You are standing up to your knees in the slime of a waterlogged trench. It is Christmas Eve 1914 and you are on the Western Front. Stooped over, you splash through mud towards the firing step and take over the watch. Having exchanged some quiet pleasantries, your bleary-eyed colleague shuffles off towards his dug out. Despite the horrors and the hardships of the past few months, your morale is high; 1915 will surely be the year in which victory is achieved. You stomp your feet in a vain attempt to keep warm and then, much to your surprise, some jovial voices start calling out messages of goodwill from the enemy trenches in broken English, eliciting a couple of sarcastic responses from nearby. The Germans eventually break into carols and songs, followed by requests not to fire. Very soon the unthinkable happens: you see the blurred shapes of soldiers starting to gather in no-man's land laughing, joking and sharing gifts. Many have exchanged cigarettes, the lit ends glowing in the inky darkness. Plucking up your courage, you haul yourself over the parapet and walk towards the foe...
The Christmas Truce 1914 was possibly one of the First World War's most unusual and celebrated incidents: the meeting of enemies as friends amid a landscape being transformed by fighting and carnage. Thousands of men were involved in the Truce and today, more than 100 years after it occurred, the event is seen by many as a shining episode of sanity in a war permeated by madness and prosecuted by murderous blunderers. As we shall see, this view is often an overly-sentimental one; the reality of the Christmas Truce is a far less romantic and more down-to-earth story. It was an organic affair that elicited rushed, confused or contradictory accounts. In some spots, the event was hardly registered, with Tommy and Fritz continuing their bitter fight. Other sources were written long after the event and suffer from the weight of hindsight. But even with these difficulties considered, we still find ourselves having to explore and consider an event unique in the annals of modern war. So what really happened?
When enemies meet
Months before the Christmas Truce, millions of servicemen, reservists and volunteers from across the European continent had rushed enthusiastically to the banners of war. The atmosphere was one of celebration in the first few weeks. But it was not long before the jovial façade was torn away; armies equipped with repeating rifles, machine guns and a vast array of artillery tore chunks out of each other. Indeed, it is often forgotten just how deadly those first few months were, with units frequently deployed in a manner befitting the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. Both French and German conscripts* were mown down or blown apart by the thousand.
*The professional British Expeditionary Force was too small at this stage to be considered a major protagonist, although it gave a good account of itself in the first months of fighting.
Locked into what most thought was a temporary stalemate, and to protect against the threat of the increasing firepower of artillery and machine guns, the armies started digging in. Very soon, the Western Front stretched from the Swiss border to the sand dunes just beyond Nieuport, Belgium. For the British, the early trenches were often hasty creations and poorly constructed, and they could also become sniping hot spots if badly sighted. In poor weather – and the winter of 1914 was a dire one – positions could easily flood or fall in. In addition, the soldiers were unequipped to face the cold and rain, often finding themselves standing knee-high in freezing mud due to the absence of duckboards and the inability to insert basic drainage. It was also impossible to bury nearby bodies. For the living, these decaying corpses were a grim and constant memento mori of war's dangers and their own mortality. Faced with these conditions, a man on the Western Front could not help but have some sympathy for his opponents, knowing they were probably feeling just as miserable.
Another factor to reduce the animosity were the wider surroundings – the men at the front could still see the vestiges of civilisation that winter. Villages, although badly smashed in places, were still standing; fields, although pitted with shell-holes, had not been turned into the muddy lunarscapes we often envisage when thinking about the First World War. Thus, the civilian world, with all its social mores and manners, was still present to some extent. Also absent was the pain, misery and hatred years of bloody fighting can engender. And then there was simple curiosity on both sides to see the enemy up close. Was he really as bad as the politicians and papers said? It was a combination of these factors, and many more besides, that made the Christmas Truce of 1914 possible. On the eve of the truce, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was manning a stretch of the line running south from the Ypres salient for 27 miles to the La Bassee Canal.
Along the British section of the Western Front, the enemy was sometimes no more than 70, 50 or even 30 yards away. Both sides could easily hurl greetings or insults to one another and, importantly, sometimes come to impromptu agreements not to fire. Incidents of temporary truces and even outright fraternisation were more common at this stage than many people today might realise. As Christmas approached the festive mood started to develop with parcels arriving from home. There were also gifts from the state; Tommy received plum puddings and ‘Princess Mary’ boxes, a metal case engraved with an outline of George V's daughter and filled with chocolates and butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco, and a picture card of Princess Mary. There was also a facsimile of George V's greeting to the troops. 'May God protect you and bring you safe home,' he wrote.
Not to be outdone, Fritz often received a present from the Kaiser, the Kaiserliche, a large meerschaum pipe for the troops and a box of cigars for NCOs and officers. Cities, towns and villages, and numerous support associations on both sides, also flooded the front with gifts of food, warm clothes and letters of thanks. The German people's ability to show this kind of festive largesse would become much harder in the following years as agricultural output slid and the Allied naval blockade tightened. The Belgians and French troops also received goods, although not in such an organised fashion as the British or Germans. Christmas 1914 for these nations was tinged with sadness; their countries had been invaded and hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced. Little wonder the Christmas Truce, although it sprung up in some spots on French and Belgian lines, never really caught on as it did in the British sector.
