The Christmas Truce

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the Christmas truceThe Christmas Truce lesson provides you with the opportunity to consider how even in war people can act differently towards people who are meant to be their enemies. This lesson is centred around the theme Experiences from the IB Language B curriculum which considers how events which take place can impact our lives. In this lesson, we will practice our listening and reading skills by learning about an event that happened during the First World War.

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In 1914, near the beginning of WWI, the most remarkable thing happened men walked out of their trenches and joined each other in the middle, in ‘no man’s land’. Thus began the Christmas Truce, the moment when men on the battlefield spontaneously reached out to their enemies. Watch this video, so you can get an idea of what happened in 1914.

Listen to the podcast about the Christmas Truce from accounts written by a British officer and then answer the questions.

Click here to view transcript of the Christmas Truce

Captain Chater was in his trench. Surrounded by mud. Wet and old. It was December, after all. He was one of many British men who joined up before the war began. He was a professional soldier, fighting German professionals. The new men who’d signed up after the outbreak of war hadn’t yet reached them.

The first world war was both old world and new. Men on horses with bayonets against machine guns, primitive tanks, barbed wire, poison gas. That first Christmas, the war was still new. There was still plenty of hell to come.

He was in his trench. Ahead of him was a no man’s land – a stretch between his fellow soldiers and the Germans on the other side. Only dead men lay between. The possibility of death was always there. Which made what was about to happen that much stranger. He was looking over the wall toward the German side. The shooting had stopped, maybe just for a little while. That’s when he saw two men waving their arms. two of his enemies. That was strange enough. Why would someone take that chance and stand up and wave their arms in a war zone, but then they slowly put themselves up from their trench and walk toward the British side. Two men, men who could have been firing at him yesterday, Germans… were on their way over.

So here’s what happened. The two men, the two Germans came out their trenches, walked across the no man’s land, and were met by British men who bravely got out of their trenches, shook the hands of the Germans and wished them a happy Christmas. Pretty soon there was a whole crowd gathered around.

It was Christmas, 1914. And soldiers, some French, some British, some German, left their positions and met their fellow men in the middle. Sometimes for hours. Imagine that. Enemies crawling out of their protected spaces after days of warfare only to join each other in the middle and… socialize. This was no isolated incident.

In just 20 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland, there were some 100,000 men who congregated. Not all in one mass, but dotted here and there. Wherever a man was brave enough to step toward certain death, hoping for a few minutes of peace.

They’d called a truce. Unofficially. It just happened. All along the front, they’d heard each other singing Christmas carols. Crouching in the mud, trying to stay warm, praying they wouldn’t get shot. And, from the other side, from the enemy, comes a familiar song. That reminds you of your family, your friends, the girl you left back home. The trenches were so close they could smell what the other side was cooking. Warm food and music.

To be clear, this was not something the British and French war offices had coordinated with the Germans. That kind of official mini-armistice had been documented since the Trojan wars, the American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars. Higher-ups getting together to arm wrestle a deal where both sides could bury their dead or rest. No. This was individuals. A few men waving a flag or shouting from one trench to the other. Daring to dream of a few minutes of peace.

And so they stood in no man’s land. Shaking hands. Burying their dead. There are reports of German clergy saying prayers next to British clergy. Praying for their men, and their fallen enemies. Some soldiers used the break to blow off some steam or attend sermons. Others, like AD Chater, used the time to build a little roof over the trench, a place for a fire, throw down some straw. To make his little nightmare a little more civil.

There are even reports of football matches, which would be soccer to us Americans. There are monuments all over Europe to this moment. Many of them feature soccer balls.

Sometimes the armistice lasted for hours, other places for days. But for a while they weren’t fighting tyranny or conquering lands… they were just men.

Adapted from a podcast by Chris Staron.

Read the text about another version of the Christmas Truce.

Lastly we finish this lesson with a song by Jona Lewie -Stop the Cavalry set in the trenches of the First World War. It has an anti-war theme to it and it could be the view of any soldier who just wants the fighting to end and just go home to see his love ones.

Here are the words and phrases covered in this lesson:

  • allies
  • anti-war
  • bayonets
  • carol singing
  • cavalry
  • Christmas truce
  • conquering lands
  • ditches and bunkers
  • enemy
  • funeral service
  • isolated incident
  • mini-armistice
  • monuments
  • no man’s land
  • outbreak of war
  • parapet
  • rifles
  • sermons
  • trenches
  • truce
  • tyranny
Here you will find possible ways to extend your understanding.

  1. Imagine you are in the trenches. Write a short diary entry of the Christmas Truce. You either choose to be a German, British soldier or one of the generals reporting the event.
  2. Imagine that you were a soldier in the trenches. Write a letter home to either your parents, other family or friends telling them what has happened.
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