The Christmas truce of WWI as told by the soldiers who were there
Letters reveal how the guns fell silent across the Western Front during the short-lived peace of 1914
On Christmas Eve 1914, the brutal war that gripped Europe halted spontaneously, with both sets of soldiers observing a small window of peace.
More than 100,000 soldiers on the battlefields of Belgium and France reportedly laid down their arms and advanced into No Man’s Land to converse with the enemy.
Soon the Christmas spirit took hold and German and British troops sang carols and exchanged gifts, some drank and smoked and a now-famous football match took place.
Yet despite the ubiquity of the story of the Christmas truce, its details and scale remain a point of contention for historians.
According to the Imperial War Museum: “The truce was not observed everywhere along the Western Front... Elsewhere the fighting continued and casualties did occur on Christmas Day.”
However, the accounts of the day, taken from the journals and diaries of those who were there, provide an insight into the event as haunting as it is moving.
How the Christmas truce began:
“It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And then they sang ‘Silent Night’ – ‘Stille Nacht’. I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.”
- Private Albert Moren of the Second Queen’s Regiment.
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
- Rifleman Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade
“We were in the front line, we were about 300 yards from the Germans. And we had, I think on Christmas Eve, we’d been singing carols and this, that and the other, and the Germans had been doing the same. And we’d been shouting to each other, sometimes rude remarks, more often just joking remarks.
“Anyway, eventually a German said, ‘Tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot.’ And the morning came and we didn’t shoot and they didn’t shoot. So then we began to pop our heads over the side and jump down quickly in case they shot but they didn’t shoot. And then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms and we didn’t shoot and so on, and so it gradually grew.”
- Marmaduke Walkinton of the London Regiment
The cautious first move:
“I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted: ‘No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands - a bit cautiously!”
- Captain Josef Sewald of Germany’s 17th Bavarian Regiment
“I don’t know if we had breakfast that morning, I suppose we did; we had a drink. Everything was peaceful and eventually one of the Germans held up a card with ‘Merry Christmas’ written on it, and come on over the top. Everybody was dubious in our trench, saying kind of, should we or shouldn’t we and all of this bloomin’ caper, and then one or two more Germans come up.
“Then eventually we decided, well they haven’t got any rifles on ’em and we went over. And our Buchanan-Dunlop who come to us as Battalion Commander, he kind of led the singing!”
- Private Stan Brown of the 1st Leicestershire Regiment
How the truce spread:
“What a sight - little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs.”
- Corporal John Ferguson of the Second Seaforth Highlanders
“What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes. Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items.
A single star stood still in the sky directly above them, and was interpreted by many as a special sign. More and more joined, and the entire line greeted each other.”
- Josef Wenzl, German soldier.
“They’ve got Christmas trees all along the top of their trenches — I never saw such a sight!
“Climbing the parapet, I saw a sight which I shall remember to my dying day. Right along the whole of their line were hung paper lanterns and illuminations of every description, many of them in such positions as to suggest that they were hung upon Christmas trees.”
- Sergeant A. Lovell of the Third Rifle Brigade
Joint burials were conducted:
“It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared.”
- Second Lieutenant Arthur Pelham Burn of the Sixth Gordon Highlanders
Stories were shared:
“At daylight on Christmas Day we went halfway and met the Germans and exchanged cigars and cigarettes with one another. They seemed a poor lot of boys and men of 40 with beards. One fellow had been employed as a waiter at the Grand Hotel Eastbourne for ten years and said he wished he was back again.”
- Private Harry Dixon of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment
Football was played:
“Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it.”
- Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of Germany’s 134th Saxons Infantry Regiment
“Suddenly a Tommy came with a football, kicking already and making fun, and then began a football match. We marked the goals with our caps. Teams were quickly established for a match on the frozen mud, and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3-2.”
- Lieutenant Johannes Niemann of Germany’s 133rd Saxons Infantry Regiment
“I went out myself and shook hands with several of their officers and men. From what I gathered most of them would be glad to get home again as we should – we have had our pipes playing all day and everyone has been walking about in the open unmolested.
“Cigarettes and autographs were exchanged between some men, while others simply enjoyed the first opportunity to stretch their legs without facing machine guns in months. We had another parley with the Germans in the middle… some more people took photos.
“I don’t know how long it will go on for – I believe it was supposed to stop yesterday, but we can hear no firing going on along the front today except a little distant shelling. We are, at any rate, having another truce on New Year’s Day, as the Germans want to see how the photos come out!”
- Captain A.D. Chater of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders
“Not one shot was fired. English and German soldiers intermingled and exchanged souvenirs. Germans very eager to exchange almost anything for our bully beef and jam. Majority of them know French fluently.”
- Regimental Sergeant-Major George Beck of the 1st Warwickshire Regiment
But not everyone was in favour:
“Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honour left at all?”
- Corporal Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarians
“My informant, one of the men, said he had had a fine day of it and had smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army, [who was] not more than 18. They say he’s killed more of our men than any other 12 together, but I know now where he shoots from and I hope we down him tomorrow.
“I hope devoutly they will. Next door the two battalions opposite each other were shooting away all day. And so I hear it was further north, 1st RB playing football with the Germans opposite them, the next regiments shooting each other.
“I was invited to go and see the Germans myself but refrained as I thought they might not be able to resist shooting a general…”
- General Walter Congreve VC
How it ended:
“I fired three shots into the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it on the parapet. He [a German] put up a sheet with ‘Thank You’ on it, and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots into the air, and the war was on again.”
- Captain Charles “Buffalo Bill” Stockwell of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers
The following year
“Xmas Day Dec 25th 1915. Had breakfast after which we shouted greetings to the Germans over the way…
“Before leaving the Germans, one of their officers told one of ours that they would not fire another shot for two days if we did the same…
“Here we were, Welsh and Scots all clustered around the burning brazier which was placed on the outer parapet. The Germans were sending up star lights and singing – they stopped, so we cheered them and we began singing Land of Hope and Glory and Men of Harlech… we stopped and they cheered us. So we went on till the early hours.”
- Private Robert Keating of the Royal Welch Fusiliers
Extracts from Christmas Truce: The Western Front, 1914 by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton and Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub.