As Christmas descended upon soldiers huddled in hastily dug trenches the heavy guns fell silent; snipers on each side placed down their rifles and sang hymns. As the day wore on sports matches were played before roast beef and plum pudding were washed down with quarts of beer. These events, as noted by Winston Churchill, describe Christmas day in 1900 during the Boer War in South Africa. In the previous decades two trends can be noticed. Firstly that festive fever spread as more and more celebrated Christmas and secondly that wars now lasted a lot longer than before. So the notorious truce of 1914 on the Western Front was not the surprise we have been led to believe, but the continuation of a long-running tradition.
From the dawn of human civilisation across the globe, the winter solstice has prompted hopeful celebrations of thanks for the year gone by and hope for the longer days ahead. For example Saturnalia was the Roman holiday of peace, charity and gift-giving from 17th to 23rd December. In this festive period no emperor could declare war and soldiers in their colonial outposts celebrated with great feasts to Saturn. As Christianity was hastily introduced by Constantine, ancient practices of the Mediterranean were adopted. Just as Egyptian depictions of Horus and Isis became the Virgin Mary and Jesus, so pagan holidays became holy days celebrated by the early Christians.
When the Roman empire crumbled with it’s sophisticated system of government and use of agricultural surplus, so did military campaigns which would last through the winter time. Throughout the Dark Ages and into the Early Modern period armies would campaign through the spring and summer months then return home for winter. The 1800s saw a shift in this practice. Renewed farming techniques yielded more food to sustain a thriving growth in population which led to larger armies. Improved transport links from trains to huge steam powered ships and wide flat roads meant that these heaving masses could now be supplied for months and even years on end. Mass production and rapid communication meant that more sophisticated weapons like accurate artillery and reloading rifles were boasted by continuously modernising armies in Europe and America.
The Crimean War of 1854 introduced basic trench warfare which was modernised during the American Civil War a decade later. Indeed the great Confederate General (And abolitionist) Robert E. Lee was branded the ‘King of Spades’ as he fortified Virginia and ordered the digging of trenches in battle. These trenches were both a convenient shield from whizzing bullets and bombs as well as places where soldiers could now sleep and eat in close quarters to the enemy.
So what became common practice in war was that great opposing Christian armies would now celebrate the same holiday at close proximity in the theatre of war. In no conflict other than the Boer War was Christmas widely celebrated by two foes however there were sporadic outbreaks of peace in Crimea, the American Civil War and the German wars of unification. Soldiers in colonial armies around the globe and at home in Europe became used to the tradition of celebrating Christmas with their bands of brothers. The soldiers embracing the brief truce of 1914 were not merry recruits but seasoned professionals who were continuing their long tradition of embracing the festive spirit.
Organisations such as Sainsburys and UEFA have practically dubbed the brief truce as a miracle of our time in which football, religion and a love of peace brought fellow Europeans together. However Dan Snow recently noted that most soldiers on both sides would have barely acknowledged the holiday while frantically fortifying trenches and busily bringing supplies to the front. Ken Early attributed the now mythical event to a shared appreciation of tobacco and song. So would it perhaps be more surprising if a brief Christmas truce did not occur in 1914? Should hundreds of thousands of men, officers and infantry alike, immersed in the tradition of Christmas putting down their weapons for a day really be seen as a surprise?