We are all familiar with the popularised image of the 1914 ‘Christmas Truce’: the sight of soldiers on both sides spontaneously rising from their trenches, fraternising in no man’s land and participating in the exchange of gifts and souvenirs, communal carol singing and impromptu football matches between the lines. Does anybody remember the 2014 Sainsbury’s Christmas advertising campaign depicting the opposing soldiers meeting on Christmas morning: a genuinely moving tribute, or should it be viewed with the jaundiced eye we reserve for any other commercial?
Perhaps inevitably, the tale of the Truce has been greatly sentimentalised over the years, and given undue weight by the same post-war pacifist lobby that created the ‘lions led by donkeys’ myth and portrayed the Great War as a tragedy never to be repeated. In our own time, of course, the same calumny continues, perpetuated for another generation by the very funny but historically execrable ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’..! In reality, the 1914 truce was no more than a momentary – and unimportant – pause in a general Allied counter-offensive along the Western Front that began on December 20.
During the First World War, truces of this sort were not an isolated phenomenon: fraternisation and something of a ‘live and let live’ arrangement were widespread, particularly on the Russian Front where Easter rather than Christmas often brought informal ceasefires. In 1917, the German high command actively encouraged front-line truces to promote the dissolution of a Russian army they knew was already tottering from supply shortages and low morale. Much depended on the troops one was facing across no-man’s land: British Tommies confronting German troops always preferred to oppose indolent Saxons, notorious for enjoying a quiet life, rather than ferocious Bavarians or Prussians. The weather was also a decisive factor: if conditions were particularly bad, there would be a period of calm, as each side studiously ignored the other and concentrated on the provision of dry clothes, food, and warmth.
Nevertheless, December 25, 1914 did bring a temporary truce to many areas of the Western Front, particularly between British and German troops. Several days of freezing rain had left both sides struggling with flooded trenches, which at this early stage of the war were still little more than muddy holes in the ground. Nightfall on Christmas Eve brought a hard frost, and the next morning the fog lifted to reveal trees, barbed wire and landscape rimed with ice, beneath a cloudless sky and brilliant sunshine. And then a few men began to stand up above the parapet, waving their arms at their opponents…
Many journals and diaries relate tales of what happened that day. Men certainly did swap souvenirs and things to eat, although Denis Winter reminds us that ‘the crucial thing to note… is that distrust and scarcely veiled hostility’ remained a feature of this and other truces. ‘Chudleigh’ recounted how he used the Christmas lull as a suitable time to bury his telephone wires. Further down the line, while men sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in chorus with the Germans, both sides were bringing up ammunition, wire and timber. Brian with the Argyll and Sutherlands remembered exchanging beer and cigars, followed by a violent football match with no holds barred, and then a boxing bout between a champion from each side, after which the two men wanted to finish with rifles at a hundred paces! Bodger described an exchange of smokes and chat but recounts that when a German urinated on British barbed wire, he was shot. We must beware of sentimentalising this brief interlude, however appealing and indeed moving it may appear in hindsight.
Finally – and all too predictably – when fraternisation did occur the military authorities were outraged, and draconian orders were soon issued to bring it to a halt, including threats of court-martial. The following year, an all-day artillery barrage was ordered for December 25 in many British sectors, just to make certain it didn’t happen again…
The famous August 1914 claim that ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’, unfortunately turned out to be wishful thinking. But despite its fleeting nature, the uniqueness of the ‘Christmas Truce’ will in all likelihood continue to capture our hearts and our imagination at a time when we seek stories of hope…
Gilbert, M. – First World War – Harper Collins, 1995
Holmes, R. – Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918 – Harper Perennial 2005
Strachan, H. (ed) – Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War – Oxford University Press, 2014
Willmott, H.P. – World War I – Dorling Kindersley, 2008
Winter, D. – Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War – Penguin, 1979
This article was written by Tim Barney, a Mirthy public speaker who specialises in military history and technology. Following a career in the IT industry, Tim has embraced the opportunity to pass on some of the fascinating facts and stories he has absorbed over the years.
Tim’s talks can be found at Mirthy Talk Catalogue | Military History.