With morale boosted and bellies fuller than normal – and with a lot of Christmas booty still to hand – the season of goodwill spread through both the British and German lines. A Daily Telegraph correspondent was able to record the Germans smuggling the gift of a chocolate cake into British trenches. More amazingly, it was accompanied with a message asking for a ceasefire later that evening so they could celebrate the festive season and their Captain's birthday. They proposed a concert at 7.30 pm when candles, the British were told, would be placed on the parapets of their trenches. The British accepted the invitation and offered some tobacco as a return present. That evening, at the stated time, German heads suddenly popped up and started to sing. Each number ended with a round of applause from both sides. The Germans then asked the British to join in. At this point, a mean-spirited Tommy shouted: 'We'd rather die than sing German'. To which one witty German joked aloud: 'It would kill us if you did!'
Christmas Eve, Christmas Day
December 24 was a good day weather-wise, with rain finally giving way to clear skies. On many stretches of the Front the crack of rifles and the dull thud of shells ploughing into the ground continued, although at a far lighter level than normal. In other sectors, there was an unnerving silence that was only broken by outbursts of singing and shouting, primarily from the German trenches. The Truce was often spurred on with the arrival in the German trenches of miniature Christmas trees, Tannenbaum. The sight these small pines, decorated with candles and strung along the enemy’s parapets, captured the Tommies' imagination as well as the men of the Indian Corps, many of whom were reminded of the sacred Hindu festival of light, Diwali. The situation presented the perfect excuse for opponents to continue shouting over to one another, to start singing and, in some areas, pluck up the courage to arrange a meeting in No-Man's land.
British High Command, which was headquartered in a châteaux 27 miles behind the Front, was soon receiving reports about the fraternisation. Stern orders were issued by the commander of the BEF, Sir John French, against such behaviour and other high-ranking officers and generals also made grave pronouncements on the dangers and consequences of parleying with the Germans. However, several high-ranking officers closer to the Front took a more relaxed view. If anything, they believed it presented a welcome opportunity to strengthen the trenches. This mixed attitude meant that very few officers or men involved in the Christmas Truce would go on to be disciplined. Interestingly, German High Command's ambivalent attitude towards the Truce mirrored that of the British. They were also keen to improve their forward trenches.
Christmas Day started quietly, with fraternisation only re-occurring once the winter sun was up. Again, songs were sung and rations passed between both sides and, again, the troops and officers started taking matters into their own hands by venturing into No-Man's land. Here men openly exchanged gifts and buttons. In one or two places, soldiers who had been barbers in civilian times even gave free haircuts. One German, who had been a juggler and a showman before the war, decided to perform his routine in the middle of No-Man's land. In his famous account of the truce, Captain Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards remembered the approach of four unarmed Germans at 8.30 am. He went out to meet them accompanied by one of his ensigns. 'Their spokesmen started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce. He came from Suffolk where he had left his best girl and a 3 ½ h.p. motor-bike!'
Having raced off to file a report at headquarters, Hulse returned at 10.00 am to find crowds of British soldiers and Germans together chatting and larking about in No-Man's land, directly contradicting his orders. Not that Hulse seemed too troubled about the fraternisation; it was the breach of orders that concerned him most. Thus he sought out a German officer and arranged for both sides to return to their lines. But while this was going on, he still managed to keep his ears and eyes open to the fantastic events unfolding around him. 'Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged, addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc. One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette. The German said, "Virginian?" Our fellow said, "Aye, straight-cut", the German said, "No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!"... It gave us all a good laugh.'* Hulse's account formed part a letter to his mother, who in turn sent it on to the newspapers for publication as was the custom at the time. Hulse was killed in action in March 1915.
*The joke here is a play on the international scene at the time. Virginian tobacco represents the USA, which, while still neutral, leant towards the Allied cause. 'I only smoke Turkish!' refers to the Ottoman Empire, which had entered the war on the Central Powers' side in November 1914.
Germany 3, England 2
On many parts of the line, the Truce was initiated through sadder means. Both sides saw it as a chance to get into No-Man's land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots in order to give them a decent burial. Once this was done, the opponents would inevitably start talking to one another. For example, the 6th Gordon Highlanders organised a burial truce with the enemy and, after the gruesome task was complete, started to fraternise in earnest. The Truce was now at its height and there were even a number of football games reported, although these were really just 'kick-abouts' rather than structured matches. On 1 January 1915, the Times published a letter from a major in the Medical Corps reporting that, in his sector, the British played a game against the Germans and were beaten 3-2. Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons recorded in his diary: 'The English brought a football from the trenches and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the Celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.'
The Christmas Truce lasted all day in those sectors where it was observed, although it was over in most locations by nightfall. In some areas it continued over Boxing Day and, in a few zones, a couple of days more. Indeed, there were parts of the front where the absence of aggressive behaviour was conspicuous well into 1915. Captain J C Dunn, a medical officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, whose unit had fraternised and received two barrels of beer from some Saxon troops opposite, recorded how hostilities restarted on his section. Dunn wrote: 'At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.'
The war was indeed on again because the Truce was always going to be a temporary situation; it was never going to lead to anything permanent because the troops on both sides were keen to prosecute the conflict. Pragmatists today read the Chirstmas Truce of 1914 as nothing more than a 'blip' – a lull induced by the season of goodwill but willingly exploited to improve the defences and eye out the enemy's positions. Romantics assert the Truce was a grassroots effort by normal men to inject sanity into a conflict that was militarily unprecedented but increasingly insane. The truth lies in between, heavily leaning towards the pragmatists' view. Still, in our own age of uncertainty, perhaps the Truce's greatest fascination is this: that regardless of the reasoning and motives, soldiers and officers told to kill could fleetingly lower their guns and extend the hand of goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer.