WWI Christmas Truce – Putting Aside Differences

It’s a tale as old as time – or at least as old as the Great War. In 1914, on a frigid Christmas Eve in the middle of trench-scarred Western Europe, two warring armies took a time-out from lobbing shells and bullets at one another to light Christmas trees and sing carols together. A few of them exchanged gifts and photographs. Some soccer games with less deadly consequences than battles broke out. All in the middle of a battlefield littered with corpses, barbed wire, and shell craters.

One eyewitness to this now world famous Christmas truce was Captain E.H.W. Hulse of the Scots Guards, and he tells his story thus – “On the 25th… at 8:30am, I was looking out, and saw four Germans leave their trenches and come towards us… They were three private soldiers and a stretcher bearer, and their spokesman started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce…They protested that they had no feeling of enmity towards us at all, but that everything lay with their authorities, and that being soldiers they had to obey. I believe that they were speaking the truth when they said this, and that they never wished to fire a shot again. They said that unless directly ordered, they were not going to shoot at us again until we did.”

For Captain Hulse, it began a day of Holiday revelry between the Scots Guards and their enemy in the trenches across the way. All down the entire sector, throughout most of the division, he saw various groups of Germans and Scots, some numbering over 100, exchanging souvenirs and Christmas presents. Some Scots got invited to the German trenches for drinks, cigarettes, and cards. Hulse’s own holiday mixer broke out into spontaneous caroling.

IMG_0262

In another part of the Western Front, a German soldier named Lothar Lanz tapped some comrades to raise  a row of small trees, glowing with Christmas candles, onto the lip of the trench. As they strung the trees with cookies and cotton, they began singing Christmas carols. The shooting from the French trenches across from them eventually died down, and all the men climbed out. French and German met in the middle of the battlefield, shook hands, traded goods, and exchanged small gifts.

These two charming stories were far from isolated incidents. While peace didn’t spread to all of Europe on that Christmas Eve, it still managed to infect a decent number of units. Commanding officers, despite hardline orders coming from above, turned a blind eye to the fraternizing. Some places along the line held their truce until days after Christmas, even extending into the new year. When commanders finally insisted they fire again, many regiments sent a few warning shots to warn their enemies-turned-friends-turned-enemies to duck.

20181217_211645

The Christmas Truce of WWI is one of the most famous stories ever to emerge from a battlefield, sparking countless novels, feature films, and even commercial ads (take a look at this one that came out a few years back). And honestly, how could it not? It warms the heart to read about two fighting armies, locked in mortal combat in the mud for months, setting aside their weapons and, for one brief shining moment, becoming friends. On the other hand, the story also shines a harsh spotlight on the cold futility of war, and how truly cruel it is to make young men and women turn their fellow humans into targets through a crosshair. Especially when stories like this make it painfully clear how much they don’t want to.

The story is made even more incredible when one takes into account the year 1914, and how truly chaotic it was. In June of that year, some archduke named Franz Ferdinand and his wife, a royal couple most soldiers condemned to the trenches never heard of before then, got shot in the turbulent city of Sarajevo, a place most soldiers condemned to the trenches had no plans of ever visiting. The violent murder arose because of ongoing spats between Serbian nationalists and the colonial powers refusing to listen to them. On paper, the situation could easily be resolved between the two countries (Austria-Hungary and Serbia). Except both nations were deeply ensnared in a complex network of treaties spanning most of Europe and beyond. A single spark from either side would set off an apocalyptic powder keg, one that would blow up half the globe.

When it became clear Serbia and Austria Hungary couldn’t settle their differences, things spiraled pretty quickly. It must have been a real head-spin for average people at the time. One minute they’re marching along Europe at the height of the industrial age, living their lives and going about their business. The next, their country is embroiled in a global conflict, arming, training, and hurrying ill-equipped troops to a frontline thousands of miles away.

