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23rd Dec 2016

Remembering the Christmas Truce, when Britain and Germany held fire and celebrated together

On December 25th, 1914, there was quiet on the Western Front.

Rich Cooper

By December 1914, it was clear that the Great War would not be over by Christmas.

Thousands upon thousands of young men had already died, with millions more to be marched to their end. The trenches were dug and the frontline would not move for most of the war. What was promised to be a glorious adventure would quickly become one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the 20th century.

After five months of gruelling war, Christmas was on the horizon. Pleas were made to halt the fighting; Pope Benedict XV begged for an official truce, pleading “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”. No truce was agreed between the warring governments. The fighting would go on.

Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.

“An artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News of 9 January 1915: ‘British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches.'” Photo: A. C. Michael

Then, on Christmas Eve, the sound of carol song could be heard from the opposing trenches. Christmas greetings were exchanged across no man’s land. Soon enough, soldiers of the Allied and Central powers left their trenches and met, not to fight, but to shake hands and share the spirit of Christmas.

Gifts of cigarettes and food rations were exchanged. Souvenirs were swapped. Joint services were held to remember the fallen on both sides. Henry Williamson, a 19-year-old infantryman from the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day:

“Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere.

“In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco.

“Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench.

“Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”

Armistice Day football match at Dale Barracks between german soldiers and Royal Welsh fusiliers to remember the famous Christmas Day truce between germany and Britain PCH

“Football created a moment of peace and human fraternity in 1914.” Photo: Public Domain

Most famously, spontaneous games of football broke out on no man’s land. Accounts vary, from minor kickabouts using mess tins as balls, to full-blown Britain v Germany matches using real footballs. A German lieutenant wrote that the English “brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was.”

The truth is that the relative peace on Christmas Day 1914 was not unprecedented. Soldiers from the British and German armies had informal systems of abstaining from conflict from as early as November – “live and let live“, as it was known.

Agreements were made not to shoot while rations were distributed or eaten; opposing sides were given opportunities to enter no man’s land to reclaim the bodies of their fallen brothers. There are even records of a German soldier popping over to a British trench just to see how everything’s going.

The Christmas truce is the most enduring of these rare moments of peace during the First World War, perhaps because of the romanticism of the idea – men of war coming together in harmony on the international day of peace – but perhaps also because nothing like it ever happened again.

Christmas_Truce_1914

“British and German troops meeting in No-Mans’s Land during the unofficial truce.” Photo: IMW

Officers on both sides issued commands to end fraternisation with the enemy, amounting the act to treason. As the war dragged on and the casualties rose into the many millions, the misery of battle eroded the goodwill between soldiers. It was the Great War as we now know it: bitter, bloody and hopelessly pointless.

Historian Paul Fussel said this of the Christmas truce: “It was the last public moment in which it was assumed that people were nice. It was the last gesture of the 19th Century idea that human beings are getting better the longer the human race goes on.”

Perhaps there is some truth to this. It’s certainly true to say that today, our society is divided, and it’s difficult to see each other’s point of view.

Our enemies are our enemies. They are wrong and we are right. Thoughtful discussion and purposeful debate are giving way to smug condescension, jeering, and all-caps hysteria in the comments. The grey area is fading, and soon there will only be righteous black and virtuous white, and neither shall win.

Weihachtsfriede

“The Christmas Peace.” Photo: WikiMedia

But to say we have gotten no better since the 1900s is to do ourselves an injustice. We have achieved much in the post-war years. We made peace. We ended empires. We joined the Information Age. We recognised that we are destroying our planet and are doing something about it. We promoted tolerance and equality.

So at a time when we, the country and the world have marked our lines, picked our targets and drawn our swords, on the brink of a new year in which we hope for resolution but shall only find more conflict, we know that even in the bloody horror of the Great War, we could acknowledge one another as decent men, as people and not enemies. If only for one day.

Topics:

Christmas