During the miserable trench warfare of WWI, a night of humanity offered some hope of peace. Arthur Conan Doyle called it “one human episode amid all the atrocities.” If Christmas means anything, it surely means this:
Christmas Day, 1914
My dear sister Janet,
It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their dugouts—yet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t been through it myself, I would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy soldiers here on the battlefields of France!
As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed in our trenches and waited.
But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench, killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our heads above ground, for fear of a sniper’s bullet.
And the rain—it has fallen almost daily. Of course, it collects right in our trenches, where we must bail it out with pots and pans. And with the rain has come mud—a good foot or more deep. It splatters and cakes everything, and constantly sucks at our boots. One new recruit got his feet stuck in it, and then his hands too when he tried to get out—just like in that American story of the tar baby!
Through all this, we couldn’t help feeling curious about the German soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we did, and slogged about in the same muck. What’s more, their first trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Man’s Land, bordered on both sides by barbed wire—yet they were close enough we sometimes heard their voices.
Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common. And now it seems they felt the same.
Just yesterday morning—Christmas Eve Day—we had our first good freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather.
During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might promise a peaceful holiday, but we didn’t count on it. We’d been told the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard.
I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, “Come and see! See what the Germans are doing!” I grabbed my rifle, stumbled out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.
I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far as the eye could see.
“What is it?” I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, “Christmas trees!”
And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will.
And then we heard their voices raised in song.
Stille nacht, heilige nacht . . . .
This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it and translated: “Silent night, holy night.” I’ve never heard one lovelier—or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark softened by a first-quarter moon.
When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes, British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started singing, and we all joined in.
The first Nowell, the angel did say . . . .
In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their own and then began another.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum . . . .
Then we replied.
O come all ye faithful . . . .
But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin.
Adeste fideles . . . .
British and German harmonizing across No Man’s Land! I would have thought nothing could be more amazing—but what came next was more so.
“English, come over!” we heard one of them shout. “You no shoot, we no shoot.”
There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then one of us shouted jokingly, “You come over here.”
To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Man’s Land. One of them called, “Send officer to talk.”
I saw one of our men lift his rifle to the ready, and no doubt others did the same—but our captain called out, “Hold your fire.” Then he climbed out and went to meet the Germans halfway. We heard them talking, and a few minutes later, the captain came back with a German cigar in his mouth!
“We’ve agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow,” he announced. “But sentries are to remain on duty, and the rest of you, stay alert.”
Across the way, we could make out groups of two or three men starting out of trenches and coming toward us. Then some of us were climbing out too, and in minutes more, there we were in No Man’s Land, over a hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men we’d been trying to kill just hours earlier!
Before long a bonfire was built, and around it we mingled—British khaki and German grey. I must say, the Germans were the better dressed, with fresh uniforms for the holiday.
Only a couple of our men knew German, but more of the Germans knew English. I asked one of them why that was.
“Because many have worked in England!” he said. “Before all this, I was a waiter at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps I waited on your table!”
“Perhaps you did!” I said, laughing.
He told me he had a girlfriend in London and that the war had interrupted their plans for marriage. I told him, “Don’t worry. We’ll have you beat by Easter, then you can come back and marry the girl.”
He laughed at that. Then he asked if I’d send her a postcard he’d give me later, and I promised I would.
Another German had been a porter at Victoria Station. He showed me a picture of his family back in Munich. His eldest sister was so lovely, I said I should like to meet her someday. He beamed and said he would like that very much and gave me his family’s address.
Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts—our cigarettes for their cigars, our tea for their coffee, our corned beef for their sausage. Badges and buttons from uniforms changed owners, and one of our lads walked off with the infamous spiked helmet! I myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt—a fine souvenir to show when I get home.
Newspapers too changed hands, and the Germans howled with laughter at ours. They assured us that France was finished and Russia nearly beaten too. We told them that was nonsense, and one of them said, “Well, you believe your newspapers and we’ll believe ours.”
Clearly they are lied to—yet after meeting these men, I wonder how truthful our own newspapers have been. These are not the “savage barbarians” we’ve read so much about. They are men with homes and families, hopes and fears, principles and, yes, love of country. In other words, men like ourselves. Why are we led to believe otherwise?
As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and then all joined in for—I am not lying to you—“Auld Lang Syne.” Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some talk of a football match.
I was just starting back to the trenches when an older German clutched my arm. “My God,” he said, “why cannot we have peace and all go home?”
I told him gently, “That you must ask your emperor.”
He looked at me then, searchingly. “Perhaps, my friend. But also we must ask our hearts.”
And so, dear sister, tell me, has there ever been such a Christmas Eve in all history? And what does it all mean, this impossible befriending of enemies?
For the fighting here, of course, it means regrettably little. Decent fellows those soldiers may be, but they follow orders and we do the same. Besides, we are here to stop their army and send it home, and never could we shirk that duty.
Still, one cannot help imagine what would happen if the spirit shown here were caught by the nations of the world. Of course, disputes must always arise. But what if our leaders were to offer well wishes in place of warnings? Songs in place of slurs? Presents in place of reprisals? Would not all war end at once?
All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.
Your Loving Brother,
Source: Australia Magazine
LONDON, England — Bertie Felstead, the last known survivor of World War 1’s legendary “Soccer Truce,” has died in England, aged 106.
The brief truce on Christmas Day 1914, when British and German soldiers emerged from their trenches on the Western Front and played football together in no-man’s land, became one of the abiding images of the “war to end all wars.”
Felstead was one of the infantrymen who took part in the unofficial ceasefire, exchanging cigarettes and greetings with men who only a few hours before had been trying to kill him.
“The Germans started it,” Mr. Felstead recalled. “They just came out of their trenches and walked over to us. “Nobody decided for us — we just climbed over our parapet and went over to them. We thought nobody would shoot at us if we all mingled together.”
Born in Highgate, London, on October 28, 1894, Mr. Felstead joined the Royal Welch Fusilliers at the outbreak of World War 1. He was spending his first Christmas on the Western Front, in a trench near the northern French village of Laventie, when the famous truce took place, one of several that were reported between British and German troops at that time.
Although it lasted for less than an hour, it became the defining event of his life.
In an interview two years ago he recalled how the previous night, Christmas Eve, he and his comrades had heard the German soldiers singing carols less than 100 yards away. The British soldiers had responded with carols of their own. “You couldn’t hear each other sing like that without it affecting your feelings for the other side,” he said.
On Christmas Day “all the soldiers were shouting to one another: ‘Hello Tommy! Hello Fritz!’ And we gradually got to know each other this way.” After they had emerged from their trenches and greeted each other a ball was produced and they all played football in the snow.
“It wasn’t a game as such,” remembered Felstead. “More a kick-around and a free-for-all. “There could have been fifty on each side for all I know.”
The impromptu armistice came to an abrupt end when an irate British officer ordered the soldiers back to their trenches. Within a matter of hours the two sides were firing at each other again.
Felstead was subsequently wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. After recovering he was posted to Salonika in Greece before eventually being returned home with acute malaria.
After the war he worked as a civil servant with the Royal Air Force, and later with the General Electric Company. His wife of 65 years, Alice, died in 1983.
He is survived by two children, five grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. In 1997 he was included in the book “Centurions” about the most culturally influential people of the 20th Century.
“He lived a very good, full and active life,” said his daughter Barbara McIntosh, 73. “He will be sorely missed.”
The Associated Press
|I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world.For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.–Wilfred Owen, 1918.
Recreates the temporary cessation of hostilities in the trenches of the Western Front in December 1914, including the famous football match between the British and German troops,and the repercussions among the generals.
Several first-hand accounts from both sides are recorded on this site: HELLFIRE CORNER – The Christmas Truce- 1914.
Captain Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards, in his famous account, remembered the approach of four unarmed Germans at 08.30. He went out to meet them with one of his ensigns. ‘Their spokesmen,’ Hulse wrote, ‘started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce. He came from Suffolk where he had left his best girl and a 3 ½ h.p. motor-bike!’
Having raced off to file a report at headquarters, Hulse returned at 10.00 to find crowds of British soldiers and Germans out together chatting and larking about in no-man’s land, in direct contradiction to his orders.
Not that Hulse seemed to care about the fraternisation in itself – the need to be seen to follow orders was his concern. Thus he sought out a German officer and arranged for both sides to return to their lines.
While this was going on he still managed to keep his ears and eyes open to the fantastic events that were unfolding.
‘Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc. One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette; the German said, “Virginian?” Our fellow said, “Aye, straight-cut”, the German said “No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!”… It gave us all a good laugh.’
Hulse’s account was in part a letter to his mother, who in turn sent it on to the newspapers for publication, as was the custom at the time. Tragically, Hulse was killed in March 1915.
