Dave Buckhout  .


 

In the century plus since a series of impromptu cease-fires briefly quieted the First World War’s Western Front, “The Christmas Truce of 1914” has been widely celebrated for the remarkable event it was. That it still captures the imagination should come as no surprise, providing a brief point of illumination within the pitch-black recesses of early twentieth-century history and doing it by tapping deep into the aquifers of our common humanity. It is the spirit of peace-and-goodwill staving off darkness, however brief. Enemies who in five short months had already instituted industrial-scale death and destruction unlike anything the world had ever known could be seen commiserating instead of killing, trading and playing sport instead of dealing out ideological murder. In their history, Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914, Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton underline the deep-seated reason that continues to bring us back to this story: “it is the human dimension which means that this relatively obscure event in the fifth month of a fifty-two-month war is still remembered …” A century later, it is still an irresistible story.

Starting with the initial eyewitness accounts, illustrations and actual photographs from the front that flooded English newspapers: The Illustrated London News, The Times, Daily Mirror, those mentions that made it through the censors and into German newspapers in Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, and the headline-generating reports that made it across the Atlantic into The New York Times and Evening Sun, a steady stream of factual and cultural art renderings since those final days of 1914 has created a vast archive of remembrance. Soldier recollections were still in heavy circulation in the period between the wars. And though a stubborn popular view that the whole thing was legend persisted well into the second-half of the twentieth century (due largely to the fact that the Truce did not touch those points of the line where the skeptics served), the emergence of serious historical works and short-form historical backgrounds in periodicals that find December publication to this day put the argument to rest long ago. Add to it the collection of fictional portrayals which have kept the story alive: short fiction such as A Fox Under My Cloak (its main character, Phillip Maddison, a “bloke” who finds himself welcomed far behind German lines during the truce), the 1967 German children’s story My Great-Grandfather, the Heroes & I (which tells of the brave “marzipan baker” of the Christmas Truce, a story based on a real exchange between a Berlin pastry chef and the entrenched British in his front) and a well-regarded children’s story published in 1987: War Game by Michael Foreman (which centers on the celebrated and numerous “kick-about” football matches played between enemies). The Truce also made it into several mid-century plays and the more memorable on-screen portrayals, including an episode of the popular BBC serial: Blackadder (1989), a feature film based on the Truce, with a French twist: Joyeux Noël (2005), and a personal favorite: the Truce scene from the big-screen adaptation of Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)—which compacts this multi-day event into a memorable six-minute clip.

Almanack: Christmas Truce of 1914A. C. Michael’s illustration of the Christmas Truce that appeared in the January 9, 1915, edition of The Illustrated London News, the original caption: "British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches … Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternising on the field of battle at the season of peace and goodwill: Officers and men from the German and British trenches meet and greet one another — A German officer photographing a group of foes and friends." The Guardian

But being so unique—and unlikely—an event, all these evocative fictional tributes still fall short of the actual history. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was really a series of independently-arranged truces between mainly the British and German forces facing each other in Belgium and northern France—the infamous killing fields of Flanders. These were the stalemate trench-lines that have come to typify the First World War, having settled in as seemingly immovable once active campaigning ground to a bloody halt along the entire Western Front (a line of trenches that stretched with hardly a pause from the North Sea 475 miles south to the border of neutral Switzerland). These trenches were often only 50-75 yards apart, some so close that goodwill gifts and rock-weighted invitations would be lofted from one enemy’s trench to the other during the Truce. They were almost always within range of shouted comments which, as 1914 grew short and active fighting slowed, morphed from trash-talk to the spirit of the season and for many a nostalgia for the comforts of home. This instinctually led to widespread singing and holiday caroling, which opened up competitions to sing louder and with more gusto than the enemy in the opposite trench. From the start, it was local; and in as much as anyone could really tell—it all being that spontaneous—it was mutual appreciation of the enemy’s caroling in these days leading up to Christmas by which the Truce itself began.

Albert Moren of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment, positioned near Armentières, France, just south of the key town of Ypres, Belgium, would later write: “And then [the Germans] sang ‘Silent Night’—’Stille Nacht.’ I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life” … In his history of the Truce, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, Stanley Weintraub observes: “One of the few things about which the combatants agreed was the centrality of Christmas.” And it was out of this spirit that informal “live-and-let-live” cease-fires between opposing trenches increased as the holiday season approached; this regardless of command directives about maintaining a vigilant defense and forbidding all forms of fraternization. It was in blatant disregard of such orders that cease-fires were being arranged by vocal volleys between “Fritz,” WWI British slang for German soldiers, and “Tommy,” WWI German slang for British soldiers. (And though there is no doubt that this was an event driven largely by common soldiers on both sides, Brown and Seaton document that truces were often overseen—if not directly coordinated—by commanding officers.) Many truces would be arranged via signs posted on the thrown-dirt tops of trenches, called “parapets,” a more popular broken-English German message to Tommy: “You No Fight, We No Fight.” Some of the British took to simply hoisting wooden boards advertising: “Merry Christmas!” If it was not riddled with bullets, that seemed a good-enough sign that a cease-fire was on. Soon these improvised truces became so widespread that it did seem a general truce had been called along much of this stretch of the Western Front. The constant sniping, the regular volleys and barrages that littered the sonic background of an average day vanished. An astonished British artillery captain made note of how “things [in his sector] went positively dead; there was not a sound.”

The histories point to the Germans initiating most of the initial cease-fires and the ensuing invitations to meet face-to-face. And it was in the spirit of the season—and no doubt the mentioned nostalgia—that many of these units began placing small trees lit with candles clamped to branches atop their parapets. A soldier with the 133 Saxons wrote: “We placed a tiny Christmas tree in our dugout … We placed a second lighted tree on the parapet. Then we began to sing our old Christmas songs: Still Nacht, heilige Nacht and O du frohliche (Oh How Joyfully).” Weintraub notes that the singing of the Germans “attracted almost as much attention across No Man’s Land as did the lighted tree … Each time the Saxons placed a lighted Christmas tree on their parapets, the English shouted approval.” The letters and recollections of soldiers show that the singing became more harmonious and respectful as Christmas Eve arrived. A Scottish unit was amazed to hear the Germans across the way singing “Home Sweet Home” and “God Save The King.” Percy Jones of the Westminster Rifles described the scene of songs leaping from trench to trench all across his unit’s front; and how in answer to the Germans in their immediate front, they sang Handel’s popular Austrian Hymn and “the applause was terrific.” (The hymn would soon enough be made infamous as the anthem of the Nazi party.) It seemed only a matter of time before these enemies—a term that nags for constant reminders while researching the transcendent goodwill of the Truce—would begin belting out songs in unison. Letters to home penned by Lieutenant Edward Hulse would become among the more noted eyewitness accounts of the Truce (if mainly because Hulse would be killed on March 10, during the bloody inconclusive Battle of Neuve Chapelle on this very front). He describes a heart-felt chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” and how “we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussian, Wurttemberbergers …” joined in. At points on the line harmonicas joined in, or led the way; bagpipes adding a memorable backdrop in those sectors where Scottish soldiers were in line (such as Hulse’s own Scots Guards). The spirit was sweeping the entire sector. And though not everyone in the ranks was for this “cessation of hostilities,” let alone face-to-face fraternization (in time, the most notorious being Adolf Hitler, serving as a messenger in a nearby Bavarian unit), by Christmas Eve 1914 it took on the air of an unstoppable popular movement. The overwhelming majority of those stationed on the cold clammy Flanders front were participating enthusiastically and taking the next step in this remarkable, if fleeting, event.

Close enough to trade carols with the enemy, the more enterprising—and trusting—sensed an opportunity for a most rare moment of camaraderie. Many began to shout over invitations for the enemies to meet up between the trenches and the thick belts of barbed-wire: the infamous No Man’s Land that still defines the wasteful attrition of trench warfare. Captain Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarians later wrote: “I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we [should] make a Christmas truce … First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted ‘No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the[ir] trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands—a bit cautiously” … Informal truces had been occurring along the Western Front for most of the month, but were especially prevalent throughout the sector where the British Expeditionary Force was in line. That in and of itself explains a greater tendency towards camaraderie; in that the small army of Belgians that had survived the German invasion (in line near the coast) and the sprawling French armies (which aside from a detachment north of Ypres, stretched unbroken from Arras to Alsace-Lorraine) rightfully attached a more virulent hatred to the German invader a trench over. There were many documented truces, meetings and even informal concerts in these sectors, some celebrated; but the core players in the Truce were British and German units in the Flemish lowlands, with perhaps less of an ideological axe-to-grind and even the lineage of Anglo-Saxon to go on. (It should be noted, it was widely held by both the British and German Saxons themselves that those German units of Prussian background were a harder, more ideologically-pure set, and not to be trusted.) Add to these nationalistic reasons the fact that December rains had been unrelenting and had turned all of Flanders into a sea of ankle-deep mud, thus rendering active large-scale operations impossible; this combined with the fact that all of these armies had been effectively used-up by the appalling casualties already suffered, each awaiting the first wave of volunteer reserves to restore offensive strength, and the static character of the front in December 1914 comes clear.

So, with the grey routine and boredom settling in, the waiting led—as it always does—to impromptu fraternization between enemies. By early December, it was already so noticeable along the B.E.F. front that the commander of the British II Corps issued a directive forbidding fraternization; if only that his troops remain on their toes and wary of a trap. In position around and north of Ypres, this sector would see much less truce-making, no doubt a result of heightened wariness; but also of more stringent oversight. To the immediate south, there was no such overt directive hanging over the scene and with the arrival of Christmas Day, the Truce was on. One final development was quite possibly the most important stroke of luck in setting the scene: the skies cleared; and aside from occasional flurries and morning fog, the quagmire that had typified both trench and fields-of-battle froze into temporary tundra. No longer sodden and mud-caked, if cold, many had to believe it a Christmas miracle in its own right that the steady December downpours had relented. W. R. M. Percy of the London Rifles wrote: “The singing and playing continued all night (Christmas Eve), and the next day our fellows paid a visit to the German trenches, and they did likewise.” Not just meetings in neutral No Man’s Land, but widespread visits to enemy trenches would typify the next several days.

In lieu of the slaughter and world order upheaval that a modern audience knows was yet to come, what happened Christmas Day and December 26 (the traditional English “Boxing Day,” still a significant holiday tradition in 1914) continues to stir a deep emotional response … If only to justify the odd behavior of enemies, many of the No Man’s Land meetings proceeded under arrangement to bury the dead—some of whom had been lying in-between the lines for over a month. Weintraub writes: “Up and down the line the retrieval of corpses and their burial were tacit preconditions for fraternization.” In some instances the dead were placed into the lightly frosted ground by separate parties: the British interring those in front of their lines, the Germans likewise. But numerous accounts tell of joint burial details. Near the small village of La Boutillerie in northern France, a joint burial arrangement was brought to a more hopeful close by a joint service. Arthur Pelham-Burn of the 6th Gordons described the mass burial detail as “awful, too awful to describe …”; but went on to call the service that followed (conducted in-tandem by the Gordon’s chaplain and a German divinity student) as “most wonderful.” Though burying the dead was not a precondition for No Man’s Land meetings, with this most depressing activity complete where it was undertaken the Truce turned to light-hearted fraternity. Weintraub writes: “when the soldiers on both sides were not spading fallen comrades into alien soil, they were coming together in ways so unpredictable and extraordinary that they felt compelled to write in disbelief to families and to newspapers still largely uncensored about what they had seen and done.” These eyewitness accounts say it all:

  • A German officer yelled across to the 2nd Bedfordshires: “I am a lieutenant! Gentlemen, my life is in your hands, for I am out of my trench and walking towards you. Will one of your officers come out and meet me half-way?” After a few moments of silence, he said again: “Gentlemen, I am waiting!” A British officer went out to meet him and a truce was called.

  • Lieutenant Frank Black of the 1st Royal Warwicks wrote: “we were strolling about outside the trenches as though there as no war going on.”

  • Corporal John Ferguson of the Seaforth Scottish Highlanders wrote: “What a sight—little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! … Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”

  • Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons wrote of the “delightful conversations in English, French and German” that he would have with enemy officers.

The final quote points to yet one more condition that made such truces more likely: many of the German soldiers then in the trenches had before the war worked as waiters, barbers and taxi-drivers in large cities throughout the United Kingdom. (A unique instance involved a Londoner meeting his former barber, then serving in a Saxon regiment opposite his, who gave his former customer, now enemy, a trim in No Man’s Land.) In that this was the first war with global reach, economic development had already taken shape as the interconnected global world that now defines the modern world. In hindsight, it is possible to see that these Germans and their command of English prompted many to start up conversations with the enemy that in years and conflicts past would have been less probable. And though early attempts to arrange cease-fire meetings were met with an understandable skepticism, the overtures that followed were almost without exception driven by a genuine—and quite spontaneous—commitment to the peace-and-goodwill of the season. Typical of these exchanges was one documented by a British officer, in which his German counterpart asked with frank honesty: “My orders are the same as yours, but could we not have a truce from shooting today? We don’t want to shoot, do you?”

As if to prove their hope for a celebratory holiday, Germans in line just south of Armentières would arrange an appealing trade. Assuring the British in their front that they were genuine in requesting a cease-fire, they sealed the deal by rolling out barrels of beer into No Man’s Land. There they were traded for a B.E.F. staple that holiday season: English plum pudding cakes. This was only one of the hundreds of such meetings and trades going on across the entire sector. Handshakes led to conversations, Brown and Seaton noting that for many: “the shaking of an enemy hand was the most striking memory of the day.” And though some conversations were certainly hampered by language barriers, they were being prodded along by commiseration on the shared misery and disillusionment of life in the trenches, far from home. Brown and Seaton go on to underscore the sudden turn in perspective that was sweeping the ranks and empowering the Truce itself. They write of soldiers on both sides being struck with the fact that war-time propaganda (which spewed an especially bloodthirsty tone in the English and German press) had grossly distorted the reality of the enemy; for when they “met face to face they found that they were not only human but also, on the whole, likable.” Such a sudden easing of tensions revealed a most profound commonality. It was to be the very fuel of the Truce. In some spots, meetings in No Man’s Land grew to involve whole regiments. These quickly fell on good-natured ribbing urged on by liberal doses of shared whisky, German schnapps, beer and wine. (Weintraub notes that there were, amazingly, very few reports of disciplinary problems or violence despite evidence of heavy drinking.) But all of this revolved around the most widespread activity of the Truce: the brisk trading of food, cigarettes, cigars and souvenirs.

Soldiers on both sides of the front had been flooded with Christmas care-packages, an act of giving that was viewed and promoted as a patriotic necessity by those on the various home-fronts. The sheer bulk of trade-able items on hand made trade and indulgence somewhat of a sport, something every soldier could participate in, if they chose. On the British side, there were the mentioned plum puddings, a traditional Christmas-time dessert, which arrived at the front by the train-load. In addition, each soldier was provided a “Princess Mary” tin filled with cigarettes, a pipe and tobacco (or sweets for non-smokers) and a royal Christmas card that included a picture of the King’s daughter, Mary—along with her personal best wishes and blessings. (Brown and Seaton document the mass-disruption in the transport of standard rations and equipment that this would cause for B.E.F. troops, as over 350,000 of these tins were given preference and shuttled up to front-line soldiers.) As well, home-front gifts of scarves, gloves, hats and other items of winter clothing were blanketing the troops. And the British were not alone. The Germans were also provided an array of Christmas gifts that flowed into their lines from the home-front back east. The most prevalent were pipes made of meerschaum (a white stone-like mineral) imprinted with a relief of the German Crown Prince, which arrived with all the Turkish tobacco that they cared to smoke. In addition, a highly sought after trade item would be the cigar box delivered to German NCOs—in the Kaiser’s name—made notable by the Flammenschwert (“Flaming Sword”) stamped on its cover. The prevalence of small Christmas trees atop German parapets was also a result of easing homesick soldiers during that most treasured holiday. Thousands of the small trees had been shipped to both fronts, along with depot-busting quantities of sausage, sauerkraut and cakes. Perhaps at no other time during the war, would the troops eat so well; and in the spirit of the Truce and indulgent (for war-time) Christmas dinners, many of the mentioned trench-visits did occur. One of the great recollections was of British soldiers with the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment, who had taken up an invite to visit the trench opposite their position. When the Germans urged them to stay for a Christmas dinner and they declined, the two were pulled back into the trench by their legs. Though there were many reports of surprise captures in the Flanders sector during the Truce, the Leicestershire men endured only a belly full of camaraderie.

And then there was the most celebrated piece of fraternity that the Truce would produce … With the sharing of food and drink and the trade in more substantial souvenirs—photos, some signatures, buttons, insignia, and for the British: the prized German belt buckles stamped “Gott Mit Uns,” (God with Us) and spiked “Pickelhaube” helmets (still standard issue in 1914)—a more relaxed atmosphere set in. In many areas, it would become so casual that British and German soldiers lined-up for group portraits, intermingled by nationality and rank in remarkable photographs (many of which would find their way onto the front page of home-front newspapers throughout January 1915, stunning audiences). Given the pervasive good-natured air about so many of these meetings, it seemed just a matter of time before someone produced a football … Though musical events were breaking out all along the more pensive French and German lines to the south—where professional musicians and opera singers in the ranks performed to encore-demanding audiences—in Flanders it was football. Already the national sport of all developed European nations and given the relative youth of the soldiers (if already war veterans), it does seem inevitable that the bloodless competition of informal “kick-abouts” and actual team matches would break out. Again, the confluence of ideal conditions were key. What with the early winter freeze having hardened the mud and the dead having been cleared from No Man’s Land, the soldiers were presented with wide open, if often cratered, fields. This being peacetime farm-land, largely turnip and cabbage fields, much of it was also well-groomed. And what came together on those fields has come down as the zenith of the Truce; for as much as anything, it was enemies playing football that has come to represent all that was right about the Christmas Truce. The accounts of improvised and staged matches are numerous. One staged match was popularized in London’s The Times on January 1, 1915, and is typical of the games played: a published letter from an eyewitness describes the scene of British and German teams playing a regulation match, with the “Saxons” winning 3-2. But it was the coincidence of another football gathering that captures the common humanity awakened by this event, however fleeting. While a match was being arranged and teams assembled from the British and Germans facing each other near the line around Ploegsteert Wood, south of Ypres, it became known that two of the soldiers to play had recently been teammates back in Liverpool. One was a “Tommy,” the other a “Fritz” … Here was the great triumph and the great tragedy of the Truce. And yet, that all the death and destruction that was to follow has failed to dim this brief moment of hope is why we remember and tell the story still. Stanley Weintraub illustrates it perfectly: “Christmas 1914 reopened imaginations to the unsettling truth that at each end of the rifle, men were indeed the same.”

 
• • •
 

In 1918, a British soldier told the story of the Christmas truce to an American journalist: “Something like this outburst was taking place all along the line … If so the war was over. There would be, he thought, no authority on earth powerful enough to set those men fighting again.” That is, of course, not how it worked out. Given this disobedient unwarlike behavior and the possibility of it undermining “fighting spirit,” those at the command level on either side would eventually come to squelch the widespread fraternization and order the troops back into daily offensive operations. This was often done by simply ordering artillery fire, exactly the scene portrayed in the previously mentioned and memorable Truce scene from Oh! What A Lovely War. Soon enough, it would come down to rifle fire between those who had so recently met their enemies for food, trade and football in No Man’s Land. In many instances, the fraternity of the Truce still fresh, opposing units warned those across the way of such orders ahead-of-time, advising them to keep out of sight, their heads down. Soldiers on both sides often fired purposefully high when the time came, Weintraub writing that on many fronts it was a “renewed fire that was more desultory than deliberate.” He goes on to state the obvious: that the Christmas Truce “reverberates with an incalculable sense of loss.” Given the profitless bloodbath to come—in that history can draw a straight line between the lack of clear resolutions and the upheaval that took root in wake of the First World War having led directly to the Second World War—this statement becomes simply heartbreaking.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 should not surprise us. And yet it does because of the uncomfortable fact that war and human conflict have, throughout history, so often won out over peace-and-goodwill. And if only because of that, this is a story that continues to be told. That a spontaneous “outbreak of peace” could be mustered by a large group of mostly young men who only days prior had been doing all they could to kill the other and soon enough would be back to doing just that for three more horrific years, is an example of the best of humankind winning out—however brief. This is a story that we continue to tell because we must.

 

»  The Truce Scene › Oh! What A Lovely War

»  The 2014 Sainsbury Grocery Chain (UK) Christmas Truce Ad

 

SOURCES:

Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton. Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914. London: Papermac, 1994.

John Keegan. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knoph. 1999.

Stanley Weintraub. Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. New York: Plume (Penguin Group), 2002.

Thomas Vinciguerra. “The Truce of Christmas, 1914,” The New York Times. New York: December 25, 2005.

Mike Dash. “The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce,” Smithsonian Magazine. Washington, D.C.: December 23, 2011.

 
Publication Date: December 23, 2014