How The 1914 Christmas Truce Teaches Us To Love Our Enemies

How The 1914 Christmas Truce Teaches Us To Love Our Enemies

When the angels appeared to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem that night more than 2,000 years ago, they spoke of the great message of the Incarnation and sang what has become the universal Christmas prayer of the ages: “Peace on earth and goodwill toward men.”

Perhaps those same Christmas angels sang over the western front in 1914 when the guns fell silent.

The Christmas Peace of 1914 is one of those stories that many of us have heard but is worth re-reading. It’s so incredible it’s almost too good to be true; It was a series of widespread, voluntary and unofficial armistices between the Germans and the English that took place in the days around Christmas.

World War I was only five months old, and soldiers on both sides had been promised that the war would be short enough that they would be “home by Christmas”.

But by December it became clear that the war was going to be much longer and bigger. It had become a stationary affair, with men shooting at each other non-stop from muddy ditches and the sight of another man just 30 yards away was enough for them to open fire.

At home, English war posters depicted the German enemy as an angry monkey determined to annihilate innocent Englishmen, while German propaganda warned that a British victory would mean an impoverished and devastated Rhineland. It was the language of total warfare; In the minds of Europeans, it was a question of victory or death.

When Christmas came, it looked like millions of men would spend their day knee-deep in mud, shooting at those around them and fomenting hatred for their faceless and nameless enemy.

Britons and Germans sing Christmas carols together

In a letter published in the Bedfordshire Times and The Independent on January 1, 1915, a private wrote of his experience as a watchman at 1 a.m. on Christmas morning:

I was on guard duty and one of the Germans wished me a good morning and a Merry Christmas. Never in my life was I so surprised when daylight came and they all sat on top of the trenches waving their hands and singing to us.

Another letter from a soldier, published in the Carlisle Journal on January 8, 1915, tells of the British and German Christmas celebrations. The soldiers sang Christmas carols together, traded in cigarettes and souvenirs, and drank to the king’s health.

“The regiment actually had a football game with the Germans, which they defeated 3-2,” he wrote. “After all, this was almost a happy, albeit strange, Christmas.”

Football match during the Christmas Peace in World War I (no copyright)

At many points along the front, the German soldiers set up candles and dry Christmas trees on their parapets. They might have been surrounded by freezing mud, but they were celebrating the birth of Christ.

A Belgian soldier wrote that he had no regrets spending the day in the trenches. The experience of the Christmas peace was worth it:

It was the last time there was a widespread truce of this magnitude at the front. Another year of heavy fighting embittered both sides, and as the war raged on, they failed to recognize the humanity of their enemies.

No one would have blamed the English night watchman if he had shot the Germans who had come to his parapet at midnight on Christmas Day. But he did not do it. He was Christian enough to celebrate Christ’s coming with his enemy—while continuing to believe in the righteousness of his own cause.

As we pray for the divisions to end and for the King of Peace to reign on earth this Christmas, let us intend something as radically beautiful as Christmas Peace. It’s a miracle that begins with lowering our guns long enough to see the humanity of the other side.

Aubrey Gulick is a senior pursuing her bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in journalism and music at Hillsdale College. She can be found on Substack writing about history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *