Wednesday, December 21, 2016

World War Wednesdays: The Christmas Truce, 1914

     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.”

British and German troops meeting in No-Mans's Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector), Imperial War Museums

The first signs of abnormality began appearing on Christmas Eve, when at around 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” Further along the line, both sides serenaded each other with carols, including the German "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night) and "The First Noel" by the British, as scouts cautiously began meeting in No Man's Land between the two sides. The war diary of the Scots Guards reads that a Private Murker “met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.” 

     An important thing to remember is that this same basic understanding seemed to occur in various places all down the Front, with various groups of enemy soldiers arranging their own form of spontaneous Christmas truce. 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 “all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’” Then, the voices added: "‘Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.’ For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired."
British and German soldiers fraternizing at Ploegsteert, Belgium on Christmas day 1914, Imperial War Museums 

     According to Smithsonian Magazine, several factors contributed to the Christmas Truce. For one, the men in both sides of the trenches would have become veterans by December 1914, familiar enough with the realities of combat to have diminished the idealism they had carried with them to war that August, and most longed for an end to the bloodshed. They had so firmly believed that the war would be over by Christmas, but yet still they fought, freezing in rudimentary dugouts. Then, on Christmas Eve itself, several weeks of mild yet miserably soaking weather yielded to a sudden and hard frost which created a dusting of ice and snow along the lines. As a result, men on both sides felt that something spiritual was taking place.

     Interestingly, it was only in the British sector that the troops noticed at dawn that the Germans had placed small Christmas trees along the parapets of their trenches and responded with conviviality. As the Smithsonian discusses, this could be attributed to the fact that the Russians at that time still adhered to the old Julian calendar, which observed Christmas as January 7, and the French would have generally been far more sensitive to the fact that Germans were occupying about a third of France at the time. 

     The obvious language barrier between English and German meant that communication was difficult among the newly-acquainted troops, but they quickly found a common interest in "football" (soccer). Somehow, in one section a ball was produced, and British and German soldiers proceeded to take pleasure in kicking it about in a match which the Germans claim to have won 3-2. Due to the subsequent atmosphere of downplaying and condemning the truce on the part of the British, some of the most detailed accounts of the football matches come from the German side. These report that the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment played a game against Scottish troops, which was reflected upon in a 1960s interview by 133rd participant Johannes Niemann: 
     "The 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."

     Overall, the Christmas Truce was a temporary respite from the horrors of battle for both sides of No Man's Land that fateful night. In most places, it was accepted that the peace would be short-lived, but in a few cases the ceasefire was allowed to persist into the new year. After that, there were no further truces until the armistice of 1918 which many, if not most, of the Christmas Truce participants did not live to see. For those who did survive the war, it was certainly not something to be forgotten, and that story lives on in infamy a hundred and two years later.
     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)

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