The Christmas Truce has become one of the most famous and mythologised events of the First World War. But what was the real story behind the truce? Why did it happen and did British and German soldiers really play football in no-man's land?
Late on Christmas Eve 1914, men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) heard German troops in the trenches opposite them singing carols and patriotic songs and saw lanterns and small fir trees along their trenches. Messages began to be shouted between the trenches.
The following day, British and German soldiers met in no man's land and exchanged gifts, took photographs and some played impromptu games of football. They also buried casualties and repaired trenches and dugouts. After Boxing Day, meetings in no man's land dwindled out.
The truce was not observed everywhere along the Western Front. Elsewhere the fighting continued and casualties did occur on Christmas Day. Some officers were unhappy at the truce and worried that it would undermine fighting spirit.
After 1914, the High Commands on both sides tried to prevent any truces on a similar scale happening again. Despite this, there were some isolated incidents of soldiers holding brief truces later in the war, and not only at Christmas.
In what was known as the 'Live and Let Live' system, in quiet sectors of the front line, brief pauses in the hostilities were sometimes tacitly agreed, allowing both sides to repair their trenches or gather their dead.
How did the truce start, and what was its legacy?
The photographs, letters and interviews in IWM’s collection tell the real story of the Christmas Truce. In this video, Head of Documents and Sound Anthony Richards explains how the truce came about, its impact on the course of the First World War and why it never happened again after 1914.
In 2016, IWM was contacted by the family of one of the soldiers shown in this photograph. We now know that this is Arno Bohm, a German soldier, standing alongside British troops from the London Rifle Brigade. They're standing together in the middle of no man's land during the Christmas truce of 1914. This photograph captures a moment so unusual in the First World War that many people at the time, and to this day, believed it to be a myth.
In the midst of a brutal total war, how did this momentary peace come about,what impact did it have in the course of the First World War and why did it never happen again?
Marmaduke Walkinton: “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.
Eventually a German said, ‘Tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot’.”
At the start of the war many believed it would all be over by Christmas. However, by December that year it was obvious that this was not the case, and thousands of families and soldiers were facing a Christmas of separation, grief and hardship.
Anthony Richards: “So for those soldiers who are in the trenches over winter 1914, the conditions would have got gradually worse and worse. You got a lot of rain; a lot of frost and the general living conditions would have been terrible.”
But the British troops were not alone. In the trenches opposite theirs, sometimes only 30 yards away across the strip of no man's land, were German soldiers in the exact same situation.
Anthony Richards: “There was lots of opportunity for each side to communicate with the other, and this was a regular thing which happened right from the start of trench warfare. But communication would often be in the form of soldiers from one side shouting over insults to those in the other trenches. But what was interesting at Christmas is that both sides actually started to communicate in more friendly terms. It really began with the Germans singing Christmas carols and setting up Christmas trees on top of their parapets. And so, they came to very much empathise with one another.”
Mr Rickner: “I remember very well Christmas. I remember the Christmas Day when the German and the French soldiers left their trenches, went to the barbed wire between them with champagne and cigarettes in their hands and had feelings of fraternisation and shouted they wanted to finish the war. And that lasted only two days - one and a half really - and then strict order came that no fraternisation was allowed, and we had to stay back in our trenches.”
The Christmas truce varied in different parts of the front line. Ceasefires were hastily arranged, sometimes to enable the collection and burial of bodies or to allow the trenches to be repaired, in other cases the soldiers simply enjoyed fraternising with the other side.
Ernie Williams: “And we shared fags and goodies with the Germans, and then from somewhere, somehow this football appeared.”
Interviewer: “Was it a proper football?”
Ernie Williams: “It was a proper football. But we didn't form a team, it wasn't a team game in any sense of the word. You know it was a kickabout. Everybody was having a go. It came from their side; it wasn't from our side where the ball came.”
Interviewer: “How many people were taking part do you think?”
Ernie Williams: “Well I should think there'd be at least a couple of hundred.”
Interviewer: “Did you kick the ball?”
Ernie Williams: “Oh yes I had to go at it, I was pretty good then, at 19.”
But while some parts of the front line were playing football and swapping stories, others were confused by what they heard or felt no inclination to socialise with those they had so recently been fighting.
Clifford Lane: “After a few moments, there were lighted objects raised above the German parapets. The Germans were shouting over to our trench, there's no doubt about that at all, and before we could take any action or do anything, we were ordered to open rapid fire you see, which we did. The Germans did not reply to our rapid fire, they simply carried on with their celebrations and were having a very fine time indeed. They certainly were not going to do it anymore; they thought that we were idiots I suppose, which we were. Not us but the command, you see.”
Anthony Richards: “The way that trench warfare was organised in the First World War, each sector was very distinctive and so you wouldn't necessarily know what was happening in the sector next door to you, and you do get stories of one area of the front where they're experiencing a truce but then suddenly they get fired on by the troops in the next sector who don't realise what's happening.”
For those soldiers not involved, the truce must have seemed unbelievable, and even more so for those back home. For months the media and government propaganda had shaped the perception of German soldiers as bloodthirsty enemies, baby eaters, devils, ruthless killers. But news of the remarkable Christmas truce soon spread aboard. By the end of December, letters and photos arrived home and newspapers began to publish accounts of the truce.
John Wedderburn-Maxwell: “My father was delighted to have a letter giving such a description of events and he sent it or sent them up to the Daily Telegraph. I got into frightful rocket; it showed up that it must have been me who wrote it and he got hold of me gave me an awful dressing down for daring to write to the press, but of course I didn't, my old man wrote to the press!”
These photographs were taken on personal cameras that some soldiers had taken with them into the trenches. Photography in the trenches was discouraged for obvious reasons but during the Christmas Truce of 1914, soldiers on both sides of the trenches could not resist the opportunity to document such a unique event.
Anthony Richards: “At the beginning of January 1915, the newspapers suddenly start printing these letters and to begin with there was a certain amount of disbelief but then over time suddenly photographs started to appear as well, and by that time the evidence was clear that this did happen it wasn't a myth, and the media at the time absolutely loved it. There were lots of discussions in the newspapers about whether this was a good thing, or a bad thing and you know in a way it's a wonderful snapshot of Christmas 1914 when attitudes were still slightly naïve because the war had only really just begun. You find that in 1915 and onwards the war becomes almost a much more serious endeavour.”
The Christmas truce would come to be remembered as something of a blip in the regular conduct of the war. It conflicted with the patriotic aggression required by both sides. It also served to highlight the great contrast between war and religion: how can you fight a war of aggression while also celebrating Christmas, the traditional time for peace and goodwill? For those reasons the Christmas truce was increasingly seen as unimportant and awkward to fit into the standard narrative of the First World War.
Anthony Richards: “You never get anything like the Christmas truce happening again, and over time not only is it seen as an anomaly but almost as a myth, and it gets to the point where people are actually doubting whether it happened in the first place, which continues right up to this day. So, there's still a lot of confusion about whether there was a football match played and things like this.”
Harold Lewis: “We didn't cross to France until March of 1915 but although it would be arrogant to say that the thing didn't actually take place I very much doubt whether anything of the nature or magnitude that had been claimed for it took place at all. Now the purpose of that barbed wire and the trenches was to keep each side in its own place therefore why would anybody try to break that and if anybody tried what are the NCOs doing? What were the officers doing? I think the whole thing borders on the fairy tale and may be classed with the Russians with snow on their boots and the Angels of Mons.”
Anthony Richards: “We know by looking at German newspapers that the Christmas truce was covered there in a very similar way to how it was in Britain. In the 1920s and the 1930s you see definite examples of how the Christmas truce changes in its depiction because there was a much greater emphasis then on the German soldier as a hero fighting a noble war, whereas the Christmas truce conflicts with that to a degree. So, in Germany in particular the Christmas truce goes out of favour definitely in the 20s and 30s, whereas in Britain it continues to be a popular celebrated story as part of the First World War.”
The letters and photographs that reached home in Britain confirmed that this remarkable event had indeed taken place but it was one that was not to be repeated.
Anthony Richards: “The Christmas truce was unique and nothing like it happened again to that scale, and the reasons for this are varied. Immediately after the truce, the high command of both sides stepped in to make sure that fraternisation and ceasefires like this would not happen in the same way. But also, in the long term the real reason the truth is like this didn't happen is that the war changed the way in which it was being fought. As the war progressed there's a more centralised method of command: those in the front line would have been forced into constant aggression, you would have had artillery and trench mortar units constantly going. And also of course as the war progressed it took a far nastier turn, so you get things like gas warfare introduced, an increasing number of civilian casualties. You also get incidents like sinking of the Lusitania. The temptation I suppose to empathise with the enemy and the desire to fraternise with them changed dramatically from 1915 onwards.”
It can be argued that the Christmas truce made little difference to the course of the First World War, but it would be remembered as a crucial moment in history. The truce has featured in films, television programs, inspired songs, and even featured in adverts. It's become part of the symbolism used when discussing the First World War, as synonymous with that conflict as poppies, mud and war poets. This unique event has become legendary, in part because the idea of peace at Christmas in such an unlikely place is an irresistible story. But its enduring legacy is also due to these incredible photographs and the interviews from those who were there, documenting an event that to so many still seems wholly unbelievable.
Thanks for watching. Don't forget to hit the button to subscribe to IWM's YouTube channel for more videos like this and much more.