By Jim Murphy
Today, the economics of the holiday season and the hoped-for signs of an improving economy seem to overpower any other possible message, including peace. While this should be a time of “peace on earth, good will toward men,” it feels as if it would take a miracle today to make peace happen.
Yet at Christmas time, nearly a century ago, there was just such a miracle. In the midst of World War I, weary soldiers from both sides put down their guns and declared a moment of peace. The story is likely to sound vaguely familiar because the Christmas Truce of 1914 has achieved all but legendary status.
However, the Christmas Truce is not the stuff of legend, but of history. And, regardless of how familiar you think you are with the particulars, the realities of this extraordinary occurrence nearly 100 years ago are even more remarkable and moving.
In December 1914, long before U.S. involvement, the countries of Europe were engaged in a terrible war. In less than six months the fighting had torn up farmland, leveled villages and killed over a million soldiers. Exhausted, bogged down in muddy trenches with the enemy just yards away, most soldiers thought the war would never end. And then it did. Briefly.
Here are four things you should know about the Christmas Truce of 1914.
1. The truce lasted weeks.
Most people assume that the truce lasted for just one day. Yes, the truce began on Christmas Day, but in the majority of locales, it lasted until after New Year’s Eve or even longer. A British soldier, for example, took photographs of his German counterparts on Christmas Day and gave his new German friends copies on New Year’s Day.
In another section of the front, the ceasefire lasted even longer. The truce stretched until Easter, a span of nearly four months!
Throughout the duration of the truce, soldiers from both sides of the trenches shared a kind of camaraderie. In many places, they sang songs together, shared an occasional meal and exchanged small presents of food and tobacco. They helped each other bury their fellow soldiers, and they even held joint religious services to mourn those who had been lost.
2. The truce involved many, many soldiers.
Although oft-told versions of the story say that only a few hundred soldiers were involved, the actual number was far, far greater. In fact, over 110,000 soldiers along the western front spontaneously stopped fighting.
The number of soldiers, Germans and Austrians on one side and British, French and Belgian soldiers on the other, was so great that many commanding generals went out of their way to suppress the news, fearing that they would be blamed for such a wide scale mutiny.
This remarkable, massive act of civil disobedience actually involved even more participants than one of history’s most famous moments: the civil disobedience showdown in China at Tiananmen Square over two decades ago.
3. Commanding officers participated as well.
While many commanding officers for both sides condemned any truce, hundreds of officers in the field encouraged the halt to fighting and willingly participated in it. They knew their men were exhausted, both physically and emotionally.
They also realized that the military tactics used at the time—especially the traditional massed charge at highly effective machine gun and artillery positions—were a futile waste of the lives of these men.
4. More German soldiers than Allied soldiers initiated the truce.
This is a surprising fact. Frequently, German soldiers would suggest a break from fighting, either by holding a sign or waving a white flag above their trenches. They’d climb over the parapet holding their hands up in the air to show they carried no weapons. While this often took the allied soldiers by complete surprise, the allied soldiers would then respond in kind.
Although this truce was clearly miraculous, the Christmas Truce did not ultimately put an end to the war. It dragged on for four more years. Although labeled “the war to end all wars,” this war did not put an end to world wars. And, perhaps even more tragically, historians now agree that this was a war that did not need to happen.
They believe that a mix of missed messages, incompetent leadership, personal fears and jealousies created an inevitable march to war that could not be stopped.
However, the truce remains a piece of history worth remembering and recounting as often as possible. The spirit of the truce lived on in the hearts of all those who participated. Those fighting on both sides recognized that what they shared in common was greater than what tore them apart.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 also proved to the rest of the world that, at least for a moment, it really is possible for peace to reign over a war-weary world.
Historian Jim Murphy is the author of “Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting.” More information about his other award-winning books, such as “An American Plague” and “The Great Fire,” can be found on jimmurphybooks.com.