Christmas in the Trenches: When Guns Fell Silent

Thanks to Gary for suggesting this. It appeared in the British Independent.

Few things are more subversive, bold, desperate and lofty than fraternization in battle. This is a story from World War 1 (1914).

The Christmas truce: When the guns fell silent

So extraordinary was the Christmas truce of 1914 that some no longer believe it could have happened. But as a new film recreates those days, Stanley Weintraub says it was no myth

by Stanley Weintraub

 

Live-and-let-live accommodations occur in most wars. Chronicles since Troy record stops in fighting to bury the dead, to pray to the gods, to assuage a war-weariness, to offer signs of amity encouraging mutual respect. But none had happened on the scale or duration - or the potential for change - as when the shooting suddenly stopped on Christmas Eve 1914.

The difference then was in its potential to become more than a momentary respite. In retrospect, the interruption of the horror, to soldiers "the sausage machine", seems unreal, incredible in its intensity and extent, impossible to have happened without consequences for continuing the war. Like a dream, when it was over, troops wondered at it, then continued with the grim business at hand.

Under the rigid discipline of wartime command authority, that business was killing, targeting even those whose hands one had clasped, whose rations one had shared, and who had joined in singing of peace on earth and goodwill to all men. The Christmas truce of 1914 was no myth, although song, story, film, and dubious reminiscence have added layers of fantasy upon it.

For four, bloody months, what became known, with good reason, as the Great War had been raging. Christmas has always been hard on soldiers who are far away from home. The British and German troops facing each other in chill, muddy, sometimes freezing Flanders were as close to home geographically as enemies on someone else's territory get. London was 60 miles away, across the watery trench of the English Channel. The German border abutted Belgium, which the Kaiser's army had invaded and despoilt.

Yet the muck, and the crisscrossing, water-logged trenches and the barbed-wire entanglements separating the two armies, as well as the relentless firing by machine guns and artillery, made the distances home seem far greater.

A Royal Engineer, Andrew Todd, wrote to The Scotsman in Edinburgh that soldiers were "only 60 yards apart" at some places on the front lines. They could see and hear each other, and even raise bold placards to taunt each other. Such intimacy hardly contributed to morale, because they could also fire at each other, and raising one's head above a trench parapet invited death. The number of casualties was already enormous. Troops dreamt of Christmas with their families, who seemed increasingly remote in time as well as place. A cynical German saying was, "We'll conquer until we're all dead". A cartoon by Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather, "AD Nineteen Fifty", depicted two soldiers with drooping white beards musing over an old newspaper while shells scream over their trench. War-weary "Ole Bill" is asked how long he is "up for". "Seven years", he groans. "You're lucky," says the other. "I'm duration."

To make it feel more like Christmas, governments on both sides had prepared small holiday gift-boxes for the troops, with snacks, sweets and tobacco. Queen Victoria had set the precedent in 1899, ordering small tin boxes of chocolates shipped to soldiers in distant South Africa for a Boer War Christmas. In 1914, Tommies received a "Princess Mary" brass box, with her head embossed on the lid, much like that of the queen 15 years before.

German troops in Flanders, accessible from home by land, received, along with their wooden gift boxes decorated with a wreath and a Flammenschwert - a flaming sword - tabletop-size Christmas trees with candles conveniently clamped to the branches. The law of unintended consequences activated itself. On Christmas Eve, as darkness came early, the Germans - at some hazard - placed trees atop trench parapets and lit the candles. Then they began singing carols, and though their language was unfamiliar to their enemies, the tunes were not. After a few trees were shot at, the British became more curious than belligerent, and crawled forward to watch and to listen. And soon they began to sing.

By Christmas morning, no man's land between the trenches was filled with fraternising soldiers, sharing rations, trading gifts, singing, and - more solemnly - burying the dead between the lines. (Earlier, the bodies had been too dangerous to retrieve.) The roughly cleared space suggested to the more imaginative among them a football pitch. Kickabouts began, mostly with balls improvised from stuffed caps and other gear, the players oblivious of their greatcoats and boots. The official war diary of the 133rd Saxon Regiment says "Tommy and Fritz" used a real ball, furnished by a provident Scot. "This developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Das Spiel endete 3:2 fur Fritz." Other accounts, mostly German, give other scores, and British letters and memories fill in more details.

The high brass on both sides quickly determined that they could not let the situation develop. In the national interest, the war had to go on. Peace has always been more difficult to make than war, but it was materialising. Under threat of court martial, troops on both sides were ordered to separate and restart hostilities. Reluctantly, they drifted apart. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien's order to II Corps from his cushy rear-area headquarters read: "On no account is intercourse to be allowed between opposing troops. To finish this war quickly we must keep up the fighting spirit."

But some units were too contaminated by Christmas to be reliable, and it took a few days to bring in replacements. Both commands ordered rolling artillery barrages to disrupt the stillness and to motivate responses.

In most sectors where the shooting had stopped, signals (in some cases, flares) set by their officers called men back to their trenches or confirmed the imminent close of the truce. Private Percy Jones of the Westminster Brigade wrote in his diary: "We parted with much hand-shaking and goodwill." Rifleman George Eade of the 3rd London Rifles said a German soldier told him: "Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country. I fight for mine. Good luck."

Some troops referred to the "wonderful day". One wrote of the experience as "a waking dream". The remarkable happening is corroborated by reports from up and down the line, even from French sources. Although the French officially denied there was a truce, Victor Granier, a Paris Opera tenor, sang "Minuit, Chrétiens, c'est l'heure solennelle" ["O Holy Night"] - across the trenches near the Polygon Wood, and a leading singer from the Berlin Imperial Opera, Walter Kirchoff, performed for the British for the first time since his appearance at Covent Garden the year before.

There was no way to conceal French fraternisation even when the unwelcome reality was kept from the newspapers, because German accounts identified the units, and the sick and wounded evacuated to hospitals at the rear delightedly reported what had they had seen and done.

Most fascinating as corroboration of the truce are the letters posted home, before censorship closed such opportunities, by both sides. Many from the British side can still be read, because families eagerly sent them to their hometown newspapers, from the Exeter Argus to the South Wales Echo and Belfast Evening Telegraph, which through January 1915 described details of what otherwise would indeed have seemed a fairy tale.

The truce would reappear in song and story, seemingly stranger than mere fiction. Robert Graves, who joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers just after the truce, wrote a short story which included a game of football and a German juggler who entertained the troops in no man's land. However improbable any account of a juggler in such circumstances, the 3rd London's official war diary reported that he "drew a large crowd".

The German writer James Kruss wrote of an impassioned soldier who took a lighted tree into the French trenches to stop the shooting, and found the enemy were Algerian Islamic troops, who knew nothing of Christmas. In astonishment at the apparition, they put down their rifles. The tale, allegedly from Kruss's grandfather, came from his uncle, who had been at the front, I discovered, opposite the 45th Division of the Armeé d'Afrique.

The last veteran associated with the real thing, Alfred Anderson, died at 109 on 21 November, in a nursing home in Scotland. In 1914, he was 18, and in the Black Watch. Off the line in reserve, Anderson was sheltering in a dilapidated farmhouse on Christmas Eve, when British and German troops, emerged from their trenches in the darkness near by, and fraternised. A spokesman for the Royal British Legion of Scotland called him "the last surviving link with a time that shimmers on the edge of our folk memory".

It could not have been better phrased, for Anderson was only on the edge of that remarkable event. He heard the stillness, the suddenly silent night in embattled Flanders. By New Year's Eve the firing almost everywhere along the line had restarted. Hundreds of thousands would die before the armistice four gory years later in November 1918.

Attempts at other Christmas truces failed. On 22 July 2001, Bertie Felstead, a veteran of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, died aged 106. He was also called "the last known survivor of the Christmas truce". The longer he lived, the more famous he became. He recalled hearing the Fritzes call out "Merry Christmas, Tommy!" and playing football with the enemy in no man's land, bartering souvenirs, singing carols. But he said the experience lasted only half an hour, a fleeting moment for so much to have happened to him. And the year was 1915. A second truce, he called it. Yet both the British and the German headquarters issued explicit orders, under pain of punishment, that there was to be no repetition of the extraordinary 1914 stoppage of the war, football included. Wars were to be fought, with no holidays from the killing.

