The Christmas Truce: One human episode amid all the atrocities

01 December 2011

by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton

 

‘Just you think,’ wrote one British soldier, of the Christmas truce, ‘that while you were eating your turkey, etc., I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before!!’

The Christmas Truce really happened. It is as much part of the historical texture of the First World War as the gas clouds of Ypres or the Battle of the Somme or the Armistice of 1918. Yet it has often been dismissed as though it were merely a myth, a wartime yarn like the story of the Angels of Mons. Or, assuming anything of the kind occurred, it has been seen as a minor incident blown up out of all proportion, natural fodder for the sentimentalists and pacifists of later generations.

Veterans of the Western Front have been among the profoundest sceptics. In a letter to the authors in 1983 one former infantryman who was actually in France at the time dismissed the whole idea as a ‘latrine rumour’. Similarly an ex-cavalryman, asked if he had been aware of the event, retorted with a typical Tommy’s directness and, indeed, some heat: ‘Christmas Truce? Eyewash!’ But the truce did take place, and on a far greater scale than has generally been realized. It is verified from a wide range of sources. Enemy really did meet enemy between the trenches. There was, for a time, genuine peace in No Man’s Land. Though Germans and British were the main participants, French and Belgians took part as well. Most of those involved agreed it was a remarkable way to spend Christmas. ‘Just you think,’ wrote one British soldier, ‘that while you were eating your turkey, etc., I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before!! It was astounding!’ Reversing the well-known quotation, a second lieutenant wrote, ‘It was not war, but it was certainly magnificent!’ ‘It was a day of peace in war,’ commented a German participant. ‘It is only a pity that it was not a decisive peace.’

So the Christmas truce is no legend. It is not surprising, however, given the standard popular perception of the horrors of the First World War, that this supreme instance of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ has come to have something of a legendary quality. Young people who would normally dismiss that far-off conflict of their grandfathers in the century’s teens as merely incomprehensible, find reassurance, even a kind of hope, in the Christmas truce. Brought to general notice largely by the stage and film versions of Oh, What a Lovely War!, it has been the subject of successful pop songs both in Britain and the United States – even, in 1984, providing the setting for a famous pop video associated with the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney – and has been a useful, often moving, source of reference for playwrights, speechmakers and cartoonists. The event has, indeed, gained rather than lost in potency as time has gone by.

One thing must be said at the outset, however. This was not a unique occurrence in the history of war. Though it surprised people at the time – and continues to do so today – it was a resurgence of a long-established tradition. Informal truces and small armistices have often taken place during prolonged periods of fighting and the military history of the last two centuries in particular abounds with incidents of friendship between enemies. In the Peninsular War British and French troops at times visited each other’s’ lines, drew water at the same wells, washed their muskets in the same stream, and even sat around the same campfire sharing their rations and playing cards. Indeed, there were so many cases of fraternization that Wellington, realizing the implications, issued the strictest orders, making it punishable by death to strike up friendly relations with the enemy. The Reverend Francis Kilvert, in his famous Diary, describes conver¬sations with the old soldier Morgan, who recalled occasions in Spain on which British and French sentries laid down their arms, met in the middle space and drank together. In the Crimean War British, French and Russians at quiet times forgathered around the same fire, smoking and drinking. In the American Civil War Yankees and Rebels traded tobacco, coffee and newspapers, fished peacefully on opposite sides of the same stream and even collected wild blackberries together. Similar stories are told of the Siege of Paris, where Germans once invited the French to join them in a massive share-out of wine-bottles; of the Boer War, in which on one occasion during a conference of commanders the rank and file of both sides engaged in a friendly game of football; and of the Russo-Japanese War, in which, among numerous other incidents, opposing officers entertained each other during an armistice for the burial of the dead, the Japanese bringing brandy, sake´, beer and wine, the Russians bringing champagne, brandy and claret. Later wars too have their small crop of such stories; indeed, it is rare for a conflict at close quarters to continue very long without some generous gesture between enemies or an upsurge of the ‘live and let live’ spirit. So the Christmas truce of 1914 does not stand alone; on the other hand it is undoubtedly the greatest example of its kind.

Granted that the Christmas truce actually happened, there are certain misapprehensions regarding it which perhaps call for immediate comment. One widely held assumption is that only ordinary soldiers took part in it; that it was, as it were, essentially a protest of the cannon-fodder, Private Tommy and Musketier Fritz throwing aside the assumptions of conventional nationalism and thumbing their noses at those in authority over them. In fact, in many cases NCOs and officers joined in with equal readiness, while in others truces were initiated and the terms of armistice agreed at ‘parleys’ of officers between the trenches. Some of the best contemporary accounts occur in letters written by subalterns, captains, majors, even officers commanding who, while plainly realizing that this was not normal military conduct, participated nevertheless, recorded the event in as enthusiastic terms as their non-commissioned fellows, and were often equally eager for the truce to continue. There is also evidence that while some generals angrily opposed the truce, others tolerated it and indeed saw some advantage in allowing events to take their own course – while never for a moment doubting that eventually war would resume in full earnest.

Of course, in certain instances worried officers at the front did intervene to put a peremptory end to the spontaneous camaraderie of their subordinates. In other cases, the officers left the fraternizing to their men, partly from reluctance to participate but also from a shrewd idea that the Tommies left to themselves would find out more about the enemy’s mood and dispositions. In yet other cases, offers of truce were so swiftly and decisively rebuffed that no one, officer or man, had occasion to step out into No Man’s Land. Basically, however, people looking for any quasi-Marxist division by rank or class between those who took part and those who did not will not find particular satisfaction in this tale. The truth, we believe, makes a better story: officers and men of both sides mingling freely, in a mixture of attitudes from cautious acceptance to delighted, even emotional participation, the difference in nationality and rank for the moment all but forgotten.

One other misapprehension about the truce calls for rebuttal. There has grown up a belief, even among aficionados of the First World War, that the Christmas truce was considered by those in high circles to be so disgraceful an event, one so against the prevailing mood of the time, that all knowledge of it was withheld from the public at home until the war was safely over. This heresy – for it is no other – has not only lodged in the popular imagination but has also become the accepted wisdom of certain otherwise reliable his¬torians. In fact, the truce was fully publicized from the moment news of it reached home and we found no trace of any censor’s hand. Throughout January 1915 numerous national and local newspapers in Britain printed letter after letter from soldiers who took part; in addition they ran eye-catching headlines (‘Extraordinary Unofficial Armistice’, ‘British, Indians and Germans Shake Hands’, ‘The Amazing Truce’), and even printed photographs of Britons and Germans together in No Man’s Land. Similarly magazines like the Illustrated London News, The Graphic and The Sphere carried evocative drawings of particular incidents of the truce from material supplied by soldiers at the front. Germany also gave the event press publicity, though on a much smaller scale and for a shorter period.

True, the story was soon superseded by more sombre reports and headlines as 1915 went on, but it was by no means as dead as most events in yesterday’s newspapers are normally thought to be. Contemporary histories of the war included it as a matter of course, and references to it occurred in some of the many books published during the war years whose aim was partly to chronicle the various campaigns and events, but also to inspire a suitably patriotic and ardent spirit. Hall Caine, a popular novelist of the time, included an approving section on the truce in his book The Drama of 365 Days, which came out in 1915. Publishing a year later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his history of 1914, called the Christmas truce ‘an amazing spectacle’ and, in a memorable description, saluted it as ‘one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war’.

Conan Doyle’s phrase, indeed, sums up the attraction of the truce: it is the human dimension which means that this relatively obscure event in the fifth month of a fifty-two-month war is still remembered and will continue to catch the imagination. In a century in which our conception of war has been changed fundamentally, from the cavalry charge and the flash of sabres to the Exocet, the cruise missile and the Trident submarine, the fact that in 1914 some thousands of the fighting men of the belligerent nations met and shook hands between their trenches strikes a powerful and appealing note. It is perhaps the best and most heartening Christmas story of modern times.

 

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