It seems the stuff of Hollywood, but it wasn't. Around Christmas 1914, more than four months into the four-year carnage of World War I, soldiers in opposing armies, mostly along the Western front, laid down their weapons and met in the no man's land between the trenches. They sang carols, exchanged food and drink, played soccer, buried their dead. It's a story of hope in humanity, says Tamara Chaplin, a University of Illinois historian of modern France who co-led a special course on World War I this fall, on its 100th anniversary. We should not, however, Chaplin says, forget the context in which it happened, and what would follow. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
It's hard to think of another story like this in wartime, and it happened not in one spot along the front, but in many, and independently. So how and why did it happen?
We cannot comprehend the Christmas Truce unless we consider the particular conditions of trench warfare. The static nature of combat and close proximity of the enemy - who, although rarely seen, were often so close you could hear them speak and cough, and could smell their cooking - caused many men to be curious about the soldiers they faced. Both sides suffered similar hardships: They were equally mired in mud, pelted by freezing rain and snow, attacked by lice and rats, and under the constant, brutal threat of violent death.
A series of attacks in the weeks leading up to Christmas had proven costly - especially near Ypres in Belgium - and left no man's land strewn with casualties. It was increasingly clear that the war would not be over soon. I think that as Christmas approached many of the men began to feel closer to the poor brutes in the opposing trenches than they did to their own generals, who kept their feet dry and bellies full back at headquarters.
On December 24, most instances of fraternization ensued after Germans started to sing Christmas carols. British, French and even Scottish troops joined in. Soon the men were cheering one another on, which led some to venture out into no man's land. Informal truces were established, and food, drink, tobacco and gifts were exchanged, stories shared, and in almost all instances, the dead buried.
Not surprisingly, once these events became public - mostly after letters that slipped through censors reached local newspapers - the backlash from military leaders on both sides was swift. But while battalions were disbanded, and troops reprimanded, public support meant that punishment was less severe than might be expected. By December of 1915, however, all sides issued orders stating that any fraternization would be treated as treason. Although such prohibitions were not entirely successful - a few small truces were reported in 1915, '16 and '17 - the widespread truce seen on the first Christmas of the war was never repeated. Of course, there is also little doubt that as the war progressed, the cataclysmic losses suffered on each side made such peaceful gatherings less conceivable.
You note that the Christmas Truce was surprising for other reasons as well.
When new recruits signed up for military service in 1914, most of them were not only eager to go, they were also primed to hate the enemy, and to understand the foe as a threat not only to their home country, but also to the very existence of civilization itself. Education played a crucial role here. The national enmity that fired the war machine was carefully nourished from early childhood in public schoolrooms across Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This youthful, patriotic and often bellicose indoctrination makes the events of Christmas 1914 all the more astonishing.
Finally, it's easy to think that many stories from the truce have been exaggerated, but you say most of them are true - including most of those in the 2005 Hollywood-like French film "Joyeux Noël." How do we know this? And how should the truce be remembered?
The Christmas Truce of 1914 is well documented - and new sources like letters and diaries continue to surface. And yet, in some ways, to make much of this event does a disservice to our historical understanding of the Great War. Over 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died in this global conflict. Thus, when all is said and done, World War I must not be reduced to a fairytale - even if it is a true one.
And yet, as a moving testament to human compassion under the most tragic of circumstances, the Christmas Truce continues to offer us a message that our world remains badly in need of today.