THROUGH the scratch and flare of his lucifer, and the inhaled
breath of a mate drawing on his cigarette, a new sound crept up on
them like fog growing thicker in a dugout.
It sounded like a Christmas carol; it was a Christmas
carol, and it seemed to be coming from beyond no man's land. Ah,
yes, "Silent Night" in German. A quick glance over the top - safe
enough in the dark from snipers, surely.
"Hey, Ted, there're lights over there an'all."
"Get away: why would they do that?"
"Christmas, I suppose. Looks like Christmas trees. And they're
It is likely that there were many such conversations along the
Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914. Up and down the lines, over
the hours after midnight, Berlin time, improvised placards and
signs were put up to be read by the troops opposite. The most
common message was: "You no fight, we no fight," from the German
side; and there were British responses such as "Merry
It is the German custom to begin celebrating on Christmas Eve
rather than on Christmas morning. So the credit for starting one of
the most remarkable wartime incidents of the 20th century goes to
the German troops.
Lieut. Malcolm Kennedy recalled: "During . . . the eve of
Christmas, there were, wafted towards us from the trenches
opposite, the sounds of singing and merrymaking; and, occasionally,
the guttural tones of a German were to be heard shouting out
lustily: 'A happy Christmas to you Englishmen.'
"Only too glad to show that the sentiments were reciprocated,
back would come the response from a thick-set Clydesider: 'Same to
you, Fritz; but dinna o'ereat yourself wi' they sausages.'"
Troops on both sides were only too aware that to be in Berlin or
Paris by Christmas was clearly not going to happen. Perhaps there
was a dawning loss of confidence in propaganda and military
tactics. For many, there was a concern for the corpses of comrades
and enemies, who lay rotting and unburied in no man's land.
There had, too, been a proposal by Pope Benedict XV and others
that there could be a "Truce of God" ceasefire at Christmas - an
idea welcomed by Germany and its allies, but not by Britain.
After the carols began, and British voices joined in, written
and catcalled conversations ensued. Some brave souls walked out
into the mud and frost to meet others intent on celebrating the
Voices called out to ask for the chance to parley, and timings
were worked out by officers on the ground for ceasefires, in order
to bury the dead on Christmas Day. Some of these cautious,
semi-official truces developed into more comprehensive
A story, reported in the book Silent Night: The
remarkable Christmas truce of 1914, by Stanley Weintraub,
tells of a British subaltern, Harry, who was invited by a Bavarian
officer to sample the champagne at German HQ: "Of course, it's well
behind our line, but I can promise you'll be safe. . . You know we
'play the game', as you British say."
The truces were not centrally co-ordinated. They were only
"semi-official" because General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien had issued
an order explicitly prohibiting Christmas ceasefires; and yet it
was officers in the trenches who allowed it, or even encouraged
By the time the generals at headquarters got to hear of the
truces, it was too late. And they were caught in a dilemma: too
lenient a reaction, and they risked indiscipline; too harsh, and
they risked mutiny.
For the most part, nothing much was done, but thought was taken
about how to head off a repeat in future. The chief objection was
that it dulled soldiers' military fervour, and made it harder to
engage in their duty to kill the men they might befriend, and so
might encourage the recognised problem of tacit "live and let live"
agreements growing up. It was a question of morale.
At a local level, there were instances of resistance to truces
because of recent incidents of the more brutal nature of warfare,
and the resentments produced by them.
Christmas Day truces were a relief from the trenches. Soldiers
got out and met men whom, only hours earlier, they had been
prepared to shoot. Instead, they exchanged gifts.
In many cases, this effectively meant swapping their Christmas
rations: plum puddings for spicy sausages; or tins of meat for
tobacco, beer, or spirits, for example.
In some cases, more daring exchanges took place: buttons from
uniforms, helmets (German Pickelhaubes - with a spike on
top - were particularly sought after), and belt buckles.
Having swapped a helmet for a tin of bully beef, one German
soldier had to borrow back his headgear: "I have grand inspection
tomorrow. You lend me, and I bring it back after." The British
soldier complied, and later the Pickelhaube was
Diaries and memoirs also tell of games of football (the Germans
are credited with winning). The dead were buried, and prayers were
said in English and German. Chaplains, or "religious" men, from
both sides, led soldiers in religious devotions.
In some places, joint masses were held. West of Lille, the
chaplain to the 6th Gordon Highlanders, J. Esslemont Adams,
together with the Oberstleutnant opposite, held a service
in no man's land. Adams began with Psalm 23, and prayers were then
offered in both English and German (see panel).
Fraternisation was made easier by the fact that, before the war,
many Germans had been working in Britain, and could speak English.
In at least one instance, this led to Germans' asking for a letter
to be delivered to a fiancée in Britain. Often, men discovered
connections of places or people which they had in common.
In one example of dark humour, it was reported that a London man
from the 3rd Rifles met his barber from High Holborn in no man's
land. A cut-throat razor was being used, and the erstwhile barber
quipped: "Maybe I should cut your throat, yes? Save ammunition
In