Dec. 24, 2021

The Christmas Truce of World War One

The Christmas Truce of World War One

December 24, 1914. In the trenches of World War One, British and German troops call a truce to celebrate Christmas together.

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Cold Open

It’s October 19th, 1914. In a field in Flanders, Western Belgium.

A young British soldier grips a bayoneted rifle in his hands, clenches his teeth, and charges through a storm of heavy gunfire. Over an uneven, muddy terrain the shells of enemy artillery explode all around him, knocking him to the ground. As he falls he sees the bodies of his friends lying with him in the dirt, the red of their blood seeping into the wet earth. He wants to huddle beside them, feigning injury. But something - fear, pride, perhaps a sense of duty - forces him to get up and continue running for the German guns.

When the so-called Great War first broke out in July, everyone had assured the boy that it would be over by Christmas. But now, as he runs toward the German line, he feels in his bones he won’t live that long. This war is unlike any ever experienced. Recent technological advances mean that both sides possess devastating rapid-fire machine guns and long-range artillery that have made mass killing chillingly efficient.

As he runs through the blood-soaked terrain, the young British soldier hears the whirring of bullets getting dangerously close.

Then an explosion takes him off his feet.

Blinded and on his back, the boy frantically rubs his eyes to see if they’re covered by mud or his own blood. Finally, after a moment, his vision returns and he looks up at an azure blue sky. He does not see the next artillery shell, which hits him directly and kills him instantly.

The First World War, as this conflict will come to be known, will last until November 11th, 1918. In that time, the conflict will claim the lives of an estimated 20 million people, both military and civilian. And yet, in the midst of this horror, a series of spontaneous ceasefires put a momentary end to the bloodshed. Inspired by a season of peace, on Christmas Eve, 1914, enemies will put down their weapons, in one of the most curious and poignant events in the history of war.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is December 24th, 1914. The Christmas Truce.

Act One: No Man’s Land

t’s before dawn on December 24th, 1914 in a trench in Belgium, not far from the city of Ypres.

Henry Williamson, a nineteen-year-old rifleman of the London Brigade’s First Battalion, steps out from the British trenches onto the swath of frozen terrain that separates the British from their German enemies. The soldiers call it: “No Man’s Land.”

Very early in this war, it became clear to both sides that they needed to dig deep into the earth to protect themselves from relentless gunfire. For weeks, Williamson and his fellow soldiers have lived in these clay mud trenches, along with infestations of rats and lice.

But today, Williamson and several others were given an order to leave the trenches and enter No Man's Land. They've been told to do some construction work for reasons the High Command won't divulge. The young soldiers must hammer some iron posts 18 inches into the frozen ground just 50 yards away from the German guns.

As Henry makes his way out into the open terrain, he is convinced that at any moment a German sniper will pick him off. Williamson has already witnessed friends of his get fatally shot for just looking over the top of the trench. Their decomposing bodies still lie unburied out here in the open terrain. As he gently steps over the corpses, Williamson is terrified, but he has no choice. If he refuses his order, he will be shot for insubordination. So he continues his journey out into the open field, and recalls a line from a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

”Theirs not to make reply. Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do or die.”

But as they make their way to the construction site, the soldiers are relieved, and a bit surprised, that no shots are fired at them. They are even more surprised when they see Christmas trees and candles lining the German trenches.

Williamson later learns that, in Germany, families celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas Day. As a result, a brief ceasefire is underway that, as far as Williamson is concerned, is a Christmas miracle. He and his fellow soldiers complete their task without a single shot being fired.

Back in the trenches, as it closes in on 11 PM, Williamson is astonished to hear the sound of carols drifting across “No Man’s Land”. The songs are being sung in German. But Williamson recognizes the tune, it's The First Noel. So soon, he and the other British soldiers sing the lyrics back to Germans in English. At first, Williamson and the rest are being competitive; aiming to show the Germans that they have louder, more booming voices. But when the British finish their rendition, the German soldiers opposite them break into applause. Soon, the air is filled with the sounds of carols in both languages, as both sides perform, and then applaud, in appreciation. Williamson can’t help but smile. He feels this is the only pleasant thing that’s happened to him since he first arrived in France.

Then as midnight draws near, the impromptu concert ends and the Germans start shouting something across the wasteland.


Williamson doesn’t speak German, but a fellow rifleman does. He tells Williamson that the soldiers are wishing them a Merry Christmas. Williamson, and rest of the British troops, shout back their Christmas greetings.


And then one of the German voices shouts back in English.

“Come over here, Tommy.” 

Tommy is a nickname British privates call themselves. Williamson is surprised to hear the Germans using it, and he’s even more surprised that the Germans are beckoning him to come and join them. Many of the British soldiers worry that this might be a trap; the Germans are trying to lure the British out into “No Man’s Land” so they can cut them down. But Williamson doesn’t think so. He figures that if they wanted to mow them down, they had ample opportunity when they were out working on the construction project. After an intense debate, one of Williamson’s fellow soldiers shouts back their reply, using their nickname for the Germans:

“No, Fritz. You come over here!”

And then, for a few moments, silence. Gripped by curiosity, Wiliamson climbs the wooden steps of the trench wall with a pair of binoculars in one hand. He surveys the candle-lined German trenches and sees several grey uniformed soldiers making tentative steps out onto “No Man’s Land”. As far as Williamson can tell, they are unarmed.

