by Simon Rees
“You are standing up to your knees in the slime of a waterlogged trench. It is the evening of 24 December 1914 and you are on the dreaded Western Front. Stooped over, you wade across to the firing step and take over the watch. Having exchanged pleasantries, your bleary-eyed and mud-spattered colleague shuffles off towards his dug out. Despite the horrors and the hardships, your morale is high and you believe that in the New Year the nation's army march towards a glorious victory.
But for now you stamp your feet in a vain attempt to keep warm. All is quiet when jovial voices call out from both friendly and enemy trenches. Then the men from both sides start singing carols and songs. Next come requests not to fire, and soon the unthinkable happens: you start to see the shadowy shapes of soldiers gathering together in no-man's land laughing, joking and sharing gifts. Many have exchanged cigarettes, the lit ends of which burn brightly in the inky darkness. Plucking up your courage, you haul yourself up and out of the trench and walk towards the foe...
The reality of the Christmas Truce, however, is a slightly less romantic and a more down to earth story. It was an organic affair that in some spots hardly registered a mention and in others left a profound impact upon those who took part. Many accounts were rushed, confused or contradictory. Others, written long after the event, are weighed down by hindsight. These difficulties aside, the true story is still striking precisely because of its rag-tagged nature: it is more 'human' and therefore all the more potent.
Months beforehand, millions of servicemen, reservists and volunteers from all over the continent had rushed enthusiastically to the banners of war: the atmosphere was one of holiday rather than conflict. But it was not long before the jovial façade was torn away. Armies equipped with repeating rifles, machine guns and a vast array of artillery tore chunks out of each other, and thousands upon thousands of men perished. To protect against the threat of this vast firepower, the soldiers were ordered to dig in and prepare for next year's offensives, which most men believed would break the deadlock and deliver victory. The early trenches were often hasty creations and poorly constructed; if the trench was badly sighted it could become a sniping hot spot. In bad weather (the winter of 1914 was a dire one) the positions could flood and fall in. The soldiers - unequipped to face the rigors of the cold and rain - found themselves wallowing in a freezing mire of mud and the decaying bodies of the fallen.
The man at the Front could not help but have a degree of sympathy for his opponents who were having just as miserable a time as they were. Another factor that broke down the animosity between the opposing armies were the surroundings. In 1914 the men at the front could still see the vestiges of civilisation. Villages, although badly smashed up, were still standing. Fields, although pitted with shell-holes, had not been turned into muddy lunarscapes. Thus the other world - the civilian world - and the social mores and manners that went with it was still present at the front. Also lacking was the pain, misery and hatred that years of bloody war build up. Then there was the desire, on all sides, to see the enemy up close - was he really as bad as the politicians, papers and priests were saying? It was a combination of these factors, and many more minor ones, that made the Christmas Truce of 1914 possible.
On the eve of the Truce, the British Army (still a relatively small presence on the Western Front) was manning a stretch of the line running south from the infamous Ypres salient for 27 miles to the La Bassee Canal. Along the front the enemy was sometimes no more than 70, 50 or even 30 yards away. Both Tommy and Fritz could quite easily hurl greetings and insults to one another, and, importantly, come to tacit agreements not to fire. Incidents of temporary truces and outright fraternisation were more common at this stage in the war than many people today realize - even units that had just taken part in a series of futile and costly assaults, were still willing to talk and come to arrangements with their opponents.
As Christmas approached the festive mood and the desire for a lull in the fighting increased as parcels packed with goodies from home started to arrive. On top of this came gifts care of the state. Tommy received plum puddings and 'Princess Mary boxes'; a metal case engraved with an outline of George V's daughter and filled with chocolates and butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco, a picture card of Princess Mary and a facsimile of George V's greeting to the troops. 'May God protect you and bring you safe home,' it said. Not to be outdone, Fritz received a present from the Kaiser, the Kaiserliche, a large meerschaum pipe for the troops and a box of cigars for NCOs and officers. Towns, villages and cities, and numerous support associations on both sides also flooded the front with gifts of food, warm clothes and letters of thanks.
The Belgians and French also received goods, although not in such an organized fashion as the British or Germans. For these nations the Christmas of 1914 was tinged with sadness - their countries were occupied. It is no wonder that the Truce, although it sprung up in some spots on French and Belgian lines, never really caught hold as it did in the British sector.
With their morale boosted by messages of thanks and their bellies fuller than normal, and with still so much Christmas booty to hand, the season of goodwill entered the trenches. A British Daily Telegraph correspondent wrote that on one part of the line the Germans had managed to slip a chocolate cake into British trenches. Even more amazingly, it was accompanied with a message asking for a ceasefire later that evening so they could celebrate the festive season and their Captain's birthday. They proposed a concert at 7.30pm when candles, the British were told, would be placed on the parapets of their trenches. The British accepted the invitation and offered some tobacco as a return present. That evening, at the stated time, German heads suddenly popped up and started to sing. Each number ended with a round of applause from both sides. The Germans then asked the British to join in. At this point, one very mean-spirited Tommy shouted: 'We'd rather die than sing German.' To which a German joked aloud: 'It would kill us if you did'.
December 24 was a good day weather-wise: the rain had given way to clear skies. On many stretches of the Front the crack of rifles and the dull thud of shells ploughing into the ground continued, but at a far lighter level than normal. In other sectors there was an unnerving silence that was broken by the singing and shouting drifting over, in the main, from the German trenches. Along many parts of the line the Truce was spurred on with the arrival in the German trenches of miniature Christmas trees - Tannenbaum. The sight these small pines, decorated with candles and strung along the German parapets, captured the Tommies' imagination, as well as the men of the Indian corps who were reminded of the sacred Hindu festival of light. It was the perfect excuse for the opponents to start shouting to one another, to start singing and, in some areas, to pluck up the courage to meet one another in no-man's land.
By now, the British high command - comfortably 'entrenched' in a luxurious châteaux 27 miles behind the front - was beginning to hear of the fraternisation. Stern orders were issued by the commander of the BEF, Sir John French against such behavior. Other 'brass-hats' (as the Tommies nick-named their high-ranking officers and generals), also made grave pronouncements on the dangers and consequences of parleying with the Germans. However, there were many high-ranking officers who took a surprisingly relaxed view of the situation. If anything, they believed it would at least offer their men an opportunity to strengthen their trenches. This mixed stance meant that very few officers and men involved in the Christmas Truce were disciplined. Interestingly, the German High Command's ambivalent attitude towards the Truce mirrored that of the British.
Christmas day began quietly but once the sun was up the fraternisation began. Again songs were sung and rations thrown to one another. It was not long before troops and officers started to take matters into their own hands and ventured forth. No-man's land became something of a playground. Men exchanged gifts and buttons. In one or two places soldiers who had been barbers in civilian times gave free haircuts. One German, a juggler and a showman, gave an impromptu, and given the circumstances, somewhat surreal performance of his routine in the centre of no-man's land.
Captain Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards, in his famous account, remembered the approach of four unarmed Germans at 08.30. He went out to meet them with one of his ensigns. 'Their spokesmen,' Hulse wrote, 'started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce. He came from Suffolk where he had left his best girl and a 3 h.p. motor-bike!' Having raced off to file a report at headquarters, Hulse returned at 10.00 to find crowds of British soldiers and Germans out together chatting and larking about in no-man's land, in direct contradiction to his orders. Not that Hulse seemed to care about the fraternisation in itself - the need to be seen to follow orders was his concern. Thus he sought out a German officer and arranged for both sides to return to their lines.
While this was going on he still managed to keep his ears and eyes open to the fantastic events that were unfolding. 'Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc. One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette; the German said, "Virginian?" Our fellow said, "Aye, straight-cut", the German said "No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!" It gave us all a good laugh.' Hulse's account was in part a letter to his mother, who in turn sent it on to the newspapers for publication, as was the custom at the time. Tragically, Hulse was killed in March 1915.
On many parts of the line the Christmas Day truce was initiated through sadder means. Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man's land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and give them a decent burial. Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another. The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organized a burial truce with the enemy. After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternization began.
With the Truce in full swing up and down the line there were a number of recorded games of soccer, although these were really just 'kick-abouts' rather than a structured match. On January 1, 1915, the London Times published a letter from a major in the Medical Corps reporting that in his sector the British played a game against the Germans opposite and were beaten 3-2. Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons recorded in his diary: 'The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.'
The Truce lasted all day; in places it ended that night, but on other sections of the line it held over Boxing Day and in some areas, a few days more. In fact, there were parts on the front where the absence of aggressive behavior was conspicuous well into 1915.
Captain J C Dunn, the Medical Officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, whose unit had fraternized and received two barrels of beer from the Saxon troops opposite, recorded how hostilities re-started on his section of the front. Dunn wrote: 'At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.' The war was indeed on again, for the Truce had no hope of being maintained. Despite being wildly reported in Britain and to a lesser extent in Germany, the troops and the populations of both countries were still keen to prosecute the conflict.
Today, pragmatists read the Truce as nothing more than a 'blip' - a temporary lull induced by the season of goodwill, but willingly exploited by both sides to better their defenses and eye out one another's positions. Romantics assert that the Truce was an effort by normal men to bring about an end to the slaughter. In the public's mind the facts have become irrevocably mythologized, and perhaps this is the most important legacy of the Christmas Truce today. In our age of uncertainty, it comforting to believe, regardless of the real reasoning and motives, that soldiers and officers told to hate, loathe and kill, could still lower their guns and extend the hand of goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer.”