“It’ll be over by Christmas” was a popular saying in 1914. It was widely expected that the war wouldn’t last that long.

But the First Battle of Ypres, which lasted from 19 October until 22 November, ended inconclusively and with around 270,000 casualties. This was a painful indication of how difficult the war would really be.

Ahead of Christmas, appeals were made for at least temporary peace. ‘The Open Christmas Letter’ was sent by a group of British suffragists, addressed to ‘the women of Germany and Austria’; and Pope Benedict XV asked, on 7 December, “that guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”. No formal decisions were taken.

When Christmas arrived, many Brits, French and Germans on the front lines agreed unofficial ceasefires. These have been described in many first-hand accounts from soldiers, which paint a somehow idyllic picture of those days. Amidst such brutal conditions, peace and humanity were given a moment to shine.

The most popular image conjured is that of soldiers from opposing sides playing football together. It’s unclear how common a sight this really was, as the terrain was far from ‘pitch’ perfect along the front lines – but a number of accounts verify football matches and informal kickarounds with makeshift balls.

Troops also exchanged greetings, food, wine and cigarettes, singing carols and taking photographs together. Burials were also held and repairs made to trenches.

Some truces lasted longer than others, in some cases stretching all the way to New Year’s Day. In some areas there was no truce at all.

Truces were not uncommon at other times in the war, sometimes to mark special occasions or often simply to recover bodies or to allow for rest. When bad weather flooded trenches, a truce could be made until conditions were more suitable. Soldiers would exchange newspapers, talk about football, or sing and shout – often to get the attention of the other side.

As the war continued, though, truces were more often frowned upon by commanders – and Christmas truces especially were rare beyond the first year of fighting. Perhaps too the remaining spirit of young soldiers was extinguished by the hard toll of war.

A memorial to the Christmas Truce stands at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.