their weapons on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day and crossed the No Man’s Land separating them to exchange holiday greetings, sing carols, and even play friendly soccer matches. After this brief respite, they returned to the business of war the following day. It’s a beautifully dramatic and romantic story.

Unsurprisingly, given its association with Christmas, the story has gained popular traction in modern Christian mythology. The spirit of Christmas, the theory goes, moved the hardened hearts of the soldiers for that holy day, giving a brief vision of the “peace of Earth” so often promised by Christmas carols. You can even find versions where the good Christian men managed to forge their truce despite the best efforts of those pesky atheists to ruin it:

Of course, there were some who refused to participate in the truce. Among those was a German field messenger, Corporal Adolf Hitler. Corporal Hitler, an atheist, also refused to participate in the religious observances of Christmas that were held.

(I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how “atheist Hitler” managed to function effectively as a messenger when he couldn’t possibly ever have set foot in one of those atheist-free foxholes.)

Anyway, the story of the Christmas Truce has become one of the most widely-known stories of the First World War, and every year around Christmas you can expect to hear it told once again in the most glowing and fuzzy terms. Naturally it has also become immortalized in film and song.

Even non-believers accept it uncritically. Just the other day Terry Firma of Friendly Atheist wrote an article to rebut the Christian take on the story, which describes how the Holy Spirit stepped in momentarily to stop the killing for a few hours then popped back out to let the bloodshed continue with a wave and a “have at it, boys!” Firma simply accepts the putative facts from the myth and instead focuses on debunking the claims of godliness. Even Snopes simply regurgitates the classic story.

An photograph of soldiers from opposing sides in the First World War, talking outside of a trench somewhere in France in December of 1914.

Soldiers from the two sides chat at one of the “Christmas truces”.

At this point you’re probably wondering if I’m going to say outright that the whole thing is just a complete fabrication. No, truces (plural) happened, and there was a particular widespread outbreak around the Christmas of 1914. Usually the nitty-gritty details and personal stories told of people who experienced them are more-or-less accurate, lifted as they are right out of personal accounts and letters. And it is almost certainly true that Christmas inspired a fair amount of camaraderie, and truces, that might not have otherwise happened. The core details of the common “Christmas truce” story are almost certainly true. It’s the surrounding context that is usually horrifically distorted, and misrepresented. When the whole story of the truces is told, it doesn’t lead to the usual schmaltzy religious take on events. It actually leads to a much more interesting, much more humanistic observation.

To get a clear picture of exactly what happened, we have to understand the mindset of the soldiers on both sides. We have to go back to the start of the war: July 1914.

A picture of the people holding the guns

The war was provoked by Austria-Hungary in retaliation for July 28th the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by a Yugoslav nationalist – the “shot heard round the world”. Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia that they knew Serbia couldn’t possibly accept, and the war was on. Austria-Hungary was friendly with the German Empire, while Serbia was friendly with the Russian Empire. Russia started moving troops around in the hopes of scaring Austria into backing down, and that triggered Germany to declare war on Russia. Germany also know that Russia was weak and unprepared for war (they had been hammered by Japan ten years earlier, not to mention the revolution of 1905), so they saw the chance to expand their own empire eastward. They knew that if they wanted to fight Russia, first they had to deal with France, which was friendly to Russia. They figured the best chance of taking France would be to go through Luxembourg then Belgium, which shouldn’t be too difficult (they thought). The UK had a treaty with Belgium, so when Germany attacked them, on August 12th the UK declared war on Germany, and thus, Canada was in the war. All of this happened in six weeks.

The above is just a quick crib sheet for how the war broke out, of course, but the reason I outlined it was to show how quickly, and how haphazardly and how quickly the war happened. Most of the countries involved were frankly not ready for war, and it was only seen as a scuffle between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, with all the other fronts being merely side scuffles to prevent countries from taking advantage of the main war to expand their own territory. In particular, none of the combatants on the Western Front – Germany, the UK, France, or Belgium – really wanted to be involved, and had little to gain from it (except for self-defence in the case of the latter two, and Germany just wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be bothered on the west while they went after Russia on the east). It was supposed to be a quick war. Most of the soldiers who volunteered expected to be home by Christmas.

