In the dying moments of 1914 and the opening days of 1915, remarkable stories began to circulate in Britain’s newspapers. The stories came from France and Belgium, where great armies were locked in mighty conflict, and told of a truce between British and German soldiers. At this time of peace and goodwill, it was said that the guns had fallen silent on Christmas Eve, lights had appeared on the parapets of German trenches and the haunting melody of Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht drifted out over the frost-covered corpses and detritus of no-man’s land. There were cries of “Happy Christmas, Tommy! We won’t shoot if you don’t”. Men fraternised, traded plum puddings for cigars, swapped souvenirs, exchanged memories of home, buried their dead and even had a game of football. The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a magical, wonderful, picture, with an almost mystical quality about it. The idea that ordinary men, in the midst of a terrible war, would simply forget fighting and instead seek friendship surely offers hope for the future; but what really happened?
In 1914, after five months of fighting, the two sides had gone to ground. On the Western Front, the trenches stretched 450 miles from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps. It was stalemate; the war would not be over by Christmas, as many had all too optimistically predicted. In places, the opposing lines were in such close proximity that it was possible to not only hear the enemy clearly, but also smell their cooking. Both sides had a shared experience of savage conflict, as well as cold, wet and uncomfortable conditions. British General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien foresaw the danger of men adopting a ‘live and let live’ philosophy and sinking into a ‘military lethargy’. He ordered, “…friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.”
In early December, Pope Benedict XV had proposed a 12-hour truce on Christmas Day. There were indications that the Germans would entertain the idea, but the Allied Governments were not keen to humour those they viewed as invaders and the suggestion came to nothing. In fact, the British launched attacks on sectors of the German lines on 14th, 18th and 19th December; all of them failed, with heavy casualties.
The folks at home had not forgotten that Christmas was coming. Parcels and greetings arrived by the trainload from Germany and by the boatload from England. There were luxuries from loved ones – food, of course, and warm clothing – as well as official gifts. The Kaiser sent his troops boxes of cigars in boxes inscribed Weinachten im Feld, 1914. German troops also received Christmas trees. British soldiers received a metal box from Princess Mary, daughter of King George V, containing a card and cigarettes, pipe tobacco or chocolate. The embossed box showed a portrait of the Princess and the names of Britain’s principal allies – France, Belgium, Japan, Russia, Montenegro and Servia (Serbia). Like all aspects of war, experience of Christmas 1914 varied depending on where people were, and their rank. Captain Bryden McKinnel of the 10th (Scottish) Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment, mentions plum puddings being presented to the whole battalion, a hamper containing “green turtles, turkeys ready for eating and cigars for the officers”. He says, “The men had special rations of rum, bread and fresh meat.” Private Clifford Lane, of the 1st Battalion, Hertfordshire Regiment, had a different experience: “And then we had what the English papers called Christmas Dinner. This consisted of cold bully beef and a cold lump of Christmas pudding; that was our Christmas dinner. The English newspapers said the British troops in the front line ‘enjoyed’ their Christmas dinner.”
Similarly, accounts of the Christmas truce vary. According to one historian, Martin Gilbert, fraternisation took place almost everywhere along the British lines, at places in the French and Belgian lines, and it was almost always initiated by the Germans. Reports also suggest that Indian troops, fighting for the British, took part – though it seems unlikely that they would have been celebrating Christmas. The weather in December 1914, up to Christmas Eve, had been wet; after that, the temperature plummeted. One account suggests that cooperation occurred for very practical reasons between the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the one hand, and the 134th Saxon Regiment on the other, when a nearby river flooded, forcing both sides out of their trenches. Many accounts tell variations of the tale summarised in the opening paragraph, above. There are suggestions that Germans from Saxony and Bavaria were more likely to initiate contact than the more militaristic Prussians, that British officers ordered their men not to fraternise and then turned their backs. Many Germans had worked in Britain before the war and could speak perfect English. One asked Lieutenant John Wedderburn-Maxwell of the Royal Field Artillery to post a letter to his girlfriend in Manchester – which the British officer duly did. There are various reports of ad hoc football matches taking place. The opportunity to bury the dead, lying in no-man’s land after recent attacks, was taken and defences were repaired. In places, it is said the guns fell silent whilst 1914 slipped away. In others, fighting went on: military historian Chris Baker says that 98 British troops died on 24th December, many the victims of sniper fire, and 81 were killed on Christmas Day itself. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website reveals that 364 UK service personnel died in all sectors, including at home and on the sea, in those two days.
Whatever the truth of the Christmas Truce of 1914, what seems to have happened was not one, but several outbreaks of spontaneous humanity. It was undeniably the stuff of legend. However, to suggest, as some naïve pacifists have, that the Christmas Truce was a missed opportunity, if only everyone had mutinied and refused to pick up their rifles, is to be detached from reality. The troops were not organised and, in any event, were not of a mind to mutiny. Commanders on both sides ensured that any fraternisation ceased and that nothing quite like it ever happened again. There was no realistic prospect of peace for the New Year. The fighting continued for almost another 3 years, with hideous losses, until the very bitter end.
A hundred years on, the Christmas Truce was cynically exploited by Sainsbury’s Supermarket (in partnership with the Royal British Legion) in the form of a Christmas TV advert – albeit it is a beautifully produced one as you might see. The Football Association in partnership with the British Council produced a pack aimed at young schoolchildren, exaggerating the football angle of the story. More memorably, Britain commenced its commemoration of the centenary of the First World War as a whole with its now world-famous poppy installation at the Tower of London. ‘Bloodswept lands and seas of red’, by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, consisted of 888,426 ceramic poppies, each one representing a British or Commonwealth life lost. Each poppy of course also represented a family mourning the individual: parents, siblings, wives, lovers – children. It was an astonishingly effective way of driving home the numbers – part of the roughly 16 million people that perished worldwide – far more vividly than statistics on a page ever can.
The Christmas Truce was a real event – or several real events – although we’ll never know the full details and extent of it. A repeat of the Christmas Truce is unlikely, and for one very positive reason – the prospect of war between the old foes, and all states that share a common cultural heritage, is now so improbable as to be unthinkable. When bemoaning the current state of humanity, surely we can congratulate ourselves on this, one of the great achievements of the last one hundred years?
Of course, and unfortunately, war is not over. Another reason why a re-run of the spontaneous seasonal goodwill is doubtful is that Britain’s enemies do not believe in Christmas. They certainly do not believe in peace and goodwill to all men, irrespective of race, religion or creed. So, whilst acknowledging the imperfections in our own society, here’s a New Year’s resolution for civilised people of all cultures: defeat and educate those who may be described, at best, as ‘culturally retarded’ when it comes to humanity. It’s a significant task for the next century.