On Christmas Eve of 1914, one of the strangest occurrences in the history of warfare happened. Despite all odds, German, British, and French soldiers set aside their arms and established an informal truce across much of the Western Front of World War I.
There had been previous informal truces, although none on this scale. Many Germans had lived in London as immigrants and spoke English fluently. Europe in the early 20th century was a cosmopolitan region where people could trade and travel freely prior to the "Great War." The infantrymen on the front lines had no personal animosity toward their foes despite some very heavy fighting, and it was clear that the optimistic promises of winning the war by Christmas were not coming to fruition. The rulers of the Central Powers and the Allies had sent soldiers to wage war on their behalf, but these men were the result of a century of peace in Europe following the end of Napoleons campaign.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
On December 24, 1914, it appears that near Ypres, some German soldiers decided to have a Christmas tree. At the time, this was a custom peculiar to Germany, and little seen elsewhere. The British facing them were rather perplexed, to say the least. They thought it had to be a ruse of some sort. But then the Brits heard Christmas carols. Eventually, someone waved a white flag of truce and stepped into no-man's land between the trench lines. He was not riddled with bullets. Tentative greetings were exchanged, and soon men began to exchange small gifts. Games of football broke out. Regardless of the wishes of the aristocrats and politicians, there was a moment of peace.
You can learn more about this event from The Dangerous History Podcast or the Bad Quaker podcast. Wikipedia also covers the matter in detail, and there are many online sources for historical documents. Your local library may have books on the subject as well.
As Blaise Pascal wrote, "Can anything be more ridiculous than that a man has a right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has quarrel with mine, although I have none with him?"
In my opinion, it is perhaps the greatest tragedy in modern history that these soldiers allowed nationalism and a false sense of duty to end this peace after the holiday. Had they realized the absurdity of war following this event and refused to obey the order to resume combat, we could have had the chance to avoid a century of nearly perpetual war. Unfortunately, men set aside obedience to the Christ whose birth they celebrated, and returned to obeying men. They returned to warfare following the holiday respite, and the military command structure did everything in its power to ensure that this could never happen again. Men who had shared a Christmas dinner went back to shooting at one another and dying to serve the interests of their callous rulers.
A man cannot serve two masters, and we are suffering from the consequences of the choices people have made in the past. We cannot change that, but we can choose anew for ourselves each day. We can recognize the humanity in others, and the inhumanity in political dictates. Obedience is not a virtue when one obeys orders to kill and die in the name of petty, vain ambitions of others. The Christmas Truce is a glimpse into what we can be. It should stand as a beacon of hope for how we should act in the future when confronted with conflicts that are not our own.
Are there any similar stories of Christmas truces in the history of Eastern Europe? Please share them in the comments below!