The Christmas truce refers to several brief, unofficial cessations of hostilities that occurred on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day between German and British or French troops in World War I, particularly that between British and German troops stationed along the Western Front during Christmas 1914 and, to a lesser extent, in 1915. In 1915 there was a similar Christmas truce between German and French troops, and during Easter 1916 a truce also existed on the Eastern Front.
World War I involved most of the world's great powers (centred around the Triple Entente), against the Central Powers. Great Britain declared war on Germany, on 3 August 1914, following an 'unsatisfactory reply' to the British ultimatum that Belgium must be kept neutral. An advance west, through France, brought the German army within 43 miles (70 km) of Paris. However, at the First Battle of the Marne (6–12 September 1914), French and British troops were able to force a German retreat by exploiting a gap which appeared between the 1st and 2nd Armies, ending the German advance into France. The German army retreated north of the Aisne River and dug in there, establishing the beginnings of a static western front that was to last for the next three years. Following this German setback, the opposing forces tried to outflank each other in the Race for the Sea, and quickly extended their trench systems from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.
In the lead up to Christmas 1914, there were several peace initiatives. The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed "To the Women of Germany and Austria", signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached. Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." This attempt was, though, officially rebuffed.
Though there was no official truce, about 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The first truce started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium.
The Germans began by placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The English responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across the 'No Man's Land', where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. The fraternisation was not, however, without its risks; some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year's Day in others.
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, was irate when he heard what was happening, and issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. In the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to try to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. Troops were also rotated through various sectors of the front to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy. However, situations of deliberate dampening of hostilities also occurred. For example, artillery was fired at precise points, at precise times, to avoid enemy casualties by both sides.
On Christmas Eve 1915, a peace overture came from the German lines. On Christmas Day, after a night of carol singing, Bertie Felstead, a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers recalled that feelings of goodwill had so swelled up that at dawn Bavarian and British soldiers clambered spontaneously out of their trenches. A football was produced from somewhere – though none could recall from where. "It wasn't a game as such, more a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don't know how long it lasted, probably half an hour."
When Felstead died on 22 July 2001, aged 106, it was believed that he was the last survivor of the truce, until Alfred Anderson was later identified as still living, and having taken part in the truce. Anderson subsequently died in Newtyle, Scotland, on 21 November 2005, at the age of 109.
Richard Schirrmann, who was in a German regiment holding a position on the Bernhardstein, one of the mountains of the Vosges, wrote an account of events in December 1915: "When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over." He was separated from the French troops by a narrow no-man’s-land and described the landscape as: "Strewn with shattered trees, the ground ploughed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms." Military discipline was soon restored, but Schirrmann pondered over the incident, and whether "thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other." He went on to found the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.
Bonhams auction house auctioned, on 7 November 2006, a 10 page letter written by an unknown British soldier. It was bought, for £14,400, by singer Chris de Burgh. The letter records events and incidents with the German forces at Christmas 1914. It is headed "British Expeditionary Force, Friday December 25th 1914." and starts "My Dear Mater, This will be the most memorable Christmas I've ever spent or likely to spend." The letter goes on to say "The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us - wishing us a Happy Christmas etc ... Some of our chaps went over to their lines." It ends "Kind regards to all the neighbours. With much love from Boy."
Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, wrote "I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck."
A Christmas truce memorial was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, on 11 November 2008. Also on that day, at the spot where, on Christmas Day 1914, their regimental ancestors came out from their trenches to play football, men from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Welsh (The Royal Welch Fusiliers) played a football match with the German Panzergrenadier Battalion 371. The Germans won, 2-1.
The Christmas truce features in many writings, and in popular culture. Several full-length books have been written by both British and German authors. The truce is dramatised in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël (English: Merry Christmas), and is depicted through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers. The film, written and directed by Christian Carion, was screened out of competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
British folk singer Mike Harding related the story in his song Christmas 1914, American folk singer John McCutcheon in his Christmas in the Trenches, and American country music singer Garth Brooks in his track Belleau Wood. The truce also provided the basis for All Together Now, a 1990 song by The Farm which has become a football anthem. The video for Paul McCartney's 1983 song Pipes of Peace depicted the truce.
In the Christmas episode entitled River of Stars from the Fox series Space: Above and Beyond, Joel Delafuente's character narrates the 1914 Christmas truce. He juxtaposes the event against the fact that over the next three years the war became, what was then, the costliest in human history. 
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The Royal Welch Fusiliers reportedly heard the Germans of the Central Powers singing Silent Night from across No Man's Land (the empty land between the Entente and Central Powers' trenches). The Royal Welch Fusiliers then sang back Good King Wenceslas.
On Christmas Day, after some shouting between both trenches, the Royal Welch Fusiliers got out of their icy trench and greeted the Germans. Bertie Felstead, a Corporal in the Fusiliers, recalled that the Germans probably were already out of their trench before the British got out. He claimed that nothing was planned and that what happened was entirely spontaneous. A football was produced from somewhere – though none could recall from where. "It was not a game as such – more of a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably half-an-hour, and no-one was keeping score."
The truce ended when a British major ordered the British soldiers back to their trench with a reminder that "they were there to kill the Hun not to make friends with him." The mood of Christmas friendliness was shortly broken by the firing of British artillery.