In the early days of the war, almost all the soldiers were volunteers (conscription didn’t start until late in the war). It is common nowadays to portray them as driven by wholesome patriotism, willing to selflessly risk themselves to protect their homes and families. The reality is much less heroic, and far sadder. Certainly some people signed up out of nationalistic fervour, but the most common reason for signing up was that the army offered three guaranteed meals a day and a bed to sleep in – something that many young men at the time couldn’t count on at home – and pretty decent pay. The idea was that you could sign up, and if you could just hold out for two or three months, you would walk away with stories to tell of your heroics in foreign lands, a better chance of landing a job thanks to your status as a veteran of a war, and a pension.

They weren’t stupid – they knew there was a risk of death or injury – but at the time no one, not even the generals, had any idea what the advances in technology had done to change the face of war, and the likelihood of survivability. No one foresaw how the machine gun, barbed wire, or gas would change things. And no one realized that the war was going to drag on far longer than a month or two. The people who signed up simply had no idea of what was in store for them.

And at first, everything went more or less as expected. It wasn’t until mid-September that things started to go sideways.

When the war changed

In the first Battle of the Marne (5–12 September), Allied troops (France and the UK) beat the Central Powers (Germany) back from Paris. This was a turning point in the war – in fact, it is considered one of the most important military victories of the 20th century. It forced the Germans to change their entire war strategy: gone was the idea that France would be a cakewalk; now Germany would have to fight a war on two fronts, with France in the west and Russia in the east… arguably why they ultimately lost the war. More importantly, it was really where trench warfare was born. The Germans only retreated a few dozen kilometres, then dug in with trenches. The Allies pursuing them were too slow, and instead of running into a retreating rear guard, they ran into a well-entrenched defensive line.

Up to this point, both sides – and all the soldiers doing the fighting – still believed it was going to be a quick war, done and over with in a few more weeks. That would now begin to change. The first Battle of Marne had been the bloodiest week so far in the war (indeed, it would turn out to be the bloodiest week for the entire war), then it was followed by weeks and weeks of slogging in muddy trenches that had been haphazardly built. And to top all that off, few weeks after the stalemate began, the Ottoman Empire also joined the war (though technically they had been secretly allied with Germany from the beginning) and Serbia beat back Austria-Hungary in the Battle of Kolubara (16 November – 15 December)… which, if you’ll recall, the whole war was supposed to be about Serbia and Austria-Hungary. The entire original purpose of the war was now over, yet still more countries were jumping in, and still the soldiers on the Western Front grinded day-after-day in endless weeks of trench warfare.

Now, with that background, you can hopefully begin to understand the mindset of the soldiers. They had only joined up for an adventure that was supposed to last a few weeks – maybe a few months. They expected to fight, sure, but they expected it to be like previous wars: staying in requisitioned houses (or, in the worst case, tents) only to pop out for a few hours, take shots across a field, then retiring to a warm and comfortable bed. They expected casualties, but only in the range of a few percent (the casualty rate of the second Boer War (1889–1902), which would have been the worst war in recent memory for the British, was only ~2%).

But by the end of November, everything had changed. The war had dragged on for almost half a year, with the last two months being a virtual stalemate due to the trenches. They were forced to live in muddy, cold, disease-ridden trenches, knowing that if they popped their heads up in a moment they might get picked off by a sniper, always watching out for artillery, and tense and ready to repel a raid or get the gas masks on at a moment’s notice. The casualties had been staggering – the Battle of the Marne had a near ~25% casualty rate, and while the attrition in the trenches was slower it was relentless. As winter started to pick up, the winter rains rolled in, sometimes flooding the trenches right out but usually just making them mucky hellholes. The whole point of the war seemed long distant – the Germans and British in particular were really just fighting a foreign war, and even though the French and Belgians were trying to take back their homelands, it was all due to a conflict that had really started between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, which was now moot. And there was no end in sight for any of it.

And the enemy, many of whom shared common languages and traditions, were in exactly the same situation, often no more than 100 metres away – sometimes less than 30.

How the real truces happened

In the standard Christmas truce narrative, the soldiers were apparently exhausted and burned out, but still fighting on right through it all until that magical moment when someone starts singing carols. The reality is far more interesting.

Being so close to the enemy for such long periods of time didn’t always lead to more violence. Quite the opposite, in fact. They were often close enough to shout over to each other… and they did. Much of what was shouted were insults, jeers, and propaganda, but not in the way you’d think – most of it was apparently pretty good-natured jesting. The Germans called the British soldiers “Tommy” and the French “Pollu”, and the British and French called the Germans “Fritz”, and they bantered back and forth in the lulls in fighting.

There were also “gentleman’s agreements” between the two sides in many places, often unspoken. They figured out when rations were delivered to the other side and usually informally opted to refrain from fighting during meal or rest times. In some places, these agreements were even somewhat formalized, such as the raising of a board to signal temporary ceasefires or agreed-upon times when soldiers could leave the trenches and go into No Man’s Land to recover their fallen comrades.

In time, these expanded into actual conversations shouted across No Man’s Land. The men would ask for news from the other side’s homeland, or simply trade jokes or chat.

Even in No Man’s Land, peace would happen. At night when the snipers were ineffective, both sides would send out patrols to scout. If those patrols met, they had two options: fight hand-to-hand (they couldn’t use guns, or it would attract machine gun fire, killing both sides), or… move on in peace. Unsurprisingly (to me at least), the latter option was often chosen. Sometimes the two sides would use the opportunity to exchange letters or supplies like tobacco this way.

Fraternization of this kind, despite being disorganized and spontaneous, was apparently widespread. It varied from place to place, ranging from informal and unspoken agreements not to attack during mealtimes, to formal agreements between commanding officers on either side to recover fallen comrades and exchange supplies and news.

Did you notice anything missing from my account so far? There’s not a single mention of Christmas. That’s because these widespread truces and fraternization had nothing to do with Christmas. They were recorded as early as several weeks before Christmas, and continued on and off throughout the war.

In fact, the widespread fraternization between the soldiers of the two sides had less to do with the holidays than with the timing. The weather was a factor, too – apparently the winter in 1914 was particularly miserable. The soldiers were just ordinary guys who joined up for three hots and a cot, and found themselves in the middle of some of the most horrifying warfare in human history. They didn’t really want to fight – they wanted an easy ticket to comfort and just got a raw deal. By the end of November, that realization had sunk in on both sides. They’d had enough; if it had been up to the front line soldiers, the war would have been over by the end of November 1914.

Actually, if you listen carefully to some of the retellings of the “Christmas truce” myth, you can even hear clues that it’s not quite the whole story. Sometimes people recounting the myth will say that the soldiers in the trenches wanted peace, but the higher-ups who were comfortably housed in “luxurious châteaux” several kilometres back from the front lines ordered them to keep fighting. They threatened the men with punishment if they laid down their arms and fraternized with the enemy. They even tried planting false intelligence that the enemy would attack on Christmas day in the hopes of forestalling any attempts at a battlefield truce. But it was all to no avail, as the truce happened anyway.

But think about that. If the truces were really as spontaneous as they’re often presented, the commanders must have been prescient to foresee them.

The reality is that they weren’t spontaneous. Fraternization and informal ceasefires and truces had been happening for weeks by the time Christmas rolled around. In fact, they were seen as a serious problem by some commanders. (Though not all: some were ambivalent toward them, others actually actively took part in them.) The commanders realized that Christmas – a very convenient excuse for both sides to take a break – would only exacerbate the problem, and that is why they tried to spread false intelligence of a Christmas day attack. It didn’t work, because the soldiers on the front line could actually hear right from the mouths of the enemy soldiers that not only was no attack planned, they were also getting false intelligence of a Christmas day attack.

It turned out that once the soldiers on the front lines got to spend a little time across from each other, they got to know each other as human beings, rather than faceless monsters they could kill with impunity. And once they got to know each other as human beings, they really didn’t want to kill each other. In fact, they looked for every opportunity to avoid it. They had to be ordered to continue firing in some cases, and even threatened with consequences if they didn’t. Some people were even court-martialled. (Note that Sir Iain Colquhoun’s “Christmas truce” was in 1915… not 1914. This is even further evidence that the Christmas truces of 1914 were not a one-off thing.) Even then, soldiers would often ignore or defy orders, either refusing to fire at all or firing harmlessly into the air.

It’s certainly true that the scope of the outbreak of truces at the end of December 1914 was unprecedented, and never quite repeated throughout the rest of the war. But, once again, this was not due to the “magic of Christmas”. Once again, it’s a simple matter of timing. By mid-December 1914, the war was still young enough that the soldiers hadn’t become jaded into the routine of killing, yet it had just dragged on long enough that the sense of adventure was dead. They were tired of the war, yet they still had enough energy to be mutinous and defiant. Christmas was nothing more than a convenient excuse to do more of what they were already doing, more openly.

