The sun rose on Christmas Day, 1914, to a melancholy sight along the Western Front. The rain had been coming down hard all month, and the trenches, the natural path of least resistance for the runoff, had gradually grown soggier and soggier. By now, the water was up to the men’s waists in some places. The damp made the already melancholy soldiers look downright bedraggled. This was the Christmas by which the war had been expected to be over, and many of the volunteers had counted on spending it at home with their families; but here they all were. Suddenly, the British soldiers pricked up their ears. Singing! The carols they remembered from happier days back in ‘Blighty’, sung to the same tune, but in German tongue. Without stopping to think why, one after another the soldiers first began to hum along, then finally raised their voices to join the enemy troops in song.
The famous Christmas Truce has just been recreated for a Sainsbury's advertisement, which shows a young British Tommy bonding with a German lad of about his own age during the brief spell of peace, attempting to communicate how much he misses his family, and finally slipping a gift of chocolate into his pocket. That chocolate bar is going on sale for £1 in stores, with all proceeds going to the Royal British Legion. Forces War Records staff got the chance to see the finished advert a week early, as we were asked to verify its accuracy. It got the thumbs up from our team, as the supermarket had clearly done its research. The trenches might be too clean, and rather too advanced for that stage in the war, but the uniforms and insignia are all authentic. It’s nice, in this Great War Centenary year, to see them putting out a Christmas message that stands for something.
Although High Command on both sides received the news of what had occurred that day with horror, many of the troops involved look back in awe on the spontaneous outbreak of peace as something of a Christmas miracle. After all, as Corporal John Ferguson of the 5th Seaforth Highlanders explains in Mark Adkin’s ‘The Western Front Companion’, “Here we were, laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours earlier we were trying to kill.” In the advert it was the British side that appealed to the Germans for a truce, but history tells us that, in most cases, it was the other way round. For example, in ‘Twenty Years After: the Battlefields of 1914-18, Then and Now’ edited by Major General Sir Ernest Swinton, a Royal Field Artillery officer notes that the Germans started carolling, the British cheered, then the Germans yelled, “You English, why don’t you come out?” in response. Soon, there were fires and candles burning all along the parapets of the trenches as the warring troops emerged to meet each other and pose for photos together.
This was far from an isolated instance of peace. Officers and men of the Northumberland Hussars in Armentières met Germans in No Man’s Land, with both sides using the opportunity to bury their dead. The North Staffordshire Regiment, too, ventured out to mix with their German foes, as did the Queen’s Westminster Regiment, and a Private Jones later recalled, “Altogether we had a great day with our enemies, and parted with much hand-shaking and goodwill.” A British medical officer wrote to The Times, describing how the British had lost a football match to a Saxon regiment 2-3. Whether this was the same match described in ‘Twenty Years After’ is not clear, but it is recorded in that volume that one Scottish regiment that participated in a kick-about with the Germans boasted ex-players from Clydebank and Partick Thistle football clubs, and that certain of their opponents had taken part in a match in Glasgow with VfB Leipzig. As well as joining together for sing-songs and games, the two sides exchanged gifts and food, threw parties, cooked meals in No Man’s Land and invited their enemies in to view their home trenches. In fact, one German regiment took so naturally to the truce that they cheerfully suggested to the two Irish battalions they were facing that the cease-fire be extended for another day!
According to ‘The Great War Companion’, humourist and cartoonish Bruce Bairnsfather, who served with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, wrote later in his book ‘Bullets & Billets’: “I wouldn’t have missed this unique and weird Christmas Day for anything… I spotted a German officer… I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to 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.”
Another touching demonstration of fraternity between enemies is described in ‘Twenty Years After’. The book describes how a British chaplain gave a German commander a copy of ‘The Soldier’s Prayer’ as a gift, and received in return a cigar and a message to pass to the family of a British Officer that the commander had stumbled upon in previous days whilst mortally wounded. The dying man appeared to be trying to reach something in his pocket, so the German stooped to help him, and realised he was grasping for a picture of his wife. The commander, moved, held the picture out for the man to see, and the officer’s eyes lingered hungrily on the image in the last minutes before his life ebbed away. The commander simply said, “Tell her he died like that.”
Of course, the peace couldn’t last. Some incidents of meet-ups are recorded on Boxing Day, but both High Commands forbade further fraternisation when they heard about what had been going on, with a German Army Order on 29th December making such attempts to communicate with the enemy punishable as treason. Many regiments pre-agreed signals for the end of the interactions, such as shots fired in the air or the chiming of a particular hour. In some tragic cases it was not so easy to resume the fight. A Colonel Hutchinson describes in ‘Twenty Years After’ how, after the Germans who had been met on his front ignored the agreed hour of recommencement of battle, not to mention two warnings to take cover, a subaltern was sent over to them with a jam-pot bomb, which was thrown among them to give them a scare. A German was wounded in the leg, and tragically the young subaltern was shot through the head in retaliation.
Still, for decades to come men from both sides would cherish pictures, both in their hands and in their minds, of German and British soldiers with their arms around each other, hats and caps swapped, smiling and laughing together. As Private William Tapp of the Warwickshire Regiment put it in ‘The Great War Companion’, “It doesn’t seem right killing each other at Christmas time.” The memories reminded the soldiers that the real dispute was at governmental level, and the ordinary men were just pawns in a dangerous game. Hating the enemy did nobody any good.
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