A touching episode in an atmosphere of horrendous slaughter, the various truces held in several sectors along the Western Front between the German and Allied soldiers can only be described as the exception which confirmed the rule.
The British Army that held the front from the south of Ypres to La Bassée canal was, in late December 1914, composed of what remained of the units which had been decimated in the First Battle of Ypres the month before. Life in the trenches was still very primitive and, with the onset of winter and the rain which filled any cavity, extremely demanding.
The narrowness of the no man's land in this sector of the front, just a few dozen metres, created a strange proximity between the warring parties: they could not see each other but voices carried across the divide, as did the smell of cooking... The harsh conditions to which the soldiers of both sides were exposed in the first winter of the war engendered a feeling of respect for the enemy; however any soldier unwise enough to raise his head above ground was sure to attract a bullet.
The general staffs were well aware of the situation's potential for instilling "lethargy" among the soldiers which could compromise the launch of future offensives.
Small-scale, but bloody, attacks carried out in the vicinity of Ypres and French Flanders during the month of December 1914 gave way, in some sectors of the front, to spontaneous truces, in particular for the recovery of the wounded and dead lying in the mud of no man's land. On 24 December some German soldiers erected Christmas trees, complete with candles and paper lanterns, on the parapets of various first line trenches. Christmas hymns were soon being sung on either side and soldiers even called out to each other across the front. In some places men left the safety of the trenches to collect their dead from no man's land. Similar but much larger events took place the following day, at Christmas.
In some places the warring sides buried their dead at the same time, and some even exchanged little presents and home addresses; while in other sectors the fighting continued to rage, mostly due to the activity of snipers.
In the British sector the truce was observed by many units at Houplines, Bois-Grenier, Fromelles, Neuve-Chapelle and Richebourg-l'Avoué. Similar truces were observed in the French sector around Arras.
[See Christmas Truce by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton]
Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France
From 'The Times History and Encyclopedia of the War' (jpg - 0.04 MB)
from 'The Illustrated War Record' - Illustration by Fred. Villers (jpg - 0.03 MB)
from the British magazine 'the Graphic' published in January 1915 (jpg - 0.04 MB)