Peace and the Promise of Christmas: 1914
On Christmas Eve 1914, officers of the Royal Flying Corps carefully wrapped a plum pudding and dropped it on the German side of the front. The Germans reciprocated with a bottle of brandy, just as carefully wrapped. Near Armentieres, Rifleman A.J. Phillips was dispatched to meet five Germans who, after spending the day singing, had called out for the British to send someone to arrange a ‘you no shoot, we no shoot’ truce for Christmas. Phillips found the five Germans armed with nothing more than wine, cakes, chocolates, and cigarettes. Up and down the line that day, Germans posted messages with words to the effect of ‘you no fight, we no fight’. The British responded with messages of ‘Happy Christmas’. Near Poperinge, the Germans posted a ‘Happy Christmas’ message to the Belgian troops opposite. Then they climbed out of their trenches, unarmed, to offer greetings and gifts. As the afternoon mist turned into a clear but chilly night, even the embittered French began to take part. In the Aisne valley, German soldiers left their trenches signalling to the French. Further down the line, Bavarian soldiers—who had been refusing to fight for days—emerged from their trenches and exchanged bread, cognac, and postcards with their French counterparts. In some places along the line, the deadlock was broken by Christmas trees, glowing with candles lifted aloft of the parapets. Elsewhere, it was traditional songs—famously stille nacht—that eased the tensions. Across the length of the whole frontline, gestures of peace became contagious. On Christmas Day itself, soldiers came out of their trenches, greeted one another, and shared gifts. They also reclaimed their dead from no-man’s land. That day, more than one game of football was played in the ruined land between the frontlines.[i]
As many as 100,000 soldiers participated in the Christmas truce of 1914. Naturally, there was wariness on both sides. The first months of war had taken a million lives and had continued its bloody course throughout December. Soldiers on both sides knew that they took immense risks by coming out of their trenches unarmed. Yet they did so and in great numbers. ‘We are having the most extraordinary time imaginable’, wrote Captain Robert Miles:
'A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front…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'.[ii]
From somewhere else on the line, Henry Williamson wrote to his 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…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?'[iii]
Not everyone approved. Commanders on both sides feared that fraternisation would diminish the soldiers’ ‘fighting spirit’ and encourage insubordination or even revolution. A young Bavarian corporal called Adolf Hitler was appalled.
The truce was barely reported in France and Germany, where the press was heavily censored. French newspapers claimed, for example, that it occurred only in British sections of the line. The German press insisted that the truce had been exaggerated. In Britain, by contrast, the truce was widely reported and celebrated. Popular newspapers the Mirror and Sketch published pictures of British and German troops mingling; The Times even published a letter from a German lieutenant and editorialised on 4 January that ‘as the wonderful scenes in the trenches show, there is no malice on our side, and none in many of those who have been marshalled against us’.[iv] It was the Mirror, the newspaper of the industrial working class, though, that perhaps best captured the significance of the moment, in what Sydney Weintraub describes as an ‘almost treasonous’ editorial:
'The soldier’s heart rarely has any hatred in it. He goes out to fight because that is his job. What came before—the causes of the war and the why and wherefore—bother him little. He fights for his country and against his country’s enemies. Collectively, they are to be condemned and blown to pieces. Individually, he knows they’re not bad sorts…The soldier has other things to think about. He has to work and win. Consequently he has not time for rage, and blind furies only overwhelm him when the blood is up over fierce tussles in the heat of the thing. At other times the insane childishness is apparent to him…But now an end to the truce. The news, bad and good, begins again. 1915 darkens over. Again we who watch have to mourn many of our finest men. The lull is finished. The absurdity and the tragedy renew themselves.'[v]
The following year, Allied commanders tried to prevent a repeat of the Christmas truce by launching a deadly December offensive. Britain’s Commander, Douglas Haig, issued an order forbidding fraternisation. The German army threatened to execute any who fraternised with the enemy. The soldiers themselves had been hardened by the horrors of the preceding year: the use of poison gas, the bloody stalemate in the trenches, Zeppelin raids on British cities, and the disastrous landings at Gallipoli. Yet despite all that, on Christmas Day 1915, soldiers of the 15th Battalion Royal Welch shouted greetings to their German counterparts, who responded in kind. Once more, they left their trenches and gathered in no-man’s land. Once more they exchanged greetings and gifts, and played football. The merriment was broken in mid-morning when Brigadier-General Lord Henry Seymour arrived at the front demanding that the truce end and threatening court-martials for all involved. British artillery opened up to underscore the point. But, by mid-afternoon, peace had returned and the soldiers were back in no-man’s land, where they sang and talked together until nightfall.[vi]
The Christmas truce is important in its own right but also because of what it tells us about the passions of war and possibilities of peace. It reminds us that these passions are neither impregnable nor immutable. Empathy (the soldiers could literally put themselves in each other’s shoes), a sense of comradeship (as the Mirror observed, both sides comprised soldiers sent to do a job many of them did not understand), shared Christian values (and songs and traditions), and common interests (in burying their dead lost to no-man’s land and in having a peaceful Christmas) overcame not just the differences of national identity and general enmity, but also the much more intimate animosities of frontline warfare and the commands of the military leaderships of both sides. Nationalist or ideologically fuelled identities and sentiments can be powerful drivers of human behaviour. But because we are all simultaneously members of different groups, we have multiple identities and sometimes this plurality comes to the fore, dampening bellicosity. The Christmas truce—a series of spontaneous events—shows that this can happen even in the most unpropitious of circumstances. Christmas served as a shared cultural value that transcended the narrower identities and interests of the soldiers.[vii]
The Christmas truce shows that it is possible for shared identity, even mutual recognition of shared humanity, to extend beyond national or kin-groups and for this sentiment to be sufficiently powerful to influence our behaviour in the most difficult and dangerous situations.
[i] All these come from Weintraub, Silent Night.
[ii] Cited by Toby Neal, ‘Seasons Over the Decades, 1914’, Shropshire Star, 26 December 2014.
[iii] A photo of Williamson’s original letter can be found at https://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/biography/firstworldwar/57-uncategorised/158-henry-williamson-and-the-christmas-truce.
[iv] Weintraub, Silent Night, pp. 179–81.
[v] Weintraub, Silent Night, p. 180.
[vi] John Shute, ‘The Forgotten Christmas Truce the British Tried to Suppress’, The Telegraph, 26 December 2016.
[vii] With thanks to John Gledhill for this point.