Christmas Truce, December 1914
The British soldiers first saw the lights along German trenches on that Christmas Eve in 1914. Then they heard the music and the songs. Although they might not have known the German language, they recognised the “Silent Night” and responded by singing carols in English that crossed the few hundred feet of No-Man’s Land dividing the two enemies.
And on Christmas Day the British troops learned the flickering lights they’d seen the previous night were burning candles on fir trees. Before long, the two groups of soldiers were exchanging holiday greetings, cigarettes, food and gifts. They collected and burried the dead, they were introduced to each other, took photographs and in one place they even played a football match.
A Christmas truce had broken out.
The term ‘Christmas Truce‘ refers not to a single event but rather to a number of spontaneous expressions of comradeship between the front line soldiers of both sides in December 1914.
This spontaneous truce, which was initiated and apparently confined to the more friendly German units made up by Saxons; which occurred in several and not a sigle place; and was arguably influenced by the proximity of the fighting forces and the uncomfortableness of the trenches; was definitely frowned upon by the higher authorities. Horrified by the news of fraternisation , the leadership on both sides issued orders of condemning and forbidding such tendencies, threatening direct penalties. Such acts were not repeated in subsequent Christmases.
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The caption of the above photograph, from The Illustrated War News, January 20th 1915, reads:
“A SCENE OF FRATERNISATION : BY ONE OF OUR TRENCHES
Much publicity has been given to the fraternising, at Christmas-time of British officers and men and German officers and men facing one another in the trenches: the German authorities are said to have issued strong orders against such friendliness between enemies. In a letter accompanying our photographs, a private of the London Rifle Brigade writes, from the Ypres-Armentieres neighborhood : “No. … Company went into the breastworks (which have, in most places, round here superseded the flooded reserve trenches) on Wednesday night. Soon after dusk on the 24th the Germans put up lanterns on the top of their trenches and started singing; and their shooting practically ceased. Firing ceased on both sides, and both Germans and English ventured out on the top of their trenches. After daybreak on Christmas Day small parties on both sides ventured out in front of their trenches, all unarmed, and we heard that a German officer came over and promised that they would not fire if we did not.
Apparently during the morning small parties of Germans and English fraternised between the trenches, and when … and I and some of our pals strolled up from the reserve trenches after dinner, we found a crowd of some hundred Tommies of each nationality holding a regular mother’s meeting between the trenches. We found our enemies to be Saxons.
One of the Germans had been a waiter at the Savoy; and another a West-End barber’s assistant. Talk and souvenirs were exchanged. There are those who did not appreciate this cessation of hostilities, even on Christmas Day !”
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The caption below the above illustration, from The Ilustrated London News, January 9, 1915, reads:
“BRITISH AND GERMAN SOLDIERS ARM-IN-ARM AND EXCHANGING HEADGEAR: A CHRISTMAS TRUCE BETWEEN OPPOSING TRENCHES. (Drawn by A. C. MICHAEL)
SAXONS AND ANGLO-SAXONS FRATERNISING ON THE FIELD OF BATTLE AT THE SEASON OF PEACE AND GOODWILL: OFFICERS AND MEN FROM THE GERMAN AND BRITISH TRENCHES MEET AND GREET ONE ANOTHER – A GERMAN OFFICER PHOTOGRAPHING A GROUP OF FOES AND FRIENDS.
The spirit of Christmas made itself felt in at least one section of the trenches at the front, where British and German soldiers fraternised, and for a brief while, during an informal and spontaneous truce, there was “peace on earth and goodwill towards men” among those who a few hours before had been seeking each other’s blood, and where bound to do so again after the truce was over. The part of the British lines where these incongruous scenes occurred, was, it is said, at a point where the enemy’s trenches, only about eighty yards away, were occupied by a Saxon regiment. Further along the line, where Prussian troops were said to be stationed, there was a certain amount of fighting. It was apparently towards the British left that the friendly truce was observed, while officers and men from both sides left their trenches and met in No Man’s Land between, where, as a rule, no man dares to show so much as the top of his head. British and Germans met and shook hands, exchanged cigars and cigarettes, newspapers and addresses, and wished each other the compliments of the season, conversing as far as possible with the aid, as interpreter, of a German soldier who had lived in America. A group of British and German soldiers, arm-in-arm, some of whom had exchanged head-gear, were photographed by a German officer. The figure on the extreme left in our drawing, for instance, is a German soldier in a British service-cap, while the fourth figure from the left is a British soldier in his goat-skin coat wearing a Pickelhaube, or German helmet. Some of the British, it is said visited the German trenches and an Anglo-German football match was even played. The dead who lay in front of the trenches were buried, and a party of German brought back they body of a British officer.”
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The Imperial War Museum London will commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Armistice (11 November 1918) with a major exhibition during the next year (September 2008 to March 2009).
According to the museum’s website, In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War will focus on the individual experiences of men, women and children: the front line soldier, sailor and airman; the munitions worker and the nurse; the prisoner-of-war and the internee; the artist and the writer; the disabled and the shell shocked; the widow and the orphan. Their stories will be told through personal objects ranging from a bierstein which was presented to the British captain of a winning football team in the Christmas Truce of 1914 to a rosebud from a wreath which lay on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in 1920.