Such was the carnage of The Great War that it was thought it would put an end to war for good. The war affected the lives of millions of men, including Tolkien and Milne. It gave birth to some rather unusual WWI alphabet primers. WWI also triggered medical advances such as plastic surgery and blood banks. Most appropriately for this time of the year, though, WWI saw one of the strangest Christmas Days in history.
1914 was the first year of war and everyone expected a quick resolution. As Wikipedia reports, truces between British and German units can be dated to early November 1914, around the time that the war of maneuver ended. Rations were brought up to the front line after dusk and soldiers on both sides noted a period of peace while they collected their food. By 1 December, a British soldier could record a friendly visit from a German sergeant one morning “to see how we were getting on”. Relations between French and German units were generally tenser but the same phenomenon began to emerge. In early December, a German surgeon recorded a regular half-hourly truce each evening to recover dead soldiers for burial, during which French and German soldiers exchanged newspapers.
The proximity of trench lines made it easy for soldiers to shout greetings to each other. This may have been the most common method of arranging informal truces in 1914. Men would frequently exchange news or greetings, helped by a common language: many German soldiers had lived in England, particularly London, and were familiar with the language and the society. Several British soldiers recorded instances of Germans asking about news from the football leagues, while other conversations could be as banal as discussions of the weather or as plaintive as messages for a sweetheart.
Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the informal cessations of hostility along the Western Front. The Germans placed 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 No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco, alcohol, and souvenirs, such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, continuing until New Year’s Day in others.
On Christmas Day, Brigadier-General Walter Congreve, commander of the 18th Infantry Brigade, stationed near Neuve Chapelle, wrote a letter recalling the Germans declared a truce for the day. One of his men bravely lifted his head above the parapet and others from both sides walked onto no man’s land.
Here’s what happened next, in the words of Bruce Bairnsfather, cartoonist and creator of Old Bill:
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.
Alfred Anderson, the last known surviving Scottish veteran of the war, vividly recalled Christmas Day and said in a 2003 interview:
I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.
Captain Robert Miles recorded the events as follows:
Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.
Of the Germans, he wrote: “They are distinctly bored with the war… In fact, one of them wanted to know what on earth we were doing here fighting them.” The truce in that sector continued into Boxing Day; he commented about the Germans, “The beggars simply disregard all our warnings to get down from off their parapet, so things are at a deadlock. We can’t shoot them in cold blood… I cannot see how we can get them to return to business.”
A Singular Event
Unfortunately, Miles’ concern was shared by officers: both Hitler, then a corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, and Charles de Gaulle complained, with the latter writing of the “lamentable” desire of French infantrymen to leave the enemy in peace. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the II Corps, issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops.
After 1914, sporadic attempts were made at seasonal truces; on the Western Front, for example, a German unit attempted to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915 but was warned off by the British opposite them. In December 1915, there were orders by the Allied commanders to forestall any repeat of the previous Christmas truce. Units were encouraged to mount raids and harass the opposing line, whilst communicating with the enemy was discouraged by artillery barrages along the front line throughout the day.
Even so, Richard Schirrmann, who was in a German regiment holding a position on the Vosges Mountains, wrote the following account of events in December 1915:
“When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines… something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Pumpernickel (Westphalian black bread), biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.
In an adjacent sector, a short truce to bury the dead between the lines led to repercussions. A company commander, Sir Iain Colquhoun of the Scots Guards, was court-martialled for defying standing orders to the contrary. While he was found guilty and reprimanded, the punishment was annulled by General Douglas Haig, and Colquhoun remained in his position. The official leniency may perhaps have been because Colquhoun’s wife’s uncle was H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister.
In December 1916 and 1917, German overtures to the British for truces were recorded without any success. 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.
Live and Let Live
In his book on trench warfare, Tony Ashworth described the ‘live and let live system‘. Complicated local truces and agreements not to fire at each other were negotiated by men along the front throughout the war. These often began with an agreement not to attack each other at tea, meal, or washing times. In some places, tacit agreements became so common that sections of the front would see few casualties for extended periods of time. This system, Ashworth argues, ‘gave soldiers some control over the conditions of their existence. The December 1914 Christmas Truces then can be seen as not unique, but as the most dramatic example of the spirit of non-co-operation with the war that included refusal to fight, unofficial truces, mutinies, strikes, and peace protests.
Even in the midst of the worst carnage in living memory, humans somehow managed to persevere, connect, and fight back against the madness of war. To me, that’s the greatest Christmas miracle of all.
Merry Christmas everyone!