December 24, 1914: The “Christmas truce” on the Western front begins.
The first Christmas of World War I took place four months after war broke out, before the bloody battles at Somme and Verdun and elsewhere, before the introduction of the tank, and before the use of chemical weapons became widespread on either front. Two years and hundreds of thousands of casualties later, the idea of a ceasefire to the scale that occurred on the Christmas Eve and Christmas of that year was inconceivable.
But it did happen in 1914, when British and German troops near Ypres began singing Christmas carols to each other from their trenches. Soldiers across the front crossed into “No Man’s Land” to greet each other and exchange food, tobacco, alcohol, newspapers, chocolate, handshakes, and Christmas greetings. The soldiers may have even played football with each other; such activities were detailed in letters that have surfaced over the years. One describes how British and German troops buried their dead and conducted services beside each other; soldiers elsewhere sang the other side’s national anthem to each other or took photographs together.
Attempts were made the following Easter and Christmases by both sides to initiate ceasefires, but neither could match the original, which had involved at least 100,000 troops along the Western Front and was described a year later by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the “one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war”.