The seeds for what has become known as the ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914 were sown when a local truce was organized on the morning of 20th. December in the sector of the line held by the British Expeditionary Force’s 22nd. Brigade (2 Queen’s Regt. & 1/8 Royal Scots) between Neuve Chapelle and Armentières, just west of Lille (Rijsel). German troops took in British wounded from in front of their lines and some contacts took place between opposing units.
Three days later some German units began to decorate the trenches with small trees and another local truce took place in 23rd. Brigade’s sector (2 Devons & 2 Cameronians) also near Neuve Chapelle.
On the 24th. December there was a hard frost which made trench conditions more bearable. In the late afternoon and early evening, British troops were astonished by the appearance of Christmas trees with candles and paper lanterns, on enemy parapets. Much singing of carols, hymns and popular songs began which was followed by a gradual exchange of communication and even meetings in some sectors. Many of these meetings started with negotiations to permit collection of bodies. In other places, however, hostilities continued. At Battalion HQ level officers were uncertain how to react; in general they maintained precautions. The night brought a clear, still air with a sharp frost.
On Christmas Day units in reserve held church parades and set about the Christmas dinners they have arranged. In the front lines, fraternisation continued all day; though it is by no means universal as many units were unaware of what is going on. It is believed that the truce spread over at least half of the British front.
Such meetings encompassed exchanges of food, alcohol and tobacco, gifts of regimental insignia and the like as well as the less cheery business of recovering the dead for proper burial, some in joint burials. In some places impromptu entertainment included, it is said, at least one juggler as well as the more typical groups of singers. And the tale of a football match which the Germans won 3-2 always surfaces, though it seems always to have been played by the neighbouring unit to the raconteur’s
In other areas, there was considerable activity: 2 Grenadier Guards suffered losses in a day of heavy fighting. As night fell, many areas again fell silent as men retired to their trenches to take whatever Christmas meal that had been provided for them.
By Boxing Day some news of these unprecedented events had seeped back to BEF HQ and orders were given to stop any fraternization and for disciplinary measures to be taken, though some more pragmatic commanders opted to do little about these events: after all they had given troops a chance to reorganize their trenches and spy out the land a little.
In the event, though a lull in fighting continued for a few days more in some places, hostilities soon returned to their normal intensity.
There is no doubt that the higher ups though of what had taken place as a dangerous thing to have happened and the following year and thereafter strenuous efforts were made to prevent it happening again. The real fear was that, as was to happen on the Russian Front in 1917, some unit or another, on one side or another, would refuse to resume the fight and this bacillus would spread like the plague. After all such fraternization might undermine the will to fight an enemy whom propaganda was trying to demonise in order to keep up the flow of recruits and to maintain support for the war. Such events might have led, they feared, to a collapse of order and discipline of which the enemy might then take advantage.
Perhaps they were right, perhaps not.
In the Second World War events of similar fraternization took place in North Africa between British and German units. That never prevented battle being resumed in earnest thereafter. The late Hans von Luck records in his memoirs ‘Panzer Commander’ several instances of contact of a friendly nature between British and Afrika Korps units: On one occasion von Luck, facing the 1st. The Royal Dragoons, received a radio transmission from the British asking about the well being of a British patrol that had gone missing. Von Luck confirmed that the men had been captured, and were in fine form. After this a regular 5 pm cease fire was established, and the two sides swapped information about men captured and their conditions. Yet the war was then resumed as before.
The British Soldier is notable for his humanity. One’s instinctive feeling is that allowing him for a moment to express that humanity in 1914 or on subsequent Christmases would not have led to a collapse in his will to fight but would rather have bolstered his morale: after all, to suppress such feelings would be to deny one of the qualities which makes him such a good all round soldier and a fine fighting representative of our nation. And to remove from him a moment of humanity would be to reduce him to a state of being a mere automaton primed to kill. Most of us would wish him to retain his humanity.
As the sons and daughters of our nation fight in Afghanistan and Iraq it is pertinent and timely to recall these events. From them we can remind ourselves of and take comfort in the fact that the British Soldier of 2007 is, for all the differences in equipment, uniform and training, still the same, decent down-to-earth soul that he (and now she) has always been and that we may, whatever differences we may have about the wars in which we are engaged, take immense pride in their professionalism, courage, bearing and fighting spirit as well as their humanity.
During this day of festivity in our warm and comfortable homes, let us spend a moment thinking of these young people, far from hearth and home and the bosom of their families who serve us as their forefathers did and send to them the message that we are proud of them and that they are in our hearts as they are in the hearts of their families and loved ones.
Some web sites where more information might be found are
Operation Plum Puddings,
The Christmas Truce by Henry Williamson ( a veteran),
Sgt Bernard Joseph Brookes (another veteran’s account),