But by now, some British officers have emerged from a concrete bunker and are horrified to learn that German soldiers are advancing across “No Man’s Land”. The British privates tell their superiors about the unofficial Christmas truce; the carols and the well wishes. But the officers believe this is a plot. The German soldiers want to get close to our lines, they believe, so they can report back about troop numbers and equipment. The officers order a group of low-ranking soldiers to meet the Germans at the halfway point to block their path.

And so, for a second time that day, Henry Williamson, and his fellow privates, step out into “No Man’s Land”. This time, they walk halfway across to the barbed wire fence that separates their side from the enemy and meet young men of their own age with whom they will shake hands, exchange gifts, and celebrate Christmas Eve as friends.

Act Two: Christmas Day

It’s December 24th, 1914 in “No Man’s Land”, near Ypres in Belgium.

Along with many other brave men from his battalion, Henry Williamson walks across the frozen ground strewn with the corpses of young soldiers; neither the British or the Germans have been able to collect their dead for some time. Soldiers feel sick to see the rotting bodies of their friends.

But as Williamson and the rest approach the fence in the middle of “No Man’s Land”, they notice empty tin cans hanging from the barbed wire, originally placed there to rattle in case an enemy soldier attempted to cross in the night. But, on this Christmas Eve, there is no subterfuge. A group of happy German soldiers have already stepped over the fence onto the British side. These smiling soldiers have come bearing gifts.

One of them holds a bottle of rum and offers it to Williamson. Williamson in turn offers the German a brass tin of tobacco that he, like many other British soldiers, received in a ration box as a Christmas gift from the royal family. The soldiers shake hands and, those without gifts to exchange, remove the buttons from their coats and offer to swap them. There is laughter and conversation. Both sides complain about the lice, the rats, the lack of drainage in their muddy trenches, and - in whispered tones - their commanding officers. It occurs to many of the soldiers that they have more in common with their enemy than they do with many of their fellow countrymen who have never experienced the horrors of trench warfare.

Soon the soldiers bid each other goodnight. But, having enjoyed this chance to stretch their legs on solid ground, some of the officers in command decide that this short and spontaneous armistice should be extended into Christmas day. 


When Williamson wakes the next morning, he discovers that the sun is shining for the first time in weeks and sees that a beautiful white frost has settled upon the hard ground. As far as he can see, “No Man’s Land” is full of soldiers. Half of them wear the khaki uniforms of the British but the other half wear the grey uniforms of the Germans. He watches as they shake hands and drink schnapps, and exchange more presents like pipes and chocolate and plum puddings; he notices a few men exchanging names and addresses in order to correspond with each other after the war.

The truce puts a temporary halt to the bloodshed in Ypres, but it also allows both sides to finally bury the bodies of their slain countrymen without fear of suffering the same deadly fate. As many soldiers socialize and stroll about, others, like Williamson, quietly dig holes in the frozen ground and cover their fallen comrades with the earth.

Williamson notices one German soldier fashioning a little wooden cross made from a matchbox. He writes a tiny inscription in pencil on the cross and then places on a grave. Williamson asks what it means and the German replies, `Here Rests in God, an unknown hero.’

Williamson argues that God is surely on the British side of the conflict. When the German soldier disagrees, Williamson becomes agitated, insisting that Britain, not Germany, will ultimately be victorious. But the German soldier remains calm and smiles before replying.

“Well English comrade, do not let us quarrel on Christmas Day.”

Williamson smiles back. He agrees that this isn’t the time for an argument. And soon, a friendly game of soccer breaks out between the two sides. One of the soldiers has fashioned a ball out of a sandbag from one of the trench walls tying it together with a string. The British are aggressive and move the ball down the makeshift field quickly, but the Germans play a good defensive game and don’t let them get too close to the goal. For both teams, it's good exercise and a wonderful break from spending their days knee-deep in muddy trenches.

But the truce is not confined to just Williamson’s area near Ypres. All across the Western Front, the fighting stops long enough for soldiers to sing carols, exchange gifts and shake hands. Where Henry Williamson is stationed, the Christmas Truce will last four days. For all soldiers, it will be a much-welcome reprieve from hellish experience of the trenches. But the moment of peace cannot last forever. Soon, officers on both sides will learn of the Christmas Truce and will order their men back to the trenches, and to prepare for attack.

Act Three: Hostilities Resume

It’s December 27th, 1914 in Ypres, four days after the Christmas Truce began.

Once again, Henry Williamson wakes up to find German and British soldiers mingling, waving, and chatting with each other across “No Man’s Land” as if the area is now a public park rather than a battlefield. But soon, this moment of peace comes to an end when orders come down from British High Command: the armistice is over. Soldiers must resume combat.

Minutes after the order arrives, the Germans opposite Williamson’s trench send over a note. Their commanding officers have given identical orders. As a courtesy, the Germans let the British know that they will resume firing their guns at 11 o’clock that night.

The gift exchanges and soccer matches come to an end as soldiers on both sides return to the shelter of the 7-foot trenches they have dug into the earth.

The war resumes, and as the bodies pile up, the hatred between the warring soldiers intensifies. The Christmas truce is not repeated. On the following Christmas Eve, British commanding officers order machine gun fire to drown out the sounds of any carols being heard from the opposite trench.

Still, the truce had a profound effect on many of the men who witnessed it. One German officer recalled, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was." The English officers felt the same way about it. "Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends...” Young men who had been encouraged to see their enemy soldiers as inhuman targets to be picked off from a distance found themselves able to cross “No Man’s Land” and celebrate one of the most unique Christmasses in history on December 24th, 1914.


Next on History Daily. January 3rd, 1777. General George Washington snatches victory from the jaws of defeat at The Battle of Princeton.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.