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Christmas at War

British and German troops meeting in no man’s land during the unofficial truce. Photo: IWM Collections

Happy Christmas, war is over. The song has been played to death on the radio, but with Washington’s declaration that the Iraq war is now officially over, John Lennon’s lyrics will likely bring a tear to the eyes of many American mothers. With Christmas being a time when families travel sometimes thousands of miles to reunite, the separation between those on the front lines and those worrying at home becomes all the more pronounced.

Perhaps the most famous – and undoubtedly the most touching – account of Christmas at war stems from the early 20th century. In 1914, only months into WWI, a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires took place along the Western Front. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, German and British soldiers (and to a lesser degree some French) independently ventured into ‘no man’s land’ and exchanged greetings and souvenirs, and even played a friendly game of soccer. The last survivor of the Christmas truce gave a haunting account of how he witnessed this spontaneous act of humanity:

“The words drifted across the frozen battlefield: ‘Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht’. After the last note a lone German infantryman appeared holding a small tree glowing with light. ‘Merry Christmas. We not shoot, you not shoot.’”

The Christmas truce of 1914 was deemed “one human episode amid all the atrocities,” but there is evidence that small-scale Christmas truces between opposing forces continued throughout WWI. » More