Two officers who tried to initiate that second truce, Captain Miles Barnes and Captain Sir Iain Colquhoun of the 1st Scots Guards, did so ostensibly to bury the dead. The two sides mingled briefly and returned to their lines. For the rest of Christmas Day, Colquhoun said, "the Germans walked about and sat on their parapets. Our men did much the same, but remained in their trenches. Not a shot was fired".

A court martial was convened, and the two officers were reprimanded, the mildest sentence possible. So went the abortive 1915 truce. It is more than possible that Felstead's vivid memories traded upon the tales of his Welch Fusilier comrades who were in the trenches in 1914.

Such wartime truces as in 1914 are no longer likely. My late friend Nigel Nicolson, an army captain in Italy in 1943, said the Germans ringing bells on Christmas Eve from a church high on a nearby hill. "Can we stop shooting?" he asked a superior. "Not on your life," he was told. The more vast the cultural and ideological divide, the more improbable such truces become. There could have been no shared Christmases with the Japanese in the Pacific war between 1941 and 1945, nor now with Islamic combatants in Iraq.

A Christmas truce seems in our new century an impossible dream from a more simple, vanished world. Peace is indeed, even briefly, harder to make than war.

* * * * * * *

Stanley Weintraub is the author of 'Silent Night: the Remarkable 1914 Christmas Truce' and 'Iron Tears: Rebellion in America' (both Simon & Schuster). 'Joyeux Noël' is in cinemas now

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  • Guest - epoliticus

    This bit of history reminds me of a paragraph from John Reed's book, which haunts me even today.

    As Reed visited Tsarskoye, he observed a couch that lay against a wall and on this was stretched a young worker. Two Red Guards were bending over him but the rest of the company did not pay any attention. In his breast was a hole; through his clothes, fresh blood rose with every heartbeat. His eyes were closed and his bearded face was greenish-white. Faintly and slowly he breathed, & with every breath he said 'Peace is coming', 'Peace is coming.'

    This story haunts me not infrequently. It can come to mind unexpectedly. It still provokes a tear and it always enables political clarity.

  • Guest - Aunt Vic Keller

    "A Christmas truce seems in our new century an impossible dream from a more simple, vanished world. Peace is indeed, even briefly, harder to make than war."

    Unless the workers of the world unite against the imperialists from Obama to Bin Laden...

  • Guest - cigar guy

    This story about the Christmas Truce of 1914 speaks loudly of the need for communists to understand religion and traditions as contradictions among the people. One divides into two.

  • Guest - Andrei Kuznetsov

    One of my favorite war stories of all time. Thank you so much for posting!

    By the way, didn't the same thing happen between Allied and German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge on Christmas of '44?

  • Guest - TransconaSlim

    I didn't realize that the song Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron (Snoopy's christmas) was based in reality.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jlf---13Q0g&fs=1&hl=en_US]

  • Guest - Matt

    I have heard various accounts of this beautiful slice of history and it never fails to move me. I have known many "gung ho" types who went to war but cannot explain why they did what they did, and a great many who now deeply regret ever entering the military in the first place. This system lies to us all the time, but the lies they peddle to young people to get them into uniform may be the cruelest and crudest of all.
    I don't think our message to soldiers and to young people considering joining the military is terribly complicated: "We have far more in common with the poor stiffs in Afghanistan, Iraq or Columbia who are struggling to feed their families than we do with the billionaires who run the defense companies and Congress. They toss us out of our homes, and out of our jobs. They don't want to live next door to us, or use the same hospitals we use, or send their kids to the same schools that our children attend. But when they want us to kill and die, suddenly "we" are all in this together. Workers have no business killing other workers. We should make common cause, and if we must fight we should fight the people who get fat by screwing us all, day after day after day."