A British sergeant is shot dead almost at the outset, as he stands on the parapet. But this makes no difference. It must be an accident. The supreme craving of humanity, the irresistible, spontaneous impulse born of a common faith and a common fear, fully triumph.
And so the grey and khaki figures surge towards each other as one man. The movement has started on the right. It spreads like contagion. Only we officers, the sentries and a few non-commissioned officers remain in our trench. The men meet at the willow-lined stream; they even cross it and mingle together in a haphazard throng. They talk and gesticulate, and shake hands over and over again. They pat each other on the shoulder and laugh like schoolboys, and leap across the little stream for fun. And when an Englishman falls in and a Boche helps him out there is a shout of laughter that echoes back to the trenches.
The Germans exchange cigars and pieces of sausage, and sauerkraut and concentrated coffee for cigarettes and bully beef and ration biscuits and tobacco. They express mutual admiration by pointing and signs…we shout ‘Hullo, Fritz”Good Morning Fritz”Merry Christmas”Happy Christmas”How’s your father?”Come over and call”Come and have breakfast’, and the like, amid roars of laughter.
Fraternisation at Laventie, December 1915 described by Wifred Ewart 1st Battalion Scots Guards
Now we all know about the above story; well, I was certainly ‘educated’ about it at school. How German troops sang Silent Night and the Tommies responded, then the crossing of the lines into ‘No Man’s Land’ and a game of football on Christmas Day 1914. It is now an iconic part of the popular history of World War One. The only problem is, look at the date on this eye witness report; December 1915. Hang on a minute, this is a year later!
Until recently I imagined the Christmas truce of 1914 as involving at the most a hundred soldiers on each side, miraculously fraternising for one day and then returning to their dug-outs to dutifully carry on slugging it out in a brutal war of attrition. Others even doubt such an event even happened at all. These perceptions are still common – on the one hand the truce is sentimentalised as in the recent Sainsbury’s advert; on the other it is discounted as largely meaningless, if it even happened at all. Neither view takes any account of the wider context of the truce and assumes that it lasted a few hours (if at all).
The Sainsbury’s advert shows the truce as a brief interlude – not much mud in sight and remarkably well-scrubbed soldiers on both sides! The advert has provoked a response from military historian Mark Connelly. This ‘expert’ claims that the truce was limited to ‘a couple of battalions’ and amounted to nothing more than a ‘day-off’ for a few soldiers.
A consensus seems to have developed that there is little or no documentary evidence of the truce. The Guardian recently reported the ‘discovery’ of a letter from a participant as if there were few other such letters. In fact, in 1984 a book called ‘Christmas Truce‘ by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton was published which drew extensively on numerous interviews with participants, letters, diaries and regimental histories to give a full picture of events around Christmas 1914 – including plenty of photos taken at the time as well. It even quotes the letter from Major-General Cotgrave that the Guardian reports as ‘never before seen’ until this month. The authors even made a film for the BBC in 1981.
Brown and Seaton show that the 1914 Christmas truce, while not universal along the western front, did take place over at least two-thirds of the almost 30 mile stretch of the front occupied by British troops in Belgium and northern France (see diagram). Letters and diaries tell us that troops from over fifty battalions of the British army fraternised with German troops along the front. Brown and Seaton estimate that rather than a hundred troops being involved, it may have been up to a hundred thousand! Some of the German troops had spent time in England before the war and spoke English. It seems that among the extraordinary events of Christmas 1914, one British soldier even got a haircut from his pre-war German barber!
The truce began in most places on Christmas Eve, though the earliest reports suggest the first fraternisations occurred as early as 21st December, and extended almost everywhere into Boxing Day, even though most soldiers had returned to their respective trenches. There was very little fighting before New Year. In many places there was very little through January. Some places saw very little combat through February 1914. In at least one place the unofficial truce went on to the end of March – just before Easter 1915, when there were further attempts at fraternisation. Similar explicit events are also recorded in November 1915 and, as shown in the eye-witness report at the start of this article, once again at Christmas that year.
Live and Let Live
The events of Christmas 1914 formed part of a wider pattern that began in the autumn of 1914 as the German and Allied offensives ground to a bloody stalemate and went on well into 1915 and in some respects even longer. Throughout this time there were many unofficial truces and tacit agreements between troops on both sides to avoid killing each other. A number of books about World War One allude to what came to be called ‘live and let live’. This is most thoroughly documented in ‘Trench Warfare 1914-1918‘ by Tony Ashworth first published in 1980.
Ashworth explains that the common picture of the trenches as two implacably hostile front lines several hundred yards apart with an extensive area of No-man’s land between them, is by no means the full story. Although this was the case in some places, it certainly wasn’t the norm. In many places the trenches were less than 100 yards apart, even as little as 50 yards apart. In some cases 10 yards. There is even one instance of the two trenches being in the same building. The proximity of the front-line troops facilitated direct and indirect forms of communication. Away from the main set-piece battles many sections of the front-line saw little or no fighting. In these areas, usually occupied by what Ashworth calls ‘non-elite’ troops relationships built up between soldiers in the opposing trenches.
They came to understand that they had a mutual interest in keeping things as quiet as possible. If British troops could be confident that their German counterparts would reciprocate then they would avoid killing them. This resulted in informal truces, suspensions of sniping, ritualised firing of weapons (e.g. firing weapons to look like combat was underway, whilst minimising opposition casualties) and routinised firing of weapons (e.g. always firing at the same time of day – breakfast time was often commonly avoided!). Ashworth even describes how soldiers in the trenches were even able to get the help of artillery batteries in pursuing these tactics.
In these ‘egg and chips’ sectors (as the ‘Tommies’ named them), which Ashworth estimates were somewhere between a third and one half of the British-German frontline, the exchange of peace rather than the exchange of death became the norm. Of course such behaviours, which spread through the combatants on both sides, sometimes even influencing front-line officers, were certainly not officially sanctioned by the ‘brass’. In fact they were a complete anathema to military strategy on both sides which called for, outside of major offensives, a relentless war of attrition in the trenches. As Ashworth rightly points out, “Truces were usually tacit, but always unofficial and illicit”. The difference of interest ‘live and let live’ survival strategies created between the soldiers and their commanders on both sides became explicit as the war continued and led Ashworth to state:
The experience of tacit co-operation came as a reality shock to combatants. It demonstrated to each side that the other was not the implacably hostile and violent creature of the official image. The latter eroded and was replaced, as we have seen, by an indigenous definition based on common experience and situation. This deviant image stressed similarities rather than differences between combatants. The institutionally prescribed and dichotomous WE and THEY dissolved. The WE now included the enemy as the fellow sufferer. The THEY became the staff.
Faced with the widespread phenomenon of ‘live and let live’ military commanders adopted a number of strategies to build what they called ‘offensive spirit’ among their troops. Night patrols in No-Man’s land were introduced, although at times these were carried out in the least-threatening manner by both sides. Warfare was bureaucratised, with frontline officers having to make written reports to HQ every few hours on what they had achieved in the ‘war of attrition’, though these accounts were often falsified or purposely exaggerated. The ‘brass’ even produced a pamphlet for officers called “Am I offensive enough?” which was propaganda explicitly designed to combat ‘live and let live’ type behaviours. Needless to say it was widely ridiculed.
However, less easy to incorporate into ‘live and let live’ strategies were trench raids, small-scale, stealthy night attacks on opposing trenches. These vicious encounters, where assault groups were encouraged to use bayonets, hatchets and shovels as well as pistols and grenades to butcher their opponents in hand-to-hand fighting, were explicitly designed to spread fear amongst opposing troops and to break any tacit truces between the lines. Along with the horrors of the major offensives in 1916 and the use of gas, which intensified the brutalisation of the combatants, the introduction of trench raids provided a useful tool for the ‘brass’ on both sides in destroying cooperative behaviours between front-lines.
Balls to War
So was there a football match on Christmas Day 1914? Almost certainly not in any formal sense, although there are sufficient first-hand reports of informal kickabouts that we can be sure they must have taken place. We have to remember that in many places No-Man’s land was pitted with shell holes – not ideal for playing football. Interestingly several first-hand accounts mention the idea of spending the days after Christmas Day levelling an area of No-Man’s land and holding a formal football game on New Years Day. This gives some idea of the scope which at least some soldiers envisaged for the truce. A good visual account of the football matches at Christmas 1914 is given in the Heathcoate Williams video, Balls to War: a Sports Report from 1170 A.D. to the Present.
So there was a truce at Christmas 1914 and there was extensive fraternisation between troops from both sides over large sections of the front for several days and in some cases for several months. Many of the participants record it in terms which suggest they saw it as one of the most significant events of their lives. It was not merely an aberration or a ‘miracle’ as it is often presented; in fact it formed part of a far-wider ‘live and let live’ response by troops on both sides to the situation they found themselves in during 1914 and 1915. Despite the efforts of the brass on both sides to stamp out these survival strategies, clandestine cooperation between front-line troops continued throughout the war in a number of different forms. Furthermore, the implicit refusal of ‘live and let live’ was echoed again in the more explicit mutinies, strikes and mass desertions that ensured the war became no longer tenable on the eastern front in 1917 and were a major contribution to the end of the war on the western front in 1918.
One thing we can be sure of is that it wasn’t much like the Sainsbury’s advert.
Roger Ball & Jeremy Clarke (Bristol: Remembering the Real World War One Group)