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The Christmas Truce: A century ago during World War I, guns went silent

The Christmas Truce was a gift that opposing soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front in World War I gave to each other 100 years ago in 1914. It was like “some weird dream,” wrote one British soldier. The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial is marking the centennial of the spontaneous truce with a new online exhibit.
The Christmas Truce was a gift that opposing soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front in World War I gave to each other 100 years ago in 1914. It was like “some weird dream,” wrote one British soldier. The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial is marking the centennial of the spontaneous truce with a new online exhibit. Photo illustration by The Kansas City Star

One of the best Christmas gifts ever was the sound of no guns.

It was a gift that opposing soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front in World War I gave to each other 100 years ago in 1914.

The Christmas Truce was like “some weird dream,” wrote one British soldier.

“It was all most irregular,” observed another.

“It is this moment where ordinary men are able to do the extraordinary,” said Lora Vogt, curator of education at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. “Along pockets of the Western Front, they were able to create a peace and really embody that spirit of Christmas so that, for a moment, there might be peace on Earth.”

The museum has a new online exhibit about the truce on the occasion of its centennial. It will also be marked Friday with the second Truce Tournament with Sporting KC at the Liberty Memorial. In February and March, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present “Silent Night,” based on the Christmas Truce.

The online exhibit also has a playful component in which visitors are invited to declare a truce with their particular pet peeves, such as bad drivers, grammar police and hipsters.

When the war began, most people expected it to be over by Christmas. Instead, it would consume four Christmases.

The truce was not an official armistice. In fact, commanders on both sides issued orders against fraternization with the enemy. But the truce was a spontaneous understanding reached among soldiers on the line in a war that saw so many innovations in mechanized death.

Months after hostilities began, the Western Front had largely become a stalemate, with opposing armies digging into position.

Trench warfare was miserable. It was a rainy December, and the soldiers were often knee deep in cold water.

The distance between the trenches — no man’s land — ranged from as little as 20 yards to several hundred. The Christmas Truce took place at various points along the 27-mile stretch of the front where the British Expeditionary Force faced the German army. The United States had not yet entered the war.

There are many firsthand accounts in letters back home from soldiers who were there. More than 120 of them are included in the online exhibit. Many of the soldiers were incredulous.

“What an extraordinary effect Christmas has on the world,” wrote “Terrier” Billy Ollis. “Peace and good will amongst men during peace time one can quite understand but peace and good will amongst men who have been murdering one another for the past five months is incredible.”

“It was most extraordinary to see all the fellows strolling about as if in Hyde Park chatting to Germans,” observed Rifleman E. Newell in a letter to his father.

“Everyone walked about as though it were a picnic,” wrote Lance Cpl. R.S. Coulson.

By many accounts, the truce began on Christmas Eve. Soldiers flashed signs or shouted across to each other and proposed to put the war on hold.

“Why kill one another on such a festive day?” asked a Belgian soldier.

They did what at any other time would be unthinkable. They came out of their trenches, unarmed, and approached each other in no man’s land. They exchanged gifts of tobacco, alcohol, sweets, newspapers and souvenirs — even home addresses.

They shook hands.

“War was absolutely forgotten,” Rifleman Athole Ford wrote to a friend in Glasgow, Scotland.

The Germans placed Christmas trees on the parapets of their trenches. The two sides sang to each other.

“I was on sentry duty just as Christmas Day arrived and I must confess that it was indeed beautiful to hear the Germans singing carols and their national anthem,” wrote Pvt. John McKay of the Seaforth Highlanders.

Another soldier in the same battalion, Pvt. Colin Munro, sent his wife a postcard signed by six German soldiers he had met during the truce.

Both sides took advantage of the truce to gather the bodies of their fallen comrades, which had been rotting for days or longer. They even assisted each other in digging graves in the frozen ground.

“Our lads helped the Germans bury their dead and sang over the graves,” wrote Lance Cpl. George Yearsley. “It was a sight you could never forget.”

Cpl. Robert Renton told his parents about burying two French soldiers.

“It was a sight worth seeing and not easily forgotten — both Germans and British paying respects to the French dead,” Renton wrote.

The soldiers also used the opportunity to improve their waterlogged trenches without having to worry about snipers. In some cases, they even visited the enemy’s trenches.

Many writers noted that it was Saxon soldiers in the German army they fraternized with. Prussian regiments, it seems, did not participate in the truce. Several British soldiers said the Saxons told them they were fed up with the war and wished it to end.

In some cases, the truce lasted from Christmas Eve to the day after Christmas, known in Britain as Boxing Day. In other cases, it seems to have lasted just a few hours.

Some soldiers talked of playing football, or soccer, or just kicking the ball around. Others said a match was proposed but never happened for lack of a ball or because superior officers forbade it.

At least two soldiers recounted that a hare bounded across the field. One said the soldiers had “a frolicsome chase” attempting to catch it. A couple of others mentioned bicycle races on bikes without tires.

“This can’t last, of course,” said one unnamed soldier, quoted in a British newspaper. “Our friend the enemy is not to be trusted too far.”

Soon the holiday was over, and so was the truce. The war on the Western Front would last four more years.

“We are shooting one another as before,” Pvt. W. Pentelow wrote to his sister.

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com.

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