The 1914 Christmas Truce

Illustrated London Times

Between the start of World War I in August 1914, and the end of November 1914, a number of large battles were fought as the Imperial German Army first advanced into France on a strict timetable under the Schlieffen Plan, and then was beaten back by the strong defenses of Belgium, France and the BEF (British Expeditionary Force). In August 1914, alone, four large battles, Lorraine, Ardennes, Charleroi and Mons, had occurred. On August 29 the Allied forces counterattacked at Guise, but eventually retreated. August 1914 left 300,000 casualties on both sides, the start of the 16 million who would eventually lose their lives in World War I. The Great War has the distinction of being the first war in history where more lives were lost in battle than to the various diseases that inevitably accompany war.

In September the German advance began again, but was blocked at Nancy. Other attacks on major cities failed and by late September the German army was digging in on the north side of the river Aisne. Thereafter, both sides began a race to the sea in an attempt to outflank each other’s northern flank, circle behind enemy lines and be in position to attack from the rear. Both sides failed to outflank the other and by the end of November 1914 the Western Front was established and trench warfare began and would last for four years, until the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

On Christmas Eve 1914 a remarkable and unique thing occurred. At various places all along the 500-mile Western Front hostilities spontaneously stopped, Allied and German soldiers sang Christmas carols to each other, met in no man’s land, exchanged gifts, and played soccer. I have previously written in more detail about this strange incident in 2014 and you can read that post here.  The informal truce lasted for several days. The only report of disapproval of this cease-fire was lodged by a petulant German corporal named Adolph Hitler.


Trench Warfare

Popular images of the Great War are generally two. The first is the neat, clean image of bi-planes piloted by aviators in leather helmets with scarves flying behind them. The other is life in the trenches.

Trench warfare, where opposing infantry forces lived in trenches, long, deep ditches, that faced the opposing forces across an open area called “no man’s land,” was a result of the stalemate that occurred when Germany’s Schlieffin plan ground to a halt. Under that plan, Germany expected to move quickly through Belgium and then France. During August 1914 the Germans had success with this plan, winning several battles. However the German army ran into fierce resistance from Belgian and French forces at the Battle of Marne in September. The Germans had forced the British Expeditionary Force to retreat across the Marne River, only 30 miles from Paris. However the German commander deviated from the Schlieffin plan and attacked Paris from the east instead of the north. The Allied forces held; the Germans retreated back across the Marne and the stalemate began.

Life in the trenches was deplorable to say the least. Trenches filled with water so soldiers spent their days in miserably wet conditions. Disease was rampant. Constant bombardment from the other side’s artillery left many with “shell shock,” what we call now Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “Going over the top” was a dreaded order. It meant storming out of the trenches, bayonets fixed to rifles, in an attempt to rush the enemy across no man’s land. Casualties were high and the tactic rarely worked.

The Schlieffin plan called for two fronts for Germany. The first was in Germany’s west, against France. Because Russia was France’s ally, the Plan also called for an invasion of Russia in the east. The battle against France and its Allies became known as the Western Front and gave rise to what is widely considered one of the greatest war novels ever written, All Quiet on the Western Front. The book was a gritty, no-holds-barred look at the horrors of the Western Front. Soldiers lost limbs and eyes. Horses blew up, showering men with blood and gore.  Men rooted through garbage for food. It was an international best seller that tapped into the sorrow following the War to End All Wars. Amazingly, only a few months after its publication, it was banned in Germany by the Nazi party.