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One Hundred Years Ago Today, The Christmas Truce of 1914

The Christmas Truce is easily one of the more misunderstood occurrence of World War I. It is quite a popular theme to bring up as an example of man’s common humanity bridging the gap during war, and the subject of notable popular portrayals, such as the recent Sainsbury’s ad, or the 2006 movie “Joyeux Noel”. But despite this, actual scholarship regarding the truce is surprisingly sparse, and notable controversies surround the event in academic circles. 

Contrary to the popular impression, the Christmas Truce was not a universal occurrence on the front, and if anything, the popular image of foes cavorting in “No Man’s Land”, and even playing soccer, are to be chalked up as the exception, rather than the rule. The Truce was a rather spontaneous act, certainly with no pre-planning from higher up, and as such, some units were eager to put aside the fighting for a day, while others were not. The French and Belgians, perhaps to be expected, were generally not eager to fraternize with the enemy (the French Foreign Legion specifically, less so), while it was more wide-spread in British sectors (but certainly not all of them). It happened on the Eastern Front as well (even though Orthodox Christmas was later), and apparently only the Serbs showed zero interest in paling with the enemy for a few hours, as there are no accounts of any sort of ceasefire occurring in the region.

Arrangements for the Truce came about rather informally. In the case of The Scots Guards, they reported that a scout went out late on Christmas Eve and met a German patrol, where they traded a few goodies, and agreed to a ceasefire for the morning. And however it started, almost every account reports that it was the Germans who pushed for the Truce, some apparently through the singing of carols on the night of the 24th that is almost always used in media portrayals - even singing competitions. Major John Hawksley, in the southern part of the Ypres Salient, wrote home that:

[Both sides] sang in English Home sweet home together. Then God save the King was sung by both. I don’t know what words the Germans sang to this tune. Then late on a German shouted out to the Warwicks – ‘We won’t fire tomorrow if tomorrow if you don’t’. Our men shouted back ‘All right’.”

In other cases however, contact was much less emotional, with just a white flag in the morning leading to a meeting to establish the truce.

Often, the time was used for nothing more than to bury the dead who had been sitting in No-Man’s-Land, as well as the Germans returning a number of dead who attacked a few day’s prior, at least in the section of the Scots Guards. Joint prayer sessions are attested to by the Scots as well, as well as the trading of small goodies and paraphernalia, such as food or badges. But often, whatever Truce existed was little more than an informal understanding to hold fire. Interactions between the two sides in No Man’s Land often lasted no more than 30 minutes or so, rather than an all day affair.

The football games are by far the most famed occurrence, but they were at best informal (In his work on the War, Martin Gilbert notes "a football was kicked around"), and real, proper, verified accounts are very few, so how many games actually happened is up in the air (In the recent Sainsbury’s ad, Taff Gillingham, the historical adviser, wrote afterwards that he had to press hard to keep soccer from being a dominant theme of the ad). Although some of the most explicit accounts are certainly frauds, there is enough evidence to believe some games certainly happened though, but far from being a veritable World Cup up and down the front, it at best was little more than a handful of informal games, especially relative to the millions of men then manning the front. In “To End All Wars" by Hochchild, a German Lt. is quoted quite famously stating:

Teams were quickly established … and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3–2.

But in fact, this account by Johannes Niemann  of the 133rd (9th Royal Saxon)  Infantry is a recollection coming many decades after the war, in an interview from the 1960s, and is highly questionable in its details, least of all as he never mentioned it previously when speaking on the topic! Hochchild also notes that a Brit is reported to have written somewhat ambiguously:

The Germans came out … they’re good fellows on the whole and play the game.

But this can fit cleanly into the many verified reports of a *desire* for a game to happen being expressed by both sides, with no game happening, or plans for one at a later date not bearing fruit. One of the best attested to games, written of in a diary kept by an unknown ‘Tommy’ mentions a game being played, but heavily implies that it was not against the Germans, but simply among the British themselves taking advantage of the lull:

a game of football at the back of our trenches! We’ve had a few Germans over to see us this morning. They also sent a party over to bury a sniper we shot in the week. He was about a 100 yards from our trench. A few of our fellows went out and helped to bury him.

He later goes on to note that later in the day there was another brief meeting in No Man’s Land which brought about an exchange of small souvenirs, so it should be clear that had the Germans played too, this would be included! A Capt. Hamilton wrote of a challenge that was issued for a game to be played later (New Years?), noting that “A Coy were to have played the Saxon Corps, but were relieved”. In fact, there is, best as I can find, only a bare handful of games played which are corroborated by multiple, reliable sources, as there are two German accounts from the 133rd (9th Royal Saxon), the aforementioned by Lt. Niemann which mention playing a game at Frelinghien against the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on “a frozen meadow”, and a second from a letter written home by a German soldier to his mother. There is no account from the British side there, but for a second game, we have a degree of corroboration from men of the British 5th Division that they “kick[ed] a football about between the two firing lines”, and a second writer noting "we had a rare old jollification, which included football, in which the Germans took part," but just how much of an actual game was played still is up in the air. As with the 133rd’s accounts however, there is again no accounts from the other (German) side in this case.

How long the meetings lasted also varied wildly, with at least a small number of reports of it lasting for some time, and other places maybe just a half hour before officers ordered men back to the trenches. In one of the attested occurrences, which is visible in the afore mentioned Sainsbury’s ad, is a German barber giving a Brit a haircut. Against all odds, according to Hochschild, the German was his normal barber back in London. Which isn’t that hard to believe as there was a large number of Germans who had been in London prior to the outbreak of war, often employed in the service industry. Another German gave a Brit a letter to mail to his British girlfriend. In some places though, the truce ended in gunfire. In at least one area, a Scottish unit ended up shooting a German working party for an unspecified reason, bringing a premature end to the matter. In other sectors, the truce lasted through New Years, or at least a ceasefire remained in place, even if there weren’t further meetings between the lines. In the end, 41 British soldiers were reported killed on the 25th, which while low, was still higher than the numbers for eight other days in the month!

Of course, as I noted, not everyone liked it. Adolf Hitler, among others, was not a fan, and reportedly said “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor?”. In French sectors, some French units fired volleys at the Germans and sang “Marseillaise" to celebrate the occasion. On other sectors of the line, attacks were carried out on the 25th, again mostly by the French. And of course the higher-ups were not pleased. When reports showed up of what had happened, commanders quickly sent out orders to stop it from occurring again. Gen. French’s remarked “I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct” (Although Hochschild remarks that during the Boer War, French was happy to send whiskey and cigars under a flag of truce to his Boer counterpart). One account has a German soldier crossing the lines under a flag of truce following a barrage to apologize to the French soldiers of the 99th Infantry on the other side for what had happened, since while they had agreed to a ceasefire through the New Years, higher command had seen fit to “spoil” it. 

And those who weren’t in the trenches didn’t celebrate with the enemy either. The Germans made their first air attack on Britain, bombing Dover on Christmas Eve, and the British Navy attempted to return the favor, sending planes over Cuxhaven on the 25th, although the planes had to turn back, with only one bombing his “target”, which later turned out to be a fish-drying shed, rather than the Zeppelin hanger he was after. And in an interesting ‘first’, a German attempt at a second raid, this time on the 25th, resulted in the first air-to-air interception, with an RFC Gunbus successfully driving off a German FF29 as it attempted to bomb London that day.

Back at home, Socialists and other anti-war activists heralded it as the working-man seeing their common humanity. Keir Hardie wrote that it was part of the soldiers realizing "that the workers of the world are not ‘enemies’ to each other, but comrades." Most writer though don’t ascribe such high-minded principles to the matter. Such temporary cessations to hostilities can be found in many earlier conflicts, and really, this was one of the last occurrences of such matters, and unique more for being the end of it, rather than being singular. To quote Peter Hart:

There was no real desire for compromise or negotiation: the Christmas Truce was an exercise in sentimentality and nothing more.

The next year, truces were much more rare. Commanders gave very strict orders against it, and often artillery barrages were scheduled during the day to discourage any such behavior. Cpl. Pankhurst noted that "We hailed the smiling morn with five rounds fired fast, and we kept up a slow fire all day." Presumably, this kind of ruined the caroling that evening.

So in the end, what can we say for certain happened? Well, there was a Truce. At points along the front, the fighting stopped, and both sides met and interacted, but that’s about it. Professionals and reservists, they were more likely driven by their occupational bond as soldiers - the very thing making them fight - than their common humanity. And it is quite wrong to extrapolate that into a front wide occasion, as it was anything but. Given the nature of how the Truce came about it was very much compartmentalized, with the Christmas experience of any given unit varying wildly. Stories of friendly soccer games in No Man’s Land warm the heart, and ’restore faith in humanity’, but they unfortunately give a rather false impression just of what happened, as a few accounts make mention of a football, but the image of games played all over the front is as wrong as can be. Military history is filled with brief lulls such as this, of which the 1914 Truce is really just the last notable occurrence, rather than an anomaly. And as with so many previous interactions with the enemy, we can’t lose sight of the reality, that days later, these men were right back to shooting each other.

(All photos from the Imperial War Museum)

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