On many parts of the line the Christmas Day truce was initiated through sadder means. Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man’s land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and give them a decent burial. Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another.
The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy. After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began.
On Boxing Day Captain Stockwell of the Welsh Fusiliers had three shots fired into the air, posted a sign reading ‘Merry Christmas’ and climbed atop of his parapet. The Germans quickly displayed a sign saying ‘Thank You’ and their company commander stood proudly on his own parapet. The two officers faced each other bowed, saluted and then descended into their own trenches. The German captain then fired two shots into the air. The war recommenced.
Written in the trenches by Private Frederick W. Heath
The night closed in early – the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches two hundred yards away. Fires in the English lines had died down, and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers’ Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.
Memory in her shrine kept us in a trance of saddened silence. Back somewhere in England, the fires were burning in cosy rooms; in fancy I heard laughter and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve. With overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost, I leaned against the side of the trench, and, looking through my loophole, fixed weary eyes on the German trenches. Thoughts surged madly in my mind; but they had no sequence, no cohesion. Mostly they were of home as I had known it through the years that had brought me to this. I asked myself why I was in the trenches in misery at all, when I might have been in England warm and prosperous. That involuntary question was quickly answered. For is there not a multitude of houses in England, and has not someone to keep them intact? I thought of a shattered cottage in — , and felt glad that I was in the trenches. That cottage was once somebody’s home.
Still looking and dreaming, my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. A light in the enemy’s trenches was so rare at that hour that I passed a message down the line. I had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice. there was no mistaking that voice with its guttural ring. With ears strained, I listened, and then, 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!”
Following that salute boomed the invitation from those harsh voices: “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, except for down on our right, where the French artillery were at work.
Came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink. Under the early light we saw our foes moving recklessly about on top of their trenches. Here, indeed, was courage; no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty. But did we shoot? Not likely! We stood up ourselves and called benisons on the Germans. Then came the invitation to fall out of the trenches and meet half way.
Still cautious we hung back. Not so the others. They ran forward in little groups, with hands held up above their heads, asking us to do the same. Not for long could such an appeal be resisted – beside, was not the courage up to now all on one side? Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.
The Gift of Gifts
Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers (and no one is quite so simple as a soldier) that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans’ eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends for ever. Given a sufficient quantity of Christmas puddings, every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered.
And so we stayed together for a while and talked, even though all the time there was a strained feeling of suspicion which rather spoilt this Christmas armistice. We could not help remembering that we were enemies, even though we had shaken hands. We dare not advance too near their trenches lest we saw too much, nor could the Germans come beyond the barbed wire which lay before ours. After we had chatted, we turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.
All through the day no shot was fired, and all we did was talk to each other and make confessions which, perhaps, were truer at that curious moment than in the normal times of war. How far this unofficial truce extended along the lines I do not know, but I do know that what I have written here applies to the — on our side and the 158th German Brigade, composed of Westphalians.
As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely. Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery. So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.
NOTE TO OTHER PUBLISHERS: This work is out of copyright but if you do reprint it please credit the hard-working volunteer – Marian Robson – who found and transcribed it.
The truce began on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, most notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols.
The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were calls for visits across the “No Man’s Land” where small gifts were exchanged — whisky, jam, cigars, chocolate, and the like. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Proper burials took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral in No Man’s Land, soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from the 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
The truce spread to other areas of the lines, and there are many stories of football matches between the opposing forces. The film Joyeux Noël suggests that letters sent home from both British and German soldiers related that the score was 3-2 in favour of the Germans.
I made this video after hearing Mike Harding’s song played on the radio in December 2007. The whole video was done in a few hours and uploaded the same night. Not so much a rush job – I just needed to get it done because I felt increasingly upset at looking into the faces of the lads from both sides, many who will have died soon thereafter.
Here is a link to Mike Harding’s website where you can find details of the CD Plutonium Alley, the album from which this song is taken. A better quality remastered version is available:
My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys!” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
“He’s singing bloody well, you know!” my partner says to me
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was “Stille Nacht.” “Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
“There’s someone coming toward us!” the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ’em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I’ve learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.
Christmas truce was a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, during the World War I. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides – as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units – independently ventured into “no man’s land“, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another.
The truce is seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of modern history. It was not ubiquitous, however; in some regions of the front, fighting continued throughout the day, while in others, little more than an arrangement to recover bodies was made. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting such fraternisation. In 1916, after the unprecedentedly bloody battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the beginning of widespread poison gas use, soldiers on both sides increasingly viewed the other side as less than human, and no more Christmas truces were sought.