There may have been yet another factor in play, too. Both the German and British armies received substantial care packages from their respective leadership and other supporters – boxes containing chocolates, pipes, and so on, some of which ended up becoming gifts for the enemy. Suddenly finding themselves in comparative luxury after so many weeks of roughing it may have helped raise their spirits, and encourage their humanity. Notably, the French and Belgians did not receive care packages that were quite as impressive, and there were far fewer instances of explicit, formal truces involving them, though the fact that their homelands were currently being occupied by the Germans may have been a more important factor.

So why did they stop after Christmas ended? Well, the first part of the answer to that is: they didn’t. They continued throughout the war. The mass outbreak of truces at the end of 1914 did peter out by the middle of January 1915, but that was not due to the end of the holiday break.

Why the truces ended

A lot of things changed in 1915. Zeppelins started bombing Britain in late January – suddenly for the British soldiers, the war was no long a foreign war. On May 7th, the passenger liner Lusitania was sunk and over a thousand civilians lost – the largest maritime disaster since the Titanic (and ultimately, the largest civilian maritime disaster of the entire war).

Then there was the second Battle of Ypres, which began April 22nd. This battle is very important to Canadian military history, because it marks the first time a Canadian unit won a battle against European forces on their own turf. More importantly, though, it also marked the very first successful poison gas attack, which produced over 7,000 Canadian and French casualties in a matter of minutes.

These kinds of events changed the soldiers’ perceptions of the other side. And of course the war was still growing and growing – Italy and Bulgaria entered in 1915. Things would get even worse in 1916 – the British introduced conscription in January 1916, the Battle of Verdun began that February, and so on. Over time, the soldiers just had the humanity drained out of them.

A propaganda poster from post-war Britain (1918), made by the British Empire Union. It portrays German soldiers as drunken barbarians, and compares them to a German businessman. The message is to not hire Germans or buy German-made goods.

A post-war (1918) poster.

Propaganda also got more aggressive about dehumanizing enemy soldiers, reducing them to caricatures that could more easily be shot at. In 1914, propaganda posters encouraging people to enlist were plastered with Union Jacks and other appeals to patriotic duty. Things changed drastically in 1915. Posters started listing the death tolls (specifically of women and children) of the bombings and showing imagery of soldiers swearing vengeance. After the Lusitania, references to it became a common theme, calling it devil’s work. Things only got nastier after the gas attacks and allegations of the mistreatment of prisoners. Posters started implying the Germans could not be trusted and that their goal was the conquest of Britain (it wasn’t – they were aiming for Russia, and would have preferred not to fight the French or British at all). Soon, the Germans were being portrayed as barbarians at the gates poised to enslave Britons and rape the womenfolk, and committing “crimes against God and Man”. By the end of the war, Germans were being portrayed as drunken, barbarian, baby-bayonetting rapists (see the image to the right).

But what really stopped the truces, though, was the interference of the military commanders on both sides.

As you can imagine, those who had their sights set on winning the war – rather than merely surviving it – took a dim view of their soldiers making friends with the other side and refusing to kill them. The commanders began taking proactive steps to put an end to fraternization. They actually used casualty reports to detect places where peace was breaking out – too few of their men being killed meant they had to do something to fix the problem.

The steps they took to break these informal peaces included things like ordering raids during formerly informal ceasefire periods like mealtimes, and the warning off or outright shooting of emissaries making peace overtures across No Man’s Land. Naturally, they also threatened their soldiers with punishment for fraternization. They also started rotating troops that got too friendly to other parts of the front where there had been less fraternization – this broke the ties they had with soldiers on the other side, but it also effectively harmed their own operations as they moved people familiar with territory and the local enemy away to unfamiliar areas. These tactics, along with the slow degradation of the soldiers’ spirits as the war dragged on, proved quite effective in hindering further fraternization.

That is why the outburst of truces petered out and never quite reoccurred to the same degree. Christmas kept happening each year, after all – if it really had been the motivation for the truces, the truces should have reoccurred, too. It was because the soldiers had lost their sense of the humanity of the other side – both because of the direct interference of military commanders, and because of the continued brutality of the war – and because they had lost a bit of their own humanity as the war dragged on that the truces never quite happened on the same scale again. They still happened – pockets of fraternization and handshake truces happened all throughout the war – but never quite on the same scale.

It’s also why “Christmas truces” didn’t happen in any subsequent wars, like World War ⅠⅠ, despite the fact that Christmases continued to happen every year. It wasn’t that chivalry had died, or that the generation fighting that war was less humane than the combatants in the previous war. It was just that military leaders had learned to nip the problem in the bud. Since World War Ⅰ, soldiers have never been given the opportunity to fraternize with the enemy at all. Propaganda also got much better at vilifying and dehumanizing the enemy.

Why this matters

The common perception of the “Christmas truce” is that it was a spontaneous outbreak of peace by people who spent the rest of their time murdering each other without thinking too much about it, inspired either by the influence of the divine (in the Christian version) or the sentiment of the holiday (in the secular). The point I want to make is that not only is this factually wrong, it criminally distorts the actual lesson that we can learn from the events.

First of all, there was not one “Christmas truce”, there were many. There were spontaneous and informal truces all across the Western Front, and on the other fronts. They varied in just about every way imaginable, from their duration to their official sanction to their success. Some were merely tacit agreements not to fight during meal times, some were negotiated times to collect fallen and wounded comrades, and some were full-on officially requested ceasefires where opposing officers would cross No Man’s Land to have talks. And yes, exchanging supplies like treats and tobacco was common, as were friendly chats between the soldiers on each side. The common impression of these kinds of truces, and this kind of fraternization, being a one-time thing inspired only by Christmas obscures the reality, and the most important lesson we can learn from them.

Second, they have almost nothing to do with Christmas. The informal and spontaneous truces that came to be called the “Christmas truce” started some weeks before the holiday season, and continued sporadically throughout the war. Christmas served as an effective way to “out” them, and carry them out openly on a much larger scale, but it did not inspire them in most cases. Oh, sure, there were probably some places where Christmas did inspire a truce where there had been none before, but the fact remains that there were many such truces, and plenty of fraternization, long before Christmas, both formal and unofficial.

Third, the truces did not end merely because the holiday did, when the men shrugged and just went back to killing. There were active and concerted efforts by the military authorities to prevent them from happening. They did everything they could to brutalize their own soldiers – stripping the humanity out of them – and to dehumanize the enemy. The war dragging on, horror upon horror piling up, aided them in their efforts.

That is the lesson we should take away from the story of the truces. When those guys were treated like human beings, and allowed to get to know the people across the battlefield and see that they were human beings, too… that is what sparked the spontaneous outbursts of peace. It wasn’t the mystical magic of Christmas day that inspired them to show humanity to the guy across the way… it was the fact that that guy told great jokes, liked the same songs, and knew about that bar in Havering – in other words, just the “mystical magic” of being a person… someone you could actually talk to and get to know.

The lessons of the truces have not been lost on military thinkers, either. They know now how important it is to dehumanize an enemy, and prevent even casual informal dialogues between opposing soldiers. They know how to use drudgery to drain the humanity out of their own men, and to keep them from getting too comfortable or from having too much free time to think about who they’re shooting at – keep ’em hungry, keep ’em tired, keep ’em tense, keep ’em angry, but not so much that they can’t fight effectively; that’s how you keep soldiers combat ready under fire.

We could learn from them, too, but use what learn much more positively. If we want to end war altogether, we don’t need something as loopy as “Christmas every day”. All we need is to treat people like people. If they’re tired, cold, and hungry, help them out – even just a little, like a care package with some goodies in it can make a big difference. Let everyone chat freely, and get to know each other. Don’t let them lose hope. That’s all it takes.

Even in the midst of war, that’s all it took for those men a hundred years ago to find a way to make peace with each other, and had they been supported in those efforts rather than stymied at every turn, who knows how things might have turned out differently. Sadly, the decision of whether or not to fight the war was not theirs to make – they would have been shot by their own leadership for refusing to fight on.

All too often, I hear people ranting about how war is the natural state for humanity, or how people just want to kill. Even the Mikklesons of snopes.com end their article by quoting the maxim that peace is harder to make than war. I call bullshit on that attitude. The true story of the truces – not the dewy-eyed version of “holiday magic” you usually hear – proves that peace is natural and spontaneous, if you just let people be people.

The true story of the truces is a story about how people will naturally and spontaneously find their humanity and seek peace and friendship even in the worst situations, if only they too are treated humanely. It is not a story of holiday magic. It is an object lesson of the power of humanistic principles.

CC BY-SA 4.0
The myth of the Christmas Truce by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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