In that troubled summer of 1914, most people didn’t really understand what exactly they faced. Youths saw it as little more than a chance to break from the homestead and have an adventure in some exotic place. Men clamored to recruitment centers and tried every trick in the book to gain admittance. And of course, both sides felt certain their team would win. “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” everyone said. Even Kaiser Wilhelm thought the whole affair would be one big blow out, promising his troops “you will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”

IMG_0286

Honestly, the whole thing kind of reminds me of how we felt when Covid-19 descended. We saw the illness break out of its original borders and slowly infiltrate the entire globe, much like the dominoes falling in the lead up to WWI. I know when Covid arrived on US shores, I thought (or at least prayed) the powers that be would contain it quickly. “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” I fervently hoped. However, containment devolved into chaos. Toilet paper, tortillas, and canned goods vanished from the grocery stores as the world braced for the impact of the runaway train. My city ordered everyone to shelter in place and only leave their homes for essentials. In the blink of an eye, my life had gone from a busy one filled with travel, visiting friends, and writing, to staring at the wall of my own apartment, having no idea when “normal” would ever resume. As of this writing in December of 2020, “normal” still looks a long way off, if we’ll ever see it again.

Those unlucky ladies and gents of 1914 had to face a very similar reality. A fight that was supposed to be over by Christmas ground down into impossible stalemate. A few fast-paced battles produced casualty lists that greened the faces of politicians, and then armies dug into a snarling trench system that stretched all the way from Switzerland to the North Sea. Only one thing grew crystal clear as the summer wore away into fall. Absolutely nothing would be over by Christmas.

Yet, it was after that crazy tailspin of a year, when so many people watched the lives they knew disappear into the winds, that soldiers came together in the middle of forlorn battlefields and sang Christmas songs. They managed to remember the humans beneath the political banter and the propaganda posters, even while standing in the mangled wreckage of war. I’m sure they didn’t agree on everything. But despite all their differences, they all seemed to agree that war is hell, and if it was up to them, it would have ended that day.

IMG_2810

They say history is doomed to repeat itself, and in our own time, as the Christmas season approaches, I watch from my home as the world seems to spin further off its axis every day. Covid, which seemed to be slowing down a mere month or so ago, has gone on the war path across the globe. One by one, countries are slamming their doors shut and locking people down once again. In my own country, cases and hospitalizations have sky rocketed and it looks like it will be a grim winter. On top of that, we have the residue of the most contentious election of the modern era to contend with.

It put our own household in bad need of some Christmas cheer, so our tree went up even earlier than usual. November had barely dawned before red and green, glittery wreaths, and twinkly lights adorned the rooms of our home. Egg nog has taken up its place in the fridge. The lights on our LED tree gleam across the living room, and they are quite soothing. So are the delightful Holiday songs and Classic Christmas movies on the TV.

20181217_205009

But what about the rest of the country? I have to admit, from where I’m sitting, a Christmas Truce of 2020 seems unlikely. But you know what? People have surprised me before, and I know there’s a lot of good ones out there who truly want what’s best for everyone. We may disagree over a lot, but I think we can all agree how awful this pandemic is, and that we want it over for good.

Look past the bitterness, reach deep down inside, and think about the human faces behind the Covid numbers, the red versus blue states, and the other sizzling divides that have people screaming at each other in the streets. Put yourselves in someone else’s shoes. And if the mood strikes you, walk out into No Man’s Land, with your mask of course, and start singing some Christmas carols. You might be surprised who climbs out of the trench and takes your hand. And guys, we must take each other’s hands (figuratively, in these days of Covid) and help each other through it. Together is the only way we’re going to beat 2020, beat this virus, and restore a better normal. We can do it too, because we’ve made it through so many other things.

I have the Christmas music turned up in my living room. I’m sitting in the glow of the Christmas tree, and I’m waiting. Come out of the trenches and sing with me, if you please.

IMG_3336

SOURCES

The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness: WWI – J.E. Lewis

A Brief History of WWI – J.E. Lewis

11th Month 11th Day 11th Hour – J. Persico

This will be the last post of 2020. I wish all of you a safe, peaceful, and magical holiday season filled with miracles. Visits to your blogs will resume in the new year!

And some big, fun news for my husband and me. This will be our last Christmas as SoCal residents. We are the proud new owners of this lovely 120-year-old home in Indiana, beautifully restored by my in-laws, and we will be moving there early next year! So here’s to new beginnings in 2021. 

e79dbb70-326e-4258-8d42-775cf7c836bd

95 Comments on “WWI Christmas Truce – Putting Aside Differences

    • I think you’re right! I haven’t managed to see it yet but would really like to.

  1. Beautiful, moving story. Do you hear what I hear? We are singing together!

  2. Beautiful, moving story! Do you hear what I hear? Webade singing together!

  3. Well written M.B. with an appropriate connection to our current wars of words and ideologies and our war with COVID. Science through a vaccine should end the latter war while the other two wars I’m not so certain of. Science is rooted in non-partisan fact that knows no passion while words and ideologies are often based on raw emotion and, how should I say it…alternative facts.
    Great reading list BTW. I’ve read three of those. I’m currently working through Robert Caro’s massive biography on LBJ.

    • Ooooh I bet that’s a very interesting read! And quite a commitment – is Robert Caro’s the multi-volume one? The LBJ administration is one I’d like to read up on a bit more. Glad you enjoyed the other reads too – the 11th Month 11th Day 11th Hour is one of my favorite WWI books.

      • Caro’s is the multi-volume one and it is a fascinating read. Caro’s style is to go into extremely great detail about other people and events in LBJ’s life. At first I wasn’t pleased about that as it’s almost like books within the books but later appreciated all of the extra history I was learning. You’ll also find that Senate elections in Texas weren’t at all “free and fair.”
        You might also like a book called Confederate Reckoning which examines politics in the Confederate states and discusses women’s politics in particular.

      • I might indeed enjoy that! 🙂 You’re giving me a lot of great things to add to my list!

  4. A beautiful retelling of this story. I particularly like how you tied it into today. I think many of us feel the need for Christmas cheer. I did not buy into the argument of putting Christmas decorations up last summer where it was competing with lots of daylight and growing things. It seems more natural now, even if is a few weeks earlier than normal.

    • Yeah I’m with you – as much as I love Christmas, I couldn’t put up my stuff in summer! 🙂 But yes we definitely put it up earlier than usual in November haha. 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the post.

  5. Moving and beautifully written post, MB, that reaffirms how war is often a construct of politicians and other bigwigs — with average soldiers probably having more in common with average “enemy” soldiers than with their own country’s leaders.

    And congratulations on your impending move to Indiana! I met my wife while she was living and working in Indiana (Terre Haute). 🙂

    • Yes, the more war history I read the more I find that to be exactly right. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. And yes we are so very excited about our house – my husband’s family are all from Indiana and it will be nice to spend more time with them, and my family too, since they are a short jaunt down the road in Iowa.

      • Next year I’m going to post a bit about the restoration process of it – it was truly remarkable, my in-laws are very skilled at what they do!

    • So glad you enjoyed it – and yes Merry Christmas and Holidays to you too <3

  6. Lovely post. I read Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants a few years back which is a fantastic book and goes into detail about WWI. You did a great job explaining why this war started. Your new house is absolutely wonderful and I wish you all the best for the years to come

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post – that book sounds very good! I better add it to my reading list 🙂 And thanks so much about the house too – we feel very lucky to have got it!

      • The book is large I couldn’t put it down..ideal for long winter nights in front of the fire

  7. You’ve penned a very deep and wide-ranging post, MB. Hard to comment on every aspect. Most of what I know of WWI is from Follett, but it seems like such an avoidable, pointlessly costly war. Certainly those soldiers had every reason to commiserate with their “enemies” and know they were pawns in the struggle.

    Our current struggles and political divides are equally harmful overall. This world is not ours to fight over, it is our common home and should be for all to work together to sustain.

    Like you, we put up the decorations early for a little cheer. Congratulations on your new home and I look forward to seeing a post about it next year.

    “the world seems to spin further off its axis every day.“ Just keep in mind that the world really doesn’t revolve around human folly. The world is fine. We will be, too.

    • An excellent reminder, thanks for putting it that way! I do so hope we can all start taking better care of one another, all people, no matter what their backgrounds. It would be the best Christmas miracle! Hope you’re finding some holiday cheer in your early decorating, I know we sure did 🙂 And yes, I will definitely be posting more about the house next year and its incredible restoration process, which was really fun to watch over the last couple years! Wishing you a wonderful and safe holiday season!

    • I will be thinking of you this Christmas and New Year <3 I hope that if you do decorate you will find some joy and comfort in it! I know we certainly have this year. Stay well and safe.

      • My precious little granddaughter will be two months old, on Friday. Something good has come of this year after all. All my best to you, my friend.

      • <3 Awwww! Yes that sounds like a true blessing. Take good care

  8. An excellent post – especially in the way you link it to Covid. As you indicate, the temporary truce stories really point up the folly of that atrocious war.

    • Thanks so much, and a Merry Christmas right back at ya! 🙂 See you in 2021 which will hopefully be somewhat less tumultuous for us all.

  9. MB: This post lives up to the excellence we have come to expect from you. Wishing you as happy a Christmas as possible under the current circumstances. You certainly have the right attitude for it. Also wishing you a successful move to your new, old digs in Indiana and many happy years there.

    • <3 Thanks so much Lee, I'm so glad you enjoy this and my other posts. And a very Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  10. This is beautiful. I would like a Christmas truce. And I think the key to it might just be to carefully step out of the trenches and realize that most of us are fighting someone else’s battle and that there’s far more that unites us than divides us. Good luck on the move. Welcome to the Midwest, and happy holidays!

    • I would like one too! And yes you said it wonderfully – far more to unite us than divide us. I really hope we can focus on that moving forward <3 Have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! And yes - back to the Midwest in 2021! 🙂

  11. Thank you so much for this interesting and touching post. My grandfather, who fought in WWI, rarely spoke about his time in the trenches but used to sing some rather naughty ditties that he learned there, usually at Christmas time. Congratulations on your new home in Indiana. It’s beautiful! I look forward to hearing all about it next year. Wishing you and your husband all the best for the holiday season. Stay safe.

    • Haha! Oh yes I’ve read a lot about some of those naughty songs in the memoirs I’ve come across over the years. How funny – but it’s terrible what all those people in the trenches had to go through. Hope you have a wonderful holiday season and new year <3

  12. The way I’ve looked at this pandemic is that we should see it as if we were fighting a war, a world war and what’s so frightening is that we can’t see the enemy!
    Thank you for this marvelous post! Keep well and stay safe. Wishing you happy holidays and a smooth move into your fabulous new home! See ya’ next year!

    • I completely agree and that’s how I’ve kind of looked at it myself. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, thanks so much for the kind words! Happy Holidays and safe new year to you!

  13. I love this story. Thanks for sharing. I relayed this story in an interpretive reading from a letter that a soldier wrote to his family about this day at a Toastmasters meeting. This is a great showcase of people sharing similar traditions despite their differences.

    • So glad you enjoyed it – and thanks for sharing your own experience with this story! 🙂

  14. The Christmas Truce of WWII is a touching story. We’ve seen it performed as a play a few times and it has always been well done. Congrats on the new home – how exciting. See you again in 2021!

    • Oh I bet that would make a lovely play. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and Holiday season <3

  15. A great story! I like how you tied it in with our current circumstances.
    Congratulations on your new home and Move, M.B.!
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year… gosh we need a New Year!

    • Thanks so much – and yes here’s hoping 2021 will be better for all <3 Happy Christmas to you and yours.

    • We sure do! Here’s hoping for a safe and effective vaccine, and that 2021 brings new hope and promises for all!

  16. I see increasing references to our struggles with Covid as a ‘war,’ and I’m not happy about that. As soon as a war is declared, certain dynamics begin to appear — such as the great and growing division between leaders who see their people as nothing but pawns in their own, more personal search for aggrandizement. Of course, I’m utterly fed up with the hypocrisy of mayors, governors, and such who are happy to lay down rules for the little people, while they do as they please. We need to turn from politics and war imagery, treat it as the public health hazard it is, and get about ridding ourselves of it. (Grump, grump!)

    I did enjoy your post. It’s a relatively well-known story, but every re-telling provides new details, and you’re especially good about framing them in a pleasing and readable way. And a new house in Indiana! How wonderful, and how exciting. Have a wonderful holiday season, and an easy transition. It should be a great new year for you!

    • You have some very valid points here. I especially get the frustration with the top levels these days. I think that’s another thing a lot of us can agree on! As a student of military history, I often frame things through the lens of those times I study, because I see the certain similarities in the atmospheres of then and now. But I totally get what you’re saying too, and it makes a lot of sense. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and that you shared you thoughts and feelings! And yes, we are very excited about our new house, I think my husband and I could both do with living somewhere quieter after all this! <3 A Happy Holiday season to you.