In the early months of immobile trench warfare, the truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a growing mood of “live and let live“, where infantry units in close proximity to each other would stop overtly aggressive behaviour, and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there would be occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades, while in others, there would be a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised, or worked in full view of the enemy. The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation – even in very peaceful sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable.
Though there was no official truce, about 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The first truce started on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium.
The Germans began by placing 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 and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. Theartillery in the region fell silent that night. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. The fraternisation was not, however, without its risks; some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year’s Day in others.
Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, wrote: “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.”
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, was irate when he heard what was happening, and issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops.
The soldiers sang Christmas carols before leaving their trenches to play a match in sub-zero temperatures in no-man’s land near Armentieres, France.
The truce began when German soldiers started to sing Christmas carols.
British troops responded and gradually both sets of soldiers moved out of their trenches and met in no-man’s land.
After exchanging stories and gifts, several games of football broke out.
The only result recorded was a 3-2 victory by the Germans, quoted in soldiers’ letters from both sides.
On some parts of the front hostilities were officially resumed on Boxing Day at 0830 – ceremonial pistol shots marking the occasion.
In other areas non-aggressive behaviour lasted for days and, in some cases, weeks.
Military historian Andrew Robertshaw says such a truce would have been unthinkable a year later.
He said: “This was before the poisoned gas, before aerial bombardment.
“By the end of 1915 both sides were far too bitter for this to happen again.”
In reality, despite the efforts by the higher command on both sides of no man’s line to eliminate fraterniztion at subsequent Christmases, very localized truces occurred throughout the war — although they never rose to the level of the 1914 truce. Some regiments have been shown to have been involved in Christmas truces every year until 1917.
The Truce received some media coverage as well. In England, reports of the Truce hit the papers a week after and expressed the joy and worry soldiers had during it. The German paper criticized those troops who took part in the Truce. However, in France there was almost no reports of it. But the story of the Truce spread through each military and there was several attempts to make the Truce an annual event. However, that would never come to be. The British and German military leaders planned artillery barrages and attacks on Christmas Eve and Day for the remainder of the war. Yet, recent research has shown that one more Truce may have happened in 1916. This time German and Canadian troops revived the practice of Christmas on the battlefield. Unfortunately for historians the only record of this comes from a soldier who was killed several days after the Truce ended. So the war would then continue on as planned and the Christmas Truce would become somehow forgotten amongst battles, casualties and legends of World War I.
There is no doubt that the propaganda of both sides influenced the soldiers’ attitude toward their enemies. On both sides, the offer of truce was refused. The reason for the refusal was their beliefs in the other’s guilt and in their just cause. A lieutenant from the German “Landwehr” wrote in a letter that
“ such a proposal in the past would have been accepted with pleasure, but at the present time, when we have clearly recognized England’s real character, we refuse to any such agreement. Also we do not doubt that you are men of honor, yet every feeling of ours revolts against any friendly intercourse towards the subjects of a nation which for years has, in underhand ways sought the friendship of all other nations, so that with their help annihilate us, a nation also which, while professing Christianity, is not ashamed to use dum-dum bullets; and whose greatest pleasure would be to see the political disappearance and social eclipse of Germany.[…] But all the same you are Englishmen, whose annihilate we consider as our most sacred duty. We therefore request you to take such action as will prevent your mercenaries, whom you call soldiers, from approaching our trenches in future.”
Neither did the German philosophy student soldier Karl Aldag change his opinion about his English opponents. Although he had a great Christmas with his comrades in the trenches and a truce on New Year’s Eve to bury the dead, he noted that English soldiers were ”only mercenaries.”
Similar feelings existed on the other side of the trenches. Captain Billy Congreve from the 3rd division noticed that the Germans did try to make a truce for Christmas.
“We have issued strict orders to the men not to on any account allow a truce, as we have heard rumours that they will probably try to. The Germans did. They came over towards us singing. So we opened rapid fire on them, which is the only truce they deserve.”
Bruce Bairnsfather described the Germans he met during the truce as “unimaginative products of perverted kulture” and as “these devils, […], all wanted to be friendly; but none of them possessed the open, frank geniality of our men.” In his diary he labeled the Germans mostly as Huns.
The infantry Captain J.D.M. Beckett portrayed Germans as “very simple-minded creatures, and were much elated over alleged victories in Russia.” In his letter which Beckett wrote about the meeting with the Germans he described them as arrogant and self-confident.
The Westminster Rifleman P.H. Jones wrote in his letter that, when the Germans came over toward their trenches, “this was all very well, but we had heard so many yarns about German treachery that we kept a very sharp look-out.” The British lieutenant of the Cameronians emphasizes that trickery by the Germans was a common fear. He was warned not to allow the Germans to come too close to their trenches. Because the Germans did nothing without purpose, they feared the Germans would inspect the British trenches.
Captain Sir Edward Hamilton from the Scots Guards wrote to his mother on December 28 1914 about his experiences of the truce. Although this letter shows a great understanding of each other – one German soldier gave him a letter for his English girl – both sides still stuck in their old patterns.
“They think that our Press is to blame in working up feelings against them by publishing false “atrocity reports.” I told them of various sweet little cases which I have seen myself, and they told me of English prisoners whom put they have seen with soft-nosed bullets, and lead bullets with notches cut in the nose; we had a heated, and at the same time good-natured argument, and ended by hinting to each other that the other was lying.”
Interestingly, Hamilton (picture on the right) reports no kind of hatred or mistrust of each other. They exchanged what they had heard about the each other. Stories and reports they had read or heard about the other’s illegal warfare were discussed. He believed the German soldiers when they told him that they were tired of fighting.
Furthermore, this quote shows quite impressively that both sides trusted each other. Otherwise a conversation like this reported one would not be possible. People who hate their enemies or at least mistrust them will not discuss the propaganda stories they have heard. In the following sections of this letter, it becomes clear that both sides still went on with their fraternizations, and there is no kind of mistrust visible.
Although it seems that Hamilton trusted the Germans, he called them in his diary, as Bairnsfather did, Huns, which means that a small part of the propaganda still worked. In opposition to Bairnsfather, who uses the word Huns with a clear negative connotation, Hamilton uses this world only as different word for Germans. The way Hamilton uses the description Huns is neutral and not an expression of mistrust and disdain against the Germans.
Other soldiers like an officer from the Westminster Rifles, started thinking about the way the Germans were presented in the British press. In his letter, which was published first in The Daily News on December 30 and one day later in the New York Times, the officer described his impression of the truce with the Germans.
“The Germans opposite us were awfully decent fellows – Saxons, intelligent, respectable-looking men. I had a quite decent talk with three or four have two names and addresses in my notebook. […] After our talk I really think a lot of our newspaper reports must be horribly exaggerated.”
Build up to the truce
Under strong French pressure to take the initiative, the army was ordered into a series of small piecemeal attacks that proved to be very costly. An example is the attack of 8th Brigade at Wytschaete on 14 December 1914. Cut down by rifle and machine gun fire and unable to enter enemy trenches, the attacking units left many casualties lying in no man’s land and on the enemy barbed wire defences.
|5 December 1914|
|II Corps HQ [General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien] issued an instruction to commanders of all Divisions: “It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of troops exists. Experience of this and of every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a “live and let live” theory of life…officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises…the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy…such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks…the Corps Commander therefore directs Divisional Commanders to impress on subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit…friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited”|
|The early weeks of December 1914|
|Tremendous volumes of mail and gifts for the troops were sent from homes in the United Kingdom and Germany. King George V sent a Christmas card to every soldier, sailor and nurse; the Princess Mary fund despatched a gift box to every serving soldier.|
|14 December 1914|
|An attack of 8th Brigade at Wytschaete on 14 December 1914 fails with heavy casualties.|
|18 December 1914|
|An attack by 22nd Brigade [2nd Queen’s and 2nd Royal Warwickshire] on the Well Farm position at La Boutillerie fails with heavy casualties. A further effort [by 20th Brigade; 2nd Scots Guards and 2nd Border] later in the day also fails.|
|19 December 1914|
|An attack by 11th Brigade [1st Somerset Light Infantry, 1st Hampshire and 1st Rifle Brigade] on the “German Birdcage” east of Ploegsteert Wood fails with heavy casualties, many of which are caused by British heavy artillery firing short of target.|
|20 December 1914|
|Local truce on the front of 22nd Brigade; Germans begin by taking in British wounded from no man’s land. There is some contact: according to Lt G. Heinekey of 2nd Queen’s, it lasted all morning. Lt Henry Bower, 1st South Staffordshire and at least one soldier of the 2nd Queen’s were killed by rifle fire from neighbouring units while assisting with the wounded. A similar activity took place on the front of 20th Brigade.|
|23 December 1914|
|A German soldier, Karl Aldag, reports that both sides had been heard singing hymns in the trenches. German troops coming into the lines bring Christmas trees. Some men begin to place them on the parapets of the fire trenches. Local truce on the front of 23rd Brigade.|
|24 December 1914, Christmas Eve|
|The weather changes to a hard frost. This makes trench conditions a little more bearable. 98 British soldiers die on this day, many are victims of sniper fire. A German aeroplane drops a bomb on Dover: the first air raid in British history. During the afternoon and early evening, British infantry are astonished to see many Christmas trees with candles and paper lanterns, on enemy parapets. There is much singing of carols, hymns and popular songs, and a gradual exchange of communication and even meetings in some areas. Many of these meetings are to arrange collection of bodies. In other places, firing continues. Battalion officers are uncertain how to react; in general they maintain precautions. The night brings a clear, still air with a hard frost.|
British and German troops fraternise at Christmas 1914
|25 December 1914, Christmas Day|
Men of 20th Brigade bury their dead of the attack of 18 December, alongside German soldiers engaged in the same activity. Christmas Day, 1914.
|Units behind the lines attend church services and have in most cases arranged Christmas dinners which are taken in barns and shattered buildings. In the front lines, the fraternisation of Christmas Eve is continued throughout the day; not all units know about it, and it is not universal but is widespread over at least half of the British front. Many bodies that have been lying out in no man’s land are buried, some in joint burials. Many men record the strange and wonderful events; may men exchange tokens or addresses with German soldiers, many of whom speak English. 81 British soldiers die on this day; a few die in areas that are otherwise peaceful and with fraternisation going on, victims of alert snipers. In other areas, there is considerable activity: 2nd Grenadier Guards suffer losses in a day of heavy fighting. As night fell, things grew quiet as men fell back to their trenches to take whatever Christmas meal that had been provided for them.|
|26 December 1914, Boxing Day|
British and German troops meet in no man’s land. Boxing Day, 1914. Photographed by 2nd Lt Cyril Drummand, RFA.
|Some snow. In some areas, the friendly spirit was resumed. Gradually however, officers and men on both sides began to resume normal trench caution. The atmosphere in general remained relaxed as Brigade and Battalion officers took a pragmatic view of events. The chance was taken to carry out work that would otherwise have been hazardous. By now, however, news of the truce was reaching higher commands. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien requested particulars of those units and officers who took part, with a view to disciplinary action. In the event, no action was taken against any unit or officer. 62 British soldiers die on this day.|
|27-31 December 1914|
|The weather turns wet again, with rain, sleet and storms. There were instances of men disappearing in the flooded trenches. Yet in some areas the friendly mood remained for several days and there was almost no firing, although open fraternisation gradually died away. On New Years Eve, there was a certain amount of singing and exchange of messages, but no truce as such.|
List of British units which took part in the truce
|5th Division on Wulverghem – Messines road and in the River Douve valley|
|14th Brigade||1st Devonshire|
|1st East Surrey|
|15th Brigade||1/6th Cheshire|
|4th Division in front of Ploegsteert Wood|
|10th Brigade||1st Royal Warwickshire|
|2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers|
|2nd Seaforth Highlanders|
|1st Royal Irish Fusiliers|
|11th Brigade||1st Hampshire|
|1st Rifle Brigade|
|1st East Lancashire|
|1/5th London (London Rifle Brigade)|
|12th Brigade||2nd Lancashire Fusiliers|
|XXXIII Bde RFA||135 Battery RFA|
|31 Heavy Battery RGA|
|6th Division at Frelinghien and Houplines|
|16th Brigade||1st Leicestershire|
|1st Buffs (East Kent)|
|17th Brigade||2nd Leinster|
|3rd Rifle Brigade|
|1/16th London (Queen’s Westminster Rifles)|
|1st North Staffordshire|
|19th Brigade||2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers|
|2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders|
|1/5th Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)|
|XXXVIII Bde RFA||24 Battery RFA|
|XIII (H) Bde RFA||87 Battery RFA|
|7th Division at Bois Grenier, La Boutillerie and on the Fromelles road|
|20th Brigade||2nd Border|
|2nd Gordon Highlanders|
|1/6th Gordon Highlanders|
|2nd Scots Guards|
|21st Brigade||2nd Wiltshire|
|22nd Brigade||2nd Queen’s (Royal West Surrey)|
|1/8th Royal Scots|
|XXIII Bde RFA||104 Battery RFA|
|XIV Bde RFA||F and T Batteries RHA|
|III Heavy Bde RGA||111 and 112 Batteries RGA|
|A and B Squadrons, the Northumberland Hussars|
|8th Division at Picantin, Fauquissart and Neuve Chapelle|
|23rd Brigade||2nd Devonshire|
|2nd Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)|
|24th Brigade||2nd East Lancashire|
|25th Brigade||1/13th London (Kensington)|
|1st Royal Irish Rifles > War diary from Christmas 1914|
|XLV Bde RFA||5 Battery RFA|
|2 Field Company, the Royal Engineers|
|Meerut Division at Richebourg l’Avoué|
|Gharwal Brigade||1/39 Gharwal Rifles|
|2/39 Gharwal Rifles|
Note: those units that were under command of the Divisions and Brigades shown but do not appear in the table did not take part in fraternisation, often because they were in billets and out of the front line at the time. The list has been compiled by reference to war diaries, soldiers letters, reports, etc.
List of German units which took part in the truce
|6th Bavarian Reserve Division, facing Kemmel|
|12th Bavarian Reserve Brigade Brigade||17th Bavarian Reserve Regiment|
|40th Division, facing Wulverghem and Ploegsteert Wood and at Frelinghien|
|48th Brigade||10th Infantry Regiment|
|88th Brigade||104th Infantry Regiment|
|6th Jaeger Battalion|
|89th Brigade||133rd Infantry Regiment Saxon|
|134th Infantry Regiment|
|24th Division, on the Armentieres-Lille railway|
|47th Brigade||179th Infantry Regiment|
|48th Brigade||107th Infantry Regiment|
|13th Division, at Fromelles and on Rue des Bois Blancs|
|25th Brigade||158th Infantry Regiment|
|13th Infantry Regiment|
|11th Jaeger Battalion|
|26th Brigade||55th Infantry Regiment|
|15th Infantry Regiment|
|14th Division, at Aubers and Festubert|
|27th Brigade||16th Infantry Regiment (3rd Westphalian)|
Myths and legends about the Christmas truce
The Pope calls for peace at Christmas
In early December 1914 Pope Benedict XV began an initiative, requesting that the nations “cease the clang of arms while Christendom celebrates the Feast of the World’s Redemption”. Germany said it would do so as long as the other nations did; they did not, and the Pope’s effort faltered. It is doubtful whether it had any meaningful impact on what eventually happened.
Football in no man’s land
It is by no means certain that this took place, although many men report that it happened to a neighbouring unit. Mention appears in the war diary of the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment. A common theme is a score of 3-2 to the Germans.
British senior officer casualties 18 to 31 December 1914
18 December 1914: Major (Temp. Lt-Col) Robert Brewis, 2nd Royal Warwickshire. Killed during attack at La Boutillerie. Buried in Sailly-sur-la-Lys Churchyard. A veteran of the Sudan.
23 December 1914: Lt-Col Henry Lempriere DSO, 7th Dragoon Guards. Has no known grave; commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Le Touret.
29 December 1914: Lt-Col Reginald Alexander, 3rd Rifle Brigade. Died of wounds; buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery.
The truce took part over a wide area of the British front. This is part of it: the field on the left is near Ploegsteert and is where the units of 10th Brigade met their enemy.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 The Long, Long Trail n.d., accessed 12/24/2011
December 15, 2011
‘Operation Silent Night’ tells of another Christmas miracle Fayette Tribune 12/15/2011
Peace on the Western Front, Goodwill in No Man’s Land — The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce Past Imperfect (Smithsonian blog) 12/23/2011
Claudia Becker, Erster Weltkrieg.Als Briten und Deutsche Weihnachtsfrieden schlossen Die Welt 23.12.2011
Damien Fletcher, Carol Ann Duffy’s moving tale of World War Christmas truce Daily Mirror 23/12/2011
Gary Kohls, The Christmas Truce of 1914 Consortuium News 12/16/2011
Michael Omer-Man, This Week in History: The Christmas Truce of 1914 Jerusalem Post 12/18/2011
Spitalfieldslife.com, 11th December, Christmas Truce My Tower Hamlets 12/11/2011