The Christmas Truce of 1914 is legendary. In the thick of violent war, one which had already proven bloodier and more gruelling than anyone could have anticipated, two sides came together to play football, exchange gifts, and share a peaceful respite. This expression of mutual sympathy has been upheld ever since as a defining moment of World War 1, one which demonstrated a significant lack of affinity with the hateful spirit that troops were obliged to uphold.
The truce is widely believed to have been a unique event, an anomaly in warfare’s grisly history. But it wasn’t. Other examples of compassion in the field have gone under-sung for centuries, buried under newer stories of catastrophe and chaos.
The Peninsular War of 1807-1814 was fought between the First French Empire and the allied powers of the United Kingdom, Spanish Empire and the Kingdom of Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. It saw the first actualisation of large-scale guerrilla warfare, and was one of the first wars of national liberation, concluding in Napoleon’s defeat by the Sixth Coalition in 1814. It was a dirty affair of ambushes and hijacks, yet still, occasionally, humanity prevailed against crushing odds.
An article from the Dundee Evening Telegraph on Friday 08 January 1915 sheds some light. After discussing recent events on the Western front – the fraternising between opposing troops over the holidays - the piece continues:
“Wellington had to cope with what he regarded as a very serious similar state of affairs during the Peninsular War. He issues the strictest orders, and took the severest measures to stop it, making it punishable by death for any man to be holding any form of intercourse with the enemy.
When in Portugal our lines were so close to those of the army of Massens, and had to get to water at the same river which separated them, the soldiers came to a mutual understanding not to fire on one another when drawing water. This led to the exchange of gifts, and finally to the amazing spectacle of British and French soldiers sitting around the same campfires sharing their rations and playing cards.”
Later, similar truces were witnessed during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.
It speaks strongly of the soldiers’ empathy that they were so willing to ignore the most basic military protocol, and risk the severest reprimand. Wellington made it punishable by death to entertain any kind of intercourse with the enemy. Though warnings were issued by the high command following 1914, such measures became unnecessary over the course of World War 1, and by the Christmas of 1916, after the Battles of the Somme and Verdun and the increased use of poisonous gas, no more truces were sought.
You can learn more about the soldiers who may have taken part in that original Christmas truce in our Peninsular War records.