  17. I love the way you put forth the need to heal. The holidays are a great time to reflect on our lives, and to appreciate the time we have left. So many people have left us early this year because of the pandemic. Our friends and family are not to be taken for granted, and this time of year is a wonderful reminder of that.

    • You are so right. I think it will be a hard Christmas on many fronts, but also a good time to reflect. I know there’s a lot of things about Christmas I will never take for granted again after this mess! <3 A happy Christmas and holiday season to you.

  18. What a moving post! I had no idea young men were eager to enroll during WW1. What were they even thinking? I sometimes wonder whether WW1 was more brutal to the morale of the general population than WW2, because it was all so novel and it crushed a lot of ideals, hopes and previous firmly entrenched beliefs.

    I’m with you with celebrating Christmas early. We need the cheer, the cinnamon, the sparkling lights, the decorated trees. And most of all we need each other. It’s going to be a long winter, by the looks of it. Hang in there.

    • I think you’re right about WWI. War meant something different before that conflict. No war is ever a good one, but I think there was a certain glory mentality attached to it. WWI definitely took the bloom off that rose! I’m glad you are enjoying the Christmas spirit a bit early, and I totally agree about needing each other and the emotional support. Here’s hoping we can all send out some virtual hugs!

  19. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and congratulations on your new home. It’s beautiful on the outside painted blue, the same color as our house. I bet it’s as beautiful on the inside. I enjoyed reading your Christmas story about the truce. As I read, I thought about the comparison to the election and COVID. Then, there it was. Your comparison too. Good job.

    • Thanks so much! It is pretty amazing on the inside as well. Next year, I might do a post about the restoration process of it, because you wouldn’t believe what it looked like before my in-laws got their talented hands on it! <3 A very happy Christmas and New Year to you too!

  20. what a nice post M.B. I have read quite a bit about the Christmas greetings in WWI and yep we just have to be like them and soldier on to get through this virus! So I trust you and your family have a happy and safe Christmas and I hope the new year is far more rewarding.

    • A very happy Christmas to you and yours as well Pat! 🙂 And I’m very glad you enjoyed the post

  21. What a nice (and timely) story. Thanks for sharing it. And a big congrats on your new place. Exciting!

  22. I think we have reached a critical juncture in American society but hopefully we can learn to like each other again. Right now it is too soon for me to forgive others for their actions. Like all wars, WWI was such a waste of life, compounded by their Pandemic just a few years later. I hope your decorations are giving you some joy and wish you the best, MB. K x

    • I definitely hear what you are saying. I think we’ve all seen some shocking, hurtful behavior from people that is hard to take in stride during this Pandemic and all over the place, really. I’ve really never seen anything like it before. Like you, I hope we can start coming together again – we really, really have to figure out a way to do that. Our decorations have indeed boosted the mood around here, and I hope you find joy and peace this holiday season too! <3

  23. Thanks for linking to the Sainsbury ad that is set during WWI. I hadn’t seen it before – it’s so moving!

    Your description of the pandemic moving across the globe and the effect it has had on is vivid and sobering. I’ve been able to work this entire year, because the organization I work for is deemed an essential service, so I’ve been lucky to have some semblance of “normal” life. However, so many have not had that, and I can’t imagine how so many have kept their sense of humour and optimism.

    Congrats on the new home. It’s beautiful! Will there be an upcoming post on the home’s history? (hint hint) I hope you enjoy many wonderful years there, creating the very best memories.

    Merry Christmas to you, and best wishes for your move – and for 2021.

    • Yes – the pandemic moving across the globe definitely knocked everyone for a loop! I’m very glad you’ve been able to keep your job – we’ve been able to for the most part as well, although with lots of sporadic shut downs. And yes – there will definitely come a post on the home’s history 🙂 Probably sometime next year after we’re settled in and I’ve had a chance to get some real nice pictures. I hope you and yours had a wonderful holiday, and I wish you a very happy new year!

    • We had a wonderful holiday thanks much! I hope you and yours did as well. Onward and upward to 2021!

  24. Beautiful and very touching. I always find myself in awe about the way you can tell a story. Ahhhh so wonderful 💙🙏🏼 well done as always

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: