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The Christmas truce (German: Weihnachtsfrieden; French: Trêve de Noël) was a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, during World War I. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides—as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units—independently ventured into "no man's land", where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another.
The truce is often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history. It was not ubiquitous; in some regions of the front, fighting continued throughout the day, while in others, little more than an arrangement to recover bodies was made. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting such fraternisation. In 1916, after the unprecedentedly bloody battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the beginning of widespread poison gas use, soldiers on both sides increasingly viewed the other side as less than human, and no more Christmas truces were sought.
In the early months of immobile trench warfare, the truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a growing mood of "live and let live", where infantry units in close proximity to each other would stop overtly aggressive behaviour, and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there would be occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades, while in others, there would be a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised, or worked in full view of the enemy. The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation – even in very peaceful sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable. The truces of 1914, either those in 25 December or before the Christmas period that year, though remembered today with much sympathy, were in no way exceptions when considering similar events in the many warfare theatres that history has recorded: during many previous armed conflicts such spontaneous truces arrived probably as frequent and "magically" as it was the case during the first year of hostilities in World War I.
The first five months of World War I had seen an initial German attack through Belgium into France, which had been repulsed outside Paris by French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne in early September 1914. The Germans fell back to the Aisne valley, where they prepared defensive positions. In the subsequent Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to push through the German line, and the fighting quickly degenerated into a stalemate; neither side was willing to give ground, and both started to develop fortified systems of trenches. To the north, on the right of the German army, there had been no defined front line, and both sides quickly began to try to use this gap to outflank one another; in the ensuing "Race to the Sea", the two sides repeatedly clashed, each trying to push forward and threaten the end of the other's line. After several months of fighting, during which the British forces were withdrawn from the Aisne and sent north into Flanders, the northern flank had developed into a similar stalemate. By November, there was a continuous front line running from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, occupied on both sides by armies in prepared defensive positions.
Fraternisation between opposing forces was not uncommon during periods of relative quiet; in a letter to his mother, dated 7 December 1914, Charles de Gaulle already expressed dismay because such "fraternal" behaviours which, in his opinion, were the results of long stalemate occasioned by the new trench warfare on the western front; in 1914, north of Ypres, after heavy rain, British and German soldiers exposed themselves above parapets in order to escape their flooded trench, and that without killing one another; in other such a brotherly manifestation, the first days of December 1914 witnessed on some sections of the front regular periods of truce, while French and Germans exchanged newspapers and recovered their dead. Echoing a similar view to the above-mentioned opinion of De Gaulle, the French General d'Urbal warned another high-ranking French officer that soldiers staying too long in the same sector will become to such an extent familiar with their enemies, that they had conversations and "visits".
In the lead up to Christmas 1914, there were several peace initiatives. The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed "To the Women of Germany and Austria", signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached. Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." This attempt was officially rebuffed.
The first documented unofficial truce was recorded in the War Diary of the 2nd Essex Regiment on the 11th December 1914 – 2 weeks before the more famous Christmas Truce. The War Diary records that at 10am "Officers & men of A & D co meet Germans ½ way between the trenches – Germans said they were fed up – Regt occupying trenches 181st Ret 19th SAXON CORPS- trenches appeared to be held in about same strength as ours & in same state."
One of the Essex Regiment soldiers who took part in this earlier incident had a letter published on the 1st January 1915 in the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette:
January 1, 1915: Amusing trench incident. "Tommy" and "Fritz" exchange presents. One of the oddities of the war in the Western battlefields at all events (says the Daily Chronicle) is the close proximity of the opposing forces in the trenches, thus giving opportunities for conversation. But the record must surely be made by an incident described in a letter from Private H Scrutton, Essex Regiment, to relatives at Wood Green, Norwich. He writes:- As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them. We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:- From out trenches: "Good morning Fritz." (No answer). "Good morning Fritz." (Still no answer). "GOOD MORNING FRITZ." From German trenches: "Good morning." From our trench: "How are you?" "All right." "Come over here, Fritz." "No. If I come I get shot." "No you won't. Come on." "No fear." "Come and get some fags, Fritz." "No. You come half way and I meet you." "All right." One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fitz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange. It was good to see the Germans standing on top of their trenches and the English also, with caps waving in the air, all cheering. About 18 of our men went half way and met about the same number of Germans. This lasted about half an hour when each side returned to their trenches to shoot at each other again. What I have written is the truth but don't think we got chums as two of our fellows were killed the same night, and I don't know how many of them.
Though there was no official truce, roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The first truce started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yvon (called Saint-Yves, in Plugstreet/Ploegsteert - Comines-Warneton), where Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather described the Truce.
The Germans began by placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man's Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. The fraternisation carried risks; some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year's Day in others.
Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, wrote: "I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck."
Future nature writer Henry Williamson, then a callow nineteen-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote excitedly to his mother on Boxing Day: "Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the 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, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it?" 
Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported how the first interpreter he met from the German lines was from Suffolk where he had left his girlfriend and a 3.5 hp motorcycle. Hulse went on to describe a sing-song which "ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!"
Nor were the observations confined to the British. Leutnant Johannes Niemann: "grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy." 
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Adolf Hitler, then a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce.
Mike Dash said in 2011 that "there is plenty of evidence that soccer was played that Christmas Day—mostly by men of the same nationality, but in at least three or four places between troops from the opposing armies".
A letter written by a doctor attached to the Rifle Brigade, published in The Times on 1 January 1915, reported "a football match… played between them and us in front of the trench."
Games played between teams of opposing armies include that of "133rd Royal Saxon Regiment played a game against "Scottish troops". Some accounts of the game bring in elements of fiction by Robert Graves, a British poet and writer who reconstructed the encounter in a story published in 1962. In Graves’s version, the score was 3–2 to the Germans.
Another match was played in the sector of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, "recorded that a game was played in his sector “between the lines and the trenches,” and according to a letter home published by the Glasgow News on 2 January, the Scots" won by 4–1.
In the following months, there were a few sporadic attempts at truces; a German unit attempted to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but were warned off by the British opposite them, and later in the year, in November, a Saxon unit briefly fraternised with a Liverpool battalion. In December 1915, there were explicit orders by the Allied commanders to forestall any repeat of the previous Christmas truce. Individual units were encouraged to mount raids and harass the enemy line, whilst communicating with the enemy was discouraged by artillery barrages along the front line throughout the day. The prohibition was not completely effective, however, and a small number of brief truces occurred.
An eyewitness account of one truce, by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day saw a "rush of men from both sides ... [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs" before the men were quickly called back by their officers, with offers to hold a ceasefire for the day and to play a football match. It came to nothing, as the brigade commander threatened repercussions for the lack of discipline, and insisted on a resumption of firing in the afternoon. Another member of Griffith's battalion, Bertie Felstead, later recalled that one man had produced a football, resulting in "a free-for-all; there could have been 50 on each side", before they were ordered back.
In an adjacent sector, a short truce to bury the dead between the lines led to official repercussions; a company commander, Sir Iain Colquhoun of the Scots Guards, was court-martialled for defying standing orders to the contrary. While he was found guilty and officially reprimanded, this punishment was quickly annulled by General Haig, and Colquhoun remained in his position; the official leniency may perhaps have been because he was related to Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister.
In the later years of the war, in December 1916 and 1917, German overtures to the British for truces were recorded without any success. In some French sectors, singing and an exchange of thrown gifts was occasionally recorded, though these may simply have reflected a seasonal extension of the live-and-let-live approach common in the trenches.
Evidence of a Christmas 1916 truce, previously unknown to historians, has recently come to light. In a letter home, 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon told of a remarkable event that occurred on 25 December 1916, when German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines near Vimy Ridge to share Christmas greetings and trade presents. "Here we are again as the song says," the young soldier wrote. "I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line. Christmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. ... We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars."
In the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to try to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. Troops were also rotated through various sectors of the front to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy. Situations of deliberate dampening of hostilities still occurred. For example, artillery was fired at precise points, at precise times, to avoid enemy casualties by both sides.[better source needed]
In the Comines sector of the front there was an early fraternisation between German and French soldiers in December 1914, during a short truce., and there are at least two other testimonials of similar behaviours in sectors where German and French companies opposed each other. In sections of the front where German and Belgian troops faced each other in December 1914, there was at least one such instance when a truce was achieved at the request of Belgian soldiers that wished to send letters back to their families, over the German-occupied territory of their own country. Richard Schirrmann, who was in a German regiment holding a position on the Bernhardstein, one of the mountains of the Vosges, wrote an account of events in December 1915: "When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over." He was separated from the French troops by a narrow No Man's Land and described the landscape as: "Strewn with shattered trees, the ground ploughed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms." Military discipline was soon restored, but Schirrmann pondered over the incident, and whether "thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other." He went on to found the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.
A particular manifestation of the Christmas truce in December 1914 occurred on the Eastern front, where the first move (to avoid open fire if not attacked) originated from the Austrian commanders, at some uncertain level of the military hierarchy. The Russian responded positively and soldiers eventually met in no man’s land.
The events of the truce were not reported for a week, in an unofficial press embargo which was eventually broken by the New York Times on 31 December. The British papers quickly followed, printing numerous first-hand accounts from soldiers in the field, taken from letters home to their families, and editorials on "one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war". By 8 January pictures had made their way to the press, and both the Mirror and Sketch printed front-page photographs of British and German troops mingling and singing between the lines. The tone of the reporting was strongly positive, with the Times endorsing the "lack of malice" felt by both sides and the Mirror regretting that the "absurdity and the tragedy" would begin again.
Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticising those who had taken part, and no pictures published. In France, meanwhile, the greater level of press censorship ensured that the only word that spread of the truce came from soldiers at the front or first-hand accounts told by wounded men in hospitals. The press was eventually forced to respond to the growing rumours by reprinting a government notice that fraternising with the enemy constituted treason, and in early January an official statement on the truce was published, claiming it had happened on restricted sectors of the British front, and amounted to little more than an exchange of songs which quickly degenerated into shooting.
A Christmas truce memorial was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, on 11 November 2008. Also on that day, at the spot where, on Christmas Day 1914, their regimental ancestors came out from their trenches to play football, men from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers played a football match with the German Battalion 371. The Germans won 2–1.
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