The Christmas Truce of 1914

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  1. Nihonjin1051
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    German, British and French soldiers posing for a picture

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    The Christmas Truce of 1914



    Context

    Once the fighting of the First Battle of Ypres died down in November 1914, British units that had been holding the Ypres Salient were relieved by French ones. By December, the BEF had moved and was now holding a continuous sector of the Western Front from a little south of St Eloi, round past Armentières to Neuve Chapelle, past Festubert and to the La Bassée Canal at Givenchy.

    The British force in France now consisted of the shattered units of the regular army, most of which had been all but destroyed at Ypres and which were in the process of being rebuilt by receiving new drafts, with the welcome addition of two Divisions making up the Indian Corps and some units of the Territorial Force.


    The static and dull nature of trench warfare and the close proximity of the enemy (which meant that they could be heard, and their breakfast cooking smelled, although rarely seen) caused many men to be curious about the men they were facing. They were certainly facing the same conditions of wet and cold, and in a strange way a mutual respect developed.

    There were occasional shouted conversations between trenches, and the odd instance of exchange of goods, although to be too adventurous was foolhardy for men were continually lost to sniper fire.

    Build up to the truce
    Under strong French pressure to take the initiative, the army was ordered into a series of small piecemeal attacks that proved to be very costly. Cut down by rifle and machine gun fire and unable to enter enemy trenches, the attacking units left many casualties lying in no man's land and on the enemy barbed wire defences.

    5 December 1914
    II Corps HQ [General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien] issued an instruction to commanders of all Divisions: "It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of troops exists. Experience of this and of every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a "live and let live" theory of life...officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises...the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy...such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks...the Corps Commander therefore directs Divisional Commanders to impress on subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit... friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited"

    The early weeks of December 1914
    Tremendous volumes of mail and gifts for the troops were sent from homes in the United Kingdom and Germany. King George V sent a Christmas card to every soldier, sailor and nurse; the Princess Mary fund despatched a gift box to every serving soldier.

    14 December 1914
    An attack of 8th Brigade at Wytschaete on 14 December 1914 fails with heavy casualties.

    18 December 1914
    An attack by 22nd Brigade [2nd Queen's and 2nd Royal Warwickshire] on the Well Farm position at La Boutillerie fails with heavy casualties. A further effort [by 20th Brigade; 2nd Scots Guards and 2nd Border] later in the day also fails.

    19 December 1914
    An attack by 11th Brigade [1st Somerset Light Infantry, 1st Hampshire and 1st Rifle Brigade] on the "German Birdcage" east of Ploegsteert Wood fails with heavy casualties, many of which are caused by British heavy artillery firing short of target.

    20 December 1914
    Local truce on the front of 22nd Brigade; Germans begin by taking in British wounded from no man's land. There is some contact: according to Lt G. Heinekey of 2nd Queen's, it lasted all morning. Lt Henry Bower, 1st South Staffordshire and at least one soldier of the 2nd Queen's were killed by rifle fire from neighbouring units while assisting with the wounded. A similar activity took place on the front of 20th Brigade.


    23 December 1914
    A German soldier, Karl Aldag, reports that both sides had been heard singing hymns in the trenches. German troops coming into the lines bring Christmas trees. Some men begin to place them on the parapets of the fire trenches. Local truce on the front of 23rd Brigade.


    24 December 1914, Christmas Eve
    The weather changes to a hard frost. This makes trench conditions a little more bearable. 98 British soldiers die on this day, many are victims of sniper fire. A German aeroplane drops a bomb on Dover: the first air raid in British history. During the afternoon and early evening, British infantry are astonished to see many Christmas trees with candles and paper lanterns, on enemy parapets. There is much singing of carols, hymns and popular songs, and a gradual exchange of communication and even meetings in some areas. Many of these meetings are to arrange collection of bodies. In other places, firing continues. Battalion officers are uncertain how to react; in general they maintain precautions. The night brings a clear, still air with a hard frost.

    25 December 1914, Christmas, Truce observed

    Units behind the lines attend church services and have in most cases arranged Christmas dinners which are taken in barns and shattered buildings. In the front lines, the fraternisation of Christmas Eve is continued throughout the day; not all units know about it, and it is not universal but is widespread over at least half of the British front. Many bodies that have been lying out in no man's land are buried, some in joint burials. Many men record the strange and wonderful events; may men exchange tokens or addresses with German soldiers, many of whom speak English. 81 British soldiers die on this day; a few die in areas that are otherwise peaceful and with fraternisation going on, victims of alert snipers. In other areas, there is considerable activity: 2nd Grenadier Guards suffer losses in a day of heavy fighting. As night fell, things grew quiet as men fell back to their trenches to take whatever Christmas meal that had been provided for them.

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    German and British soldier sharing a smoke.

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    Last edited: Jun 28, 2014
  2. Nihonjin1051
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    Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, described it:
    [T]he Germans set trees on 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 listen. And after a while, they began to sing.

    By Christmas morning, the "no man's land" between the trenches was filled with fraternizing soldiers, sharing rations and gifts, singing and (more solemnly) burying their dead between the lines. Soon they were even playing soccer, mostly with improvised balls.

    According to the official war diary of the 133rd Saxon Regiment, "Tommy and Fritz" kicked about a real football supplied by a Scot. "This developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter ... The game ended 3-2 for Fritz."

    As Stanley Weintraub noted at the close of his book on the 1914 Christmas truce:
    However much the momentary peace of 1914 evidenced the desire of the combatants to live in amity with one another, it was doomed from the start by the realities beyond the trenches. As the English rock band The Farm, decades later, summed up the results after the enemies "joined together and decided not to fight," but failed, there was "nothing learned and nothing gained."

    A celebration of the human spirit, the Christmas Truce remains a moving manifestation of the absurdities of war. A very minor Scottish poet of Great War vintage, Frederick Niven, may have got it right in his "A Carol from Flanders," which closed,


    O ye who read this truthful rime
    From Flanders, kneel and say:
    God speed the time when every day
    Shall be as Christmas Day.