A Brief History
On December 24, 1914, exactly 100 years ago today, British and German soldiers facing each other across No Man’s Land in the trenches of World War I confounded their superiors by leaving their trenches and walking out to meet and greet their enemies in the spirit of Christmas brotherhood.
Not only did the soldiers shake hands and converse but they even exchanged presents! When they sang carols together, it just about gave the generals on both sides fits. In some cases, football games (soccer) were played between opposing forces as well.
French troops were a bit less eager to join in the festivities, but in some cases they did. The camaraderie shared by the British and Germans was almost universal along the front they shared with an outpouring of troops from each side who had more in common with their supposed enemies than they did with their aristocratic superiors. Co-national burial parties and services were also held.
The superiors were outraged, and strict orders were given down the chain of command to forbid a repeat of such a Christmas Truce in the remaining years of the war. Still, it was repeated on a much smaller scale in 1915, but by 1916, the carnage had become so great and the terror of massive artillery bombardments and the barbaric use of poison gasses had hardened the wornout soldiers into outright hatred for one another. There would be no further Christmas Truces. Perhaps the annual Christmas bombardments ordered by the generals on each side had something to do with the men preferring to stay in their trenches.
The generals making these decisions were almost universally located well rear of the fighting in luxurious accommodations in appropriated chateaus and mansions. Unlike the men who fought, these high-ranking officers mostly came from rich, aristocratic backgrounds and ate well, not starving and freezing in the mud as their troops did. World War I was one of the worst cases of “ivory tower syndrome” by those running the war in comparison to those fighting it. General officers who cared about and empathized with the men were the exception rather than the rule. This was one of the not so “great” aspects of the “Great War.”
For now though, Merry Christmas, Happy Winter Solstice, Festivus, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, or whatever your winter holiday is!
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite winter holiday? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Crocker, Terri Blom and Peter Grant. The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.