Letters from the front – the Christmas truce

On 25 December 1914, soldiers who had been at war for months climbed out of their trenches and exchanged cigars and souvenirs. They also took the opportunity to talk with one another and, some claim, even to play a football match. 100 years later, letters from the Western Front help to bring to life the remarkable Christmas truce between German and British soldiers. 

An extraordinary sight

“I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen,” writes Captain A D Chater of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders, in a letter to his mother from his freezing dug-out on Christmas day 1914.

“About 10 o’clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trenches and came towards ours.

“We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles. So one of our men went out to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”

Exchanging cigarettes and autographs

The opportunity for both sides to bury their dead “lying between the lines”, or simply to go for long walks in the open without being shot at, gave Captain Chater and his comrades a moment's respite from a devastating conflict. In his letter, he describes another meeting in no-man’s land that further illustrates the unexpected good humour between enemy forces:

“We had another parley with the Germans in the middle. We exchanged cigarettes and autographs, and some more people took photos. I don’t know how long it will go on for – I believe it was supposed to stop yesterday, but we can hear no firing going on along the front today except a little distant shelling. We are, at any rate, having another truce on New Year’s Day, as the Germans want to see how the photos come out!”

Captain Chater’s letter paints a vivid picture of goodwill in the middle of “a war in which there is so much bitterness and ill feeling”. It also reminds us that the conflict was not personal between the men on opposing sides. “The Germans in this part of the line are sportsmen if they are nothing else,” he writes, underlining the sense of uneasy trust that inspired the Christmas truce.

Football between the lines

There are many accounts like Captain Chater’s, captured in letters from the front. Most talk of similar meetings up and down the line – some instigated on the German side, some by the British. They describe singing, shared memorial services for the dead and the exchange of goods.

And, famously, several letters make reference to football games played between the lines. One letter from an anonymous major was published in The Times on 1 January 1915, stating: "[The Regiment] actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2."

For many years, British and German football fans have been leaving their club scarves at the possible site of the Christmas Truce football match of 1914 in Flanders. But other letters suggest that the idea of a football match fell through for lack of a ball or due to orders from their superiors.

More often though, these sporting skirmishes are described by the soldiers as “general kick-abouts” and many believe that if a match took place at all, it was between British servicemen, observed by German soldiers from their own lines. A letter supporting this view was sent to the Bolton Post Office, and reported in the Bolton Chronicle on 2 January 1915, stating: “In the afternoon there was a football match played beyond the trenches, right in full view of the enemy.”

The inevitable return to arms

While the letters certainly provide a fascinating glimpse of the Christmas truce, most of them simply convey an air of astonishment at the events the servicemen had witnessed or taken part in. Captain A D Chater writes: “This extraordinary truce has been quite impromptu. There was no previous arrangement and of course it had been decided that there was not to be any cessation of hostilities.”

But the accounts also share an acceptance that the war will resume soon enough. This is confirmed in a letter from Private C Rands of B Company, 2nd Northants Regiment: “Everything has gone off very well these last two days… you would never think we were at war… but still it won’t be like this for long, only over the holidays.”

“The war is jolly fine if it's like this all the time,” Private Rands adds brightly, but he ends with a grim reminder: “I expect by the time you get this we shall be shooting at them again for all we are worth."

Unofficial truces between opposing forces occurred at other times during the First World War but never on the scale of that first Christmas truce.

Excerpts from and the image of Captain A D Chater’s letter are used by kind permission of his family.

You can read more letters from the front describing the truce at www.christmastruce.co.uk