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The spontaneous “Christmas Truce” of 1914 showed soldiers’ humanity


Public Domain US

John Burger - published on 12/25/21

While nations ignored pope's plea for peace, young Germans and Brits took it upon themselves to honor the Prince of Peace.

Long before it became known as the “day that will live in infamy,” December 7 had another affiliation with war. It was 1914, and the first World War had been raging for five months. Many at the beginning of the war thought that it would be over by Christmas. 

But as the holidays approached, that looked less likely. On December 7, Pope Benedict XV made a proposal that the warring nations declare a temporary truce at Christmastime, to honor the Prince of Peace.

The governments at odds with one another dismissed the notion. But some of the men they had sent to the front had another idea.

“Starting on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops fighting in World War I sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing,” the History Channel says. “At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out ‘Merry Christmas’ in their enemies’ native tongues.”

At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers, the History Channel said. “The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. Some Germans lit Christmas trees around their trenches, and there was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.”

It was, indeed, a bittersweet moment. While most soldiers could, for a few brief moments, put aside the horrors of war, some of them used the occasion to go out into “no man’s land” and retrieve the bodies of fallen comrades.

It was, as the History Channel pointed out, “one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare.”

After 1914, the High Commands on both sides tried to prevent any truces on a similar scale happening again, according to the Imperial War Museums in Great Britain. “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.”

An estimated 9 million-11 million military personnel were killed in the war.

The extraordinary event of Christmas 1914, though, as the History Channel summarized, “served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.”

ChristmasWorld War I
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