"There was not an atom of hate on either side that day;
and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war
and the will to beat them relaxed"
Bruce Bairnsfather, British soldier and author of "Old Bill" cartoons
"one human episode amid all the atrocities
which have stained the memory of the war"
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, publishing one year later
The Christmas Truce of 1914 is one of the great legends of the First World War, spawning many books on the subject and at least one song ("Christmas in the Trenches"). Although some have dismissed it as mere myth, it undoubtably did happen - the evidence, both literary and photographic, is unquestionable. However, many people are unaware as to the exact nature of the truce. Where along the line did the truce take place, and where did it not? How long did it last? Why did it happen where it did, and why not where it didn't? These questions must be answered to provide an accurate overview of this remarkable event.
1914 was by no means the first example of soldiers in conflicts throughout history taking a break and "fraternising" with the enemy. For example, in the Peninsular campaign, part of the Napoleonic Wars, there have been lulls in the fighting reported between British and French troops, and similiar ones in the Crimean War between Russians and Brits, and on occasion the French as well. Later there are examples from the American Civil War and, as late as 1900, the Boer War.
However, all of these must be taken in context. The majority of these temporary respites from war (such as a football match between troops in South Africa during the Boer War) only occurred during talks or conferences that were happening anyway. Also, only nationalities willing to participate in such truces would do so. Spanish forces in the Peninsular War, for example, would not even contemplate fraternising with the hated French invaders. Later, in 1914, this would also be an issue, as generally (although not in all cases, as some French and Belgians also took part) only German forces a short distance away from British lines would try to instigate a short peace. Despite this, these examples show that close proximity to enemy forces for prolonged periods often led to such breaks, with soldiers swapping memoribilia and stories, or perhaps even playing cards together round the same fire. So the Christmas Truce of 1914 was not a particularly unique occurrence in warfare; but is certainly still the greatest example of a short-term truce in modern times.
Christmas Eve, 1914
Although for most of the day the routine was the same as for any other of this cold winter, the British forces opposite certain parts of the German frontline began to notice changes when night began to fall. It was a German tradition to erect christmas trees, adorned with lit candles, and these began to appear in the trenches. At first, perhaps unsuprisingly, these slightly confused the British lookouts and sentries, and the sightings were reported back to Staff headquarters. Although the top brass were suspicious, orders were given to merely observe and to not open fire.
Then the sound of carols being sung in German drifted across No Man's Land; the British promptly responded with carols of their own. Hostile feeling was rapidly eroding, and before long greetings were being called across from and towards either side; English-speaking Germans called to "Tommy", and the British to "Fritz". In some areas parties were invited across to the other side, to negotiate an armistice over the Christmas period or perhaps just swap cigars and brandy. Contrary to popular belief, it was not just the common soldier who participated, but NCOs and officers alike.
Rumours of such meetings between the sides spread up and down the lines, and many agreements to allow each side to bury its dead sprang up. It was during this duty that soldiers from both sides inevitably came into contact, with the subsequent swapping of letters etc. The infamous football match occurred between the English Bedfordshire Regiment and unknown German troops - the Germans reportedly won the game 3-2. The truce lasted for different lengths of time, in some places only until Christmas Day was over, in others as long as New Year.
The Allied governments and High Command, in particular the French, reacted with indignation. They were not at all happy that the "fraternisation" had taken place, and had gone to some lengths to avoid it beforehand. For example, some senior officers had predicted a lull in hostilities over Christmas, and had therefore placed their troops on high alert. Where this failed, immediately after fighting had resumed orders were issued so that it would not recur, and some local commanders were reprimanded for allowing it. For example, the following is part of an order that was issued to the British II Corps (then under Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien):
"Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices (e.g. 'we won't fire if you don't' etc.) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited."
In fact, the Roman Catholic Church had called for a halt to the fighting over Christmas some time in advance. Although the German government indicated that they might agree, the Allies for some reason would not, so the war was to go on over Christmas. Afterwards, an inquiry sought to discover whether it was pre-meditated or not; the investigation concluded that it was a truly spontaneous event, that occurred in some places yet in many others did not.
The event was also given quite a lot of publicity in both Germany and Britain, with articles about it appearing in newspapers throughout January 1915. Letters from front-line soldiers were published, as were photographs of the actual event showing troops from both sides side by side. The reaction amongst the soldiers themselves was one of astonishment; they could barely believe it happened. The war was never forgotten, however, and the opportunity for both sides to observe the enemy trenches from up close was not lost. Valuable information was gathered that day.
The negative reaction from the top commanders of the armies facing each other across No Man's Land towards the truce meant that it was not to be repeated the next year. Artillery bombardments were increased over the period in 1915, and in any case by then feelings of goodwill towards the enemy were largely forgotten, as the war dragged on and casualties mounted.
On the other hand, short truces still ocurred, on occasion, for the purpose of burying the dead. Ernst Junger, at the time a German Lieutenant, describes the scene in his part of the line on the 11th of December 1915:
"I couldn't believe the sight that met my eyes. The battlefield...was now animated as a fairground. The occupants of both trenches had emerged...already a lively exchange of schnapps, cigarettes, uniform buttons and other items had commenced...suddenly a shot rang out that laid one of our men dead in the mire, whereupon both sides quickly scuttled back into their trenches."
Christmas was not to be a happy occasion in his sector that year. The Christmas spirit was not much in evidence, as Junger recalls:
"We spent Christmas Eve in the line, and, standing in the mud, sang hymns, to which the British responded with machine-gun fire. On Christmas Day, we lost one man to a ricochet in the head. Immediately afterwards, the British attempted a friendly gesture by hauling a Christmas tree up on their traverse, but our angry troops quickly shot it down again, to which Tommy replied with rifle-grenades. It was all in all a less than merry Christmas."
Despite the fact that it was a one-off, the Christmas Truce of 1914 possesses a human element that has made it so attractive down the years. It is what makes it such a great Christmas story, that in the midst of the possibly the most horrific conflict to that point in history such a thing could happen.
Ernst Junger, "Storm of Steel" (2003 translation by Michael Hofmann; first published in 1920)
Thanks to Chiisuta for telling me about the song.
Submitted for The Ninjagirls Christmas Special.