Thanks to Ed.
The Christmas truce was a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas of 1914, during the First World War. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts.
Insert: Christmas in the Trenches (Thanks to Ed):
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides – as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units – independently ventured into no man’s land, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing, or – famously – games of football.
Occasionally believed to be quasi-mythical, the truce has become one of the most enduring popular images of the war, often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of modern history. It was not ubiquitous, however; in some regions of the front, fighting continued throughout the day, whilst in others, little more than an arrangement to recover bodies was made. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, but to nothing like the widespread extent seen in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting such fraternisation.
The truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a growing mood of “live and let live“, where infantry units in close proximity to each other would stop overtly aggressive behaviour, and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors there would be occasional ceasefires to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead soldiers, whilst in others there would be a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised, or worked in full view of the enemy. However, the Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation – even in very peaceful sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable.
The first months of World War I had seen an initial German attack through Belgium into France, which had been repulsed outside Paris by French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne in early September 1914. The Germans fell back to the Aisne valley, where they prepared defensive positions. In the subsequent Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to push through the German line, and the fighting quickly degenerated into a static stalemate; neither side was willing to give ground, and both started to develop fortified systems of trenches. To the north, on the right of the German army, there had been no defined front line, and both sides quickly began to try to use this gap to outflank one another; in the ensuing “Race to the Sea“, the two sides repeatedly clashed, each trying to push forward and threaten the end of the other’s line. After several months of fighting, during which the British forces were withdrawn from the Aisne and sent north into Flanders, the northern flank had developed into a similar stalemate. By November, there was a continuous front line running from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, occupied on both sides by armies in prepared defensive positions.
The approach to Christmas
In the lead up to Christmas 1914, there were several peace initiatives. The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria“, signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached. Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” This attempt was, though, officially rebuffed.
Though there was no official truce, about 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The first truce started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium.
The Germans began by placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across the ‘No Man’s Land‘, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. The fraternisation was not, however, without its risks; some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year’s Day in others.
Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, was irate when he heard what was happening, and issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops.
In the following months, there were a few sporadic attempts at truces; a German unit attempted to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but were warned off by the British opposite them, and later in the year, in November, a Saxon unit briefly fraternised with a Liverpool battalion. Come December, there were explicit orders by the Allied commanders to forestall any repeat of the previous Christmas truce. Individual units were encouraged to mount raids and harrass the enemy line, whilst communicating with the enemy was discouraged by artillery barrages along the front line throughout the day. The prohibition was not completely effective, however, and a small number of brief truces occurred.
An eyewitness account of one truce, by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers, with offers to hold a ceasefire for the day and to play a football match. It came to nothing, however; the brigade commander threatened repercussions for the lack of discipline, and insisted on a resumption of firing in the afternoon. Another member of Griffith’s battalion, Bertie Felstead, later recalled that one man had produced a football, resulting in “a free-for-all; there could have been 50 on each side”, before they were ordered back.
In an adjacent sector, a short truce to bury the dead between the lines led to official repercussions; a company commander, Sir Iain Colquhoun of the Scots Guards, was court-martialled for defying standing orders to the contrary. Whilst he was found guilty and officially reprimanded, this punishment was quickly annulled by General Haig, and Colquhoun remained in his position; the official leniency may perhaps have been due to the fact he was related to Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister.
In the later years of the war, in December 1916 and 1917, German overtures to the British for truces were recorded without any success. However, in some French sectors, singing and an exchange of thrown gifts was occasionally recorded, though these may simply have reflected a seasonal extension of the live-and-let-live approach common in the trenches.
Evidence of a Christmas 1916 truce, previously unknown to historians, has recently come to light. In a letter home, 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon told of a remarkable event that occurred on December 25, 1916, when German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines near Vimy Ridge to share Christmas greetings and trade presents. “Here we are again as the song says,” the young soldier wrote. “I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars.”
The events of the truce were not reported for a week, in an unofficial press embargo which was eventually broken by the New York Times on 31 December. The British papers quickly followed, printing numerous first-hand accounts from soldiers in the field, taken from letters home to their families, and editorials on “one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war”. By 8 January pictures had made their way to the press, and both the Mirror and Sketch printed front-page photographs of British and German troops mingling and singing between the lines. The tone of the reporting was strongly positive, with the Times endorsing the “lack of malice” felt by both sides and the Mirror regretting that the “absurdity and the tragedy” would begin again.
Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticising those who had taken part, and no pictures published. In France, meanwhile, the greater level of press censorship ensured that the only word that spread of the truce came from soldiers at the front or first-hand accounts told by wounded men in hospitals. The press was eventually forced to respond to the growing rumours by reprinting a government notice that fraternising with the enemy constituted treason, and in early January an official statement on the truce was published, claiming it had happened on restricted sectors of the British front, and amounted to little more than an exchange of songs which quickly degenerated into shooting.