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When Soldiers Put Down their Guns and Sang Christmas Carols with their Enemies

The Christmas Truce of World War I proved the power of peace.
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Wars are fought by soldiers, puppets of the powerful men who stay far away from the battlefield. It’s these soldiers who endure the worst of the carnage, but even in times of desperation, it is they who find hope where others cannot. No greater example of this sentiment exists than the Christmas Truce of 1914 when men on both sides of the Great War put down their rifles, walked across no man’s land, and displayed perhaps the best parts of human nature.

British and German soldiers playing football during the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914

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The power of the Christmas spirit

In 1914, the world would be mired in the greatest war known to man since Napoleon’s conquest of Europe—World War I. Known as the Great War, it was a struggle between two super-blocs, with France, Britain, Italy, and Russia on one side, pitted against Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. The initial belief was that the war would be over by the winter of 1914, but the war was drawn out and Christmas came and went, leaving soldiers in trenches instead of at home with their respective families.

The senior officers on both sides of the war were adamant about winning as soon as possible, but they didn’t count on the power of the holiday celebrations. On the eve of December 24, 1914, soldiers on opposing sides of the Western front decided to go against the orders of their superiors, put down their weapons, and sing Christmas songs to each other from their distant trenches.

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The next morning on Christmas Day, the Germans walked across the battlefield to shake the hands of their enemies. It would go down in history as the Christmas Truce.

“How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time,” German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch once said. 

Ceasefires weren’t uncommon during the war, as the two powers would allow their enemies to retrieve and bury the bodies of their fallen comrades. These breaks from the carnage enabled the men to rest, recover, and reorganize.

But what makes the Christmas Truce different? It reflected the still nascent stage of the war, with the peacetime notion of optimism still resonant. According to the accounts of soldiers, seeing the targets they were shooting at broke the years of propaganda inoculated by their national states, which sought to foster animosity and resentment.

The soldiers saw the faces of their enemies, and found they were human too.

Carols were sung, plum pudding was shared, and even gifts were exchanged in the form of cigarettes. At one point, the men even played a game of friendly soccer, a far cry from the battle they’d been engaged in just a few days prior. The mood was simultaneously jovial and somber. It was jovial because of the atmosphere of comradeship, and somber in commemoration of the dead. The cries of war it seemed, were put aside for a moment.

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British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914

The consequences of peace

Despite this pure moment of humanity, the generals and senior officers of both the Entente and Central Powers were not amused. Disciplinary measures were introduced, accusing everyone who participated in the Truce of being a traitor and a deserter to his nation. News reports were silenced to bury the event, but it was too late as the population at large was already enamored by the event.

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The panic of the senior officers reflected the nature of the truce. Involving thousands of soldiers, this went against their official narratives of the war. They claimed that such occurrences ruined the honor and dignity of the common soldier. But for those who lived to tell the tale, the Christmas truce reminded the people of the importance of humanity even amidst chaos.

Soldiers uniting at the Western Front

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Unfortunately, the Christmas Truce would be perhaps the last of the truces of such magnitude. The introduction of poison gas, coupled with more bloody encounters, had more or less removed what remained of the optimism of 1914. The gigantic battles such as that of Verdun, Cambrai, Passchendaele and The Somme were too brutal for any glimmer hope of peace to be rekindled.

Despite being shrouded in myth and legend, the Christmas Truce was a pivotal moment, for it demonstrated the very fact that the Great War was waged for the benefit of the rulers, to the divided reaction of their populace. Its significance lies in its symbolism—that the men who participated in the war viewed themselves as one, even just for a short duration.

A reminder that even the enemy is human.

References:

Blom, T.  (2015). The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War. Kentucky, United States of America. University Press of Kentucky.

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Eksteins, M. (2000). The Rites of Spring. New York, United States of America: Mariner Books

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