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The Christmas Truce of the Great War

Posted by Sean Daly on Dec 21, 2023
English and German soldiers together, Christmas 1914

The first Christmas of the Great War — later called World War I — was marked by a number of spontaneous, unplanned yet nearly identical events in the northern reaches of the Western Front: unarmed soldiers from both sides left their trenches and exchanged gifts and pleasantries with their sworn enemies. A Christmas story.

In the summer of 1914, a sequence of events starting with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo led to the mobilisation of Europe’s powers: on one side the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary), on the other the Allies (France, the United Kingdom with its dominions, and Russia). Of course, other countries joined the war later, some outside Europe. But these first belligerents believed a quick war — perhaps over by Christmas! — would clear the air and settle differences which had been building up in the years prior. France hoped to regain the lost territories of Alsace-Lorraine and exact revenge for the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War; Germany wanted to break the ring of the Triple Entente powers, keep Alsace-Lorraine, and challenge the UK’s naval domination; Austria-Hungary hoped to contain Serbia, which Russia wished to protect as fellow Slavs; and the United Kingdom wanted to end Germany’s threat to Europe and to the British hegemony on the seas.

The war to end all wars

By and large, populations supported the outbreak of war: Both “Off to Paris!” and “Off to Berlin!” seemed plausible to ordinary German and French people. The German high command had prepared in years prior der Schlieffenplan, a broad right-flank sweep into France through Belgium north around the Ardennes Forest; the French had devised “Plan XVII”, the 17th strategic plan since the 1870 defeat, which called for… a decisive invasion of Germany through the right flank south of the Ardennes. With the Industrial Age in full swing, strategic planners worked out mobilization railroad timetables to speed men and matériel to the front. However, at a time when aviation was in its infancy and the tank didn’t exist yet, the generals had overlooked a major change in mechanized weaponry: the arrival of the machine gun. A well-fortified position could now stop an entire advancing company of infantry. Outmoded tactics met brutal industrial efficiency, and millions of men were to die in senseless attacks. In only a few short months, the bold invasion plans of both sides had settled into two opposing lines of trenches facing each other over no-man’s-land where nothing could live.

This was a new kind of war: static, repetitive, punctuated by massive artillery barrages, with awful conditions in the open trenches and occasionally successful, but usually futile attacks into deadly machine gun fire. As the end of the year approached, Pope Benedict XV called for a Christmas truce — Christianity was, after all, the shared religion of most of the warring soldiers — saying he hoped “the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”. However, political leaders and generals pushed back — any such truce could be risky, as enemies could gain intelligence about fortifications, troop strengths, and morale. At the same time, leaders realized that the prospect of a quick war, over by Christmas, had completely vanished — and that troops would need encouragement to continue what would no doubt be a long conflict. So Germany’s Kaiser arranged for the massive distribution of Christmas trees to the trenches, while Princess Mary of the UK — who was, of course, a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II — sponsored the distribution to the troops of over 350,000 brass tins with Christmas favors. French troops were, in a sense, already motivated: they were defending their homeland. But they received care packages from their loved ones.

A holiday message postcard sent to British troops. From Geneanet’s Postcards collection.
Colonel Philip R. Robertson, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) returning from a tour of his unit’s positions in waterlogged trenches at Bois Grenier in January 1915. Source: Imperial War Museum Q51569
Princess Mary’s Gift Box tin was sent to over 350,000 servicemen in time for Christmas in 1914. Officers received a silver plated box, enlisted men brass. There were smokers and nonsmokers variants, as well as one for nurses and for Indian Army soldiers. Source: Imperial War Museum EPH1992

No-Man’s-Land in Flanders

Belgium, a neutral country, had become a battlefield as the Schlieffen Plan was put in effect. English, Scottish, French, and Belgian soldiers faced Saxons, Bavarians, Prussians, and Austrians over a No-Man’s-Land narrower than at other sectors of the front; in some places, trenches were a mere 50 yards apart, and soldiers from opposing sides could call to each other during lulls in shelling. Trenches were full of water, the temperature was cold, and disease was present; death was always a shot away for anyone who emerged from a trench. But as guns fell silent on Christmas Eve, soldiers heard singing from opposing trenches. Accounts differ, but it seems the Germans usually made the first overtures, poking their Christmas trees received from the Kaiser over the parapets of their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Many Saxon soldiers were reservists and family men, ready to halt the violence for the holiday. Allied soldiers were not of a mind to shoot at Christmas trees, nor drown out singing; so they witheld fire and sang carols back. Scottish soldiers played bagpipes; one British soldier recognized the voice of a German opera singer. After a time, unarmed officers of both sides emerged to parley. Up and down the front — not everywhere, but in dozens of places — field officers exchanged cigarettes and promised not to shoot at each other on Christmas Day or even the day after. And they agreed that if an unequivocal order was given to shoot, that they would aim high as a warning, or warn the other in advance of shelling. Soldiers who had cowered in their muddy trenches for weeks — a lifted head was a target, and few soldiers had helmets in 1914 — found they could leave their rifles behind, climb over the top, and meet their enemies for champagne and brandy, cigars and cigarettes, chocolates and other delicacies which had been sent by their worried families.

As Christmas Day dawned, officers met in No-Man’s-Land to reaffirm the terms of the ceasefire. An occasional shot would ring out from a nervous or distracted soldier, and some soldiers oberving the truce were indeed killed or wounded. But in many positions along the front, everyone understood that something special was happening. The first order of business was to bury the unattended dead in no-man’s-land. Their personal effects were collected and in some cases, soldiers from both sides saluted as German and British chaplains conducted ceremonies together. Soldiers swapped buttons, belt buckles, caps, scarfs, gloves, bread and pies, photos… Some soldiers had cameras and began photographing the events; others exchanged addresses. In more than one place, the sworn enemies found or improvised a round football and used their caps as goalposts for a kickabout!

The sectors remained quiet all of Christmas Day, but shooting soon restarted in the following days. Officers wrote in logbooks that the day had been calm, and that some intelligence about the enemy had been gathered. Hundreds of soldiers quickly wrote letters to fellow soldiers or to their loved ones telling about what happened. They all agreed how unusual and special the moment had been, what a strange feeling it had been. Some had visited opposing trenches and remarked on how they were drier or muddier, cleaner or dirtier. Many expressed that it was a pity the war had to restart, although few if any felt the war needed to be stopped.

The Christmas trees sent by the Kaiser to troops throughout the lines helped convince Allied soldiers not to shoot unarmed Germans.
The War Diary of the 10th Infantry Brigade, 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment noted on Christmas Day 1914: “A local truce. British & Germans intermingle between the trenches. Dead in front of trenches buried. No shot fired all day. No casualties.” Source: UK National Archives, WO 95/1484/1, page 48
British officers from the 1st Line Northumberland Hussars, 7th Infantry Division, with German officers in Flanders. Source: Imperial War Museum Q50721
Soldiers shared a smoke and a welcome respite from the terrible trench warfare. Troops of the London Rifle Brigade with troops of the 104th and 106th Saxon Regiments. The German soldier second from the left is Pioneer Arno Böhme. Ploegsteert, Belgium. Source: Imperial War Museum Q11718
Christmas tree courtesy of the Kaiser!
1st Battalion London Rifle Brigade enjoying Christmas dinner, Ploegsteert Wood, 25 December 1914. Source: Imperial War Museum Q11729

The aftermath: censorship and clampdown

During the war, mail from soldiers was routinely read by censors who would blacken or snip out any information of military value. In mailrooms behind the front lines, staff began to learn about what had happened. Senior officers were informed and some left immediately for the front to see what was going on. In the confusion, some letters did get through; families spread the news, and in the days following, newspapers in England then in the United States started to tell the story. Then, a week later, the first photographs were published, causing a sensation.

The Daily Mail, December 31, 1914.
The Daily Mirror, Friday, January 8, 1915.
Henry Williamson, a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade with a German grandmother, was present at a truce near Ploegsteert (called “Plugstreet” by the troops) and on Boxing Day he wrote this incredible letter to his parents: “The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh, dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, and shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it? Yes.” Henry’s father sent the letter to a newspaper, which published it on January 4, 1915. Henry survived the war and became a well-known author of over 50 books; he often retold the story of the Christmas truce that he had experienced and which deeply affected him.

Political leaders and generals believed that if fraternization between warring soldiers spread, if officers and men got to know their counterparts, that discipline would break down with possibly fatal consequences for the conduct of the war. In the UK, threats were made to court-martial and even execute soldiers and officers who had participated in truces. However, overwhelming public opinion in favor of the ceasefire and the shared humanity of the soldiers quickly put to rest any initiative to punish them. Instead, units were quickly pulled from the line and replaced. In France, no news was published about the events and some French officers and men were disciplined. German units were also pulled from the line and replaced; shortly, the awful violence of trench warfare was back in full force.

The end of Christmas truces

A year later, although there were some spontaneous Christmas truces, there were not nearly as many as in 1914. General staffs warned field officers of dire consequences were guns to fall silent. Sir Iain Colquhoun, 7th Baronet, of the Scots Guards was court-martialed for agreeing to a brief truce just to bury the dead. Soldiers by then knew for sure that there would be no quick end to the war. And by 1916, there was too much bitterness in the trenches and too much pressure from hierarchies for truces to take hold. There were, of course, constant changes in the frontline units, and many soldiers who had known the truce of 1914 didn’t survive the war. The Christmas Truce of 1914 passed into history as a brief moment of humanity and camaraderie amidst the terrible savagery of the Great War.

Sadly, there were places at the front where soldiers in no-man’s-land observing the truce were shot by snipers. Lance Corporal George Henry Sutton of the Leicestershire Regiment, 1st Battalion, pictured during his prior service in India, was killed on Christmas Day 1914; it is believed the shot came from an adjacent Prussian sector and not the facing Saxon unit. His body was not recovered; he is memorialized in the Ploegsteert Memorial. A Geneanet member has George Sutton in his tree.
Geneanet’s Save our Graves collaborative project has documented over 6 million graves, among them tens of thousands of WWI Allied war graves in France, Belgium, and elsewhere. Captain Robert Clifford Orr, a Belfast native, of (Prince Albert’s) Somerset Light Infantry was killed in action on December 19th. His body in no-man’s-land was recovered for burial during the Christmas Truce. This photo of the captain’s grave in Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery is by Geneanet volunteer chateau17.
The 2005 film “Joyeux Noël”, written and directed by Christian Carion, told the story of the Christmas truce in 1914.
This sculpture, by artist Andrew Edwards, is in the town of Mesen (Messines), Belgium, and celebrates the football (soccer) game enjoyed by opposing troops on Christmas Day 1914.
Major Archibald Buchanan-Dunlop participated in the truce of 1914; his mother had sent him the Christmas program from his beloved Loretto School near Edinburgh where he had been a student, and soldiers sang carols from it. This stained-glass window by Kate Henderson was unveiled in the school’s chapel on the centenary of the truce. Each poppy represents a former student who lost his life in the Great War.


As was pointed out above, the amount of intelligence gathered and lost from this was weighed as approximately equal and that this was less costly than the loss in generally boosting morale. Then again, there was no such truce in 1915-1917, so the timing must have been right too, or maybe they did learn something from it. Enough Machiavelli for now, says my inner-Sun-Tzu, anyway. — My grandfather Henry Eugene Storm 1917-1987, was born in Hamburg, named after his uncle max-theo-Eugen Storm 1887-1918, who was in this armistice, dying from wounds and a severe gas attack back in Hamburg. — Over-sharing pseudo-science over-postulation: Henry was son of franz-Henry, per baptisms thus, confirmed exactly thus in Hamburg city street directories no less, him son of franz-Hinrich (aka by then franz-Heinrich); not so much a Jules&Jim parallel as a platt-Deutsche ‘thing’, Heinrich born in “Free Holstein” (huzzah! sorry Danish cousins) in 1849, marrying a girl who’s Franco-phonic & Franco-phile mom was from (greater) Sarreguemines, west-Lorraine Moselle, marrying in Havre by 1872, thanks to here, but sibling baptisms say earlier perhaps but how, in 1879 and moving to Hamburg. This proliferation of edge-case tolerances perhaps being how this armistice was able to be allowed to be achieved (pretty slim tie-in, I admit). The parallels with “edge-cases versus decisiveness” can’t be a total loss. I suspect there is as much in a future for America to learn from this as for a future for a united Europe, maybe. Meanwhile back to my random coin flipping. What? Heads again? Well yes, that is pretty unlikely. Fingers crossed. Plus a little bit now and again. Happy New Year to all too.

When ordinary people get together – in most circumstances, they get along – and some even form friendships – no matter that they are “on different sides”. I firmly believe that if ordinary people of all countries got to know each other – without the undermining exhortations of the “ruling class” – be it government or military – there would be no wars. Humanity is a common denominator. It is the generals, and their governments backing them that with their selfish desires of domination that keep wars going in the name of “freedom”. But in most times -as it was in WWI – it is the pride and ambition of governing elites who initiate and promote slaughter to promote their own agendas.
I do believe that the Christmas Truce of 1914 was just such an opportunity = to unite the common man on a human scale – persons who were supposed to be sworn enemies.

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