The fighting in Europe had been growing for almost five months when Pope Benedict tried to arrange a truce between nations in early December 1914 for Christmas. But his efforts failed when Russia declined the truce. The notorious trenches of World War I were filled with weary, cold soldiers. But along the British and German lines, a sudden rise of the Christmas Spirit among the soldiers created a phenomenon that wasn’t seen for the rest of the war—the soldiers decided not to fight on Christmas. Stories of this unofficial Christmas Truce were published in newspapers around the world.*
The Chicago Herald printed part of a letter from a British soldier describing what took place. “On Christmas eve we were shouting across ‘Merry Christmas!’ The Germans shouted, ‘Don’t shoot till New Year’s day!’ Christmas morning the weather was foggy and there was no firing. We started wandering over toward the German lines. When the mist cleared we saw the Germans doing the same thing.”
Climbing from their trenches onto the battle-scarred “no man’s land,” British and German soldiers shook hands, swapped cigarettes and jokes, and even played football. “We all have wives and children…we’re just the same kind of men as you are,” one German said.
Gifts were exchanged between soldiers: pies, wine, cigars and cigarettes, chocolates, pictures, newspapers. Whatever they had with them in the trenches. Some even exchanged names and addresses to reconnect after the war! “We exchanged souvenirs; I got a German ribbon and photo of the Crown Prince of Bavaria. The Germans opposite us were awfully decent fellows—Saxons, intelligent, respectable-looking men. I had quite a decent talk with three or four and have two names and addresses in my notebook.” (New York Times, December 31, 1914, World War History: Newspaper Clippings 1914 to 1926.)
The day would be remembered and memorialized as a moment of peace during the long First World War. A day when soldiers put aside their orders and listened instead to their common decency and humanity. As one German soldier noted, “you are the same religion as we, and today is the day of peace.”
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.