When we think of the First World War, which, for many of us, was a regular occurrence this year, we often think of a period marked by unprecedented levels of horror and hardship with no clear rationale. Indeed, between 1914 and 1918, over twenty-five million people were killed or wounded around the world. However, what we do not often reflect upon are the moments of joy that did come from those mud-filled trenches; the few periods of respite from the suffering and carnage. I feel that World War Wednesdays would be remiss if we did not dedicate one of the most legendary of such moments to the annual Christmas post, and hope it will serve as another humbling reminder of how fortunate we are today.
It was during the first Christmas of the war when men from both sides of the Western Front laid down their arms, emerged from the trenches, and shared in food and drink, games, and fellowship in an unofficial and illicit truce. While it lasted, it was an extraordinary flicker of humanity amid one of civilization's darkest hours, even prompting the sober Wall Street Journal to observe: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”
The most detailed estimate, made by Malcolm Brown of Britain’s Imperial War Museums, is that the truce extended along at least two-thirds of British-held trench line that scarred southern Belgium. Private Frederick Heath on the British side included in a letter home that
|British and German soldiers fraternizing at Ploegsteert, Belgium on Christmas day 1914, Imperial War Museums|
he mist was slow to clear and suddenly my orderly threw himself into my dugout to say that both the German and Scottish soldiers had come out of their trenches and were fraternizing along the front. I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee. A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm... Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts—and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of one posterior belonging to one of “yesterday’s enemies.” But after an hour’s play, when our Commanding Officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it. A little later we drifted back to our trenches and the fraternization ended."
Many thanks to Smithsonian Magazine for the information. If you are interested in a phenomenal filmic portrayal of this story, I encourage you to check out Joyeux Noel (2005), which is based on a true story and includes the perspectives of Scottish, German and French forces during the truce. I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you and your families a Merry Christmas and safe and relaxing holiday, and thank you for taking the time to read this post.
Delany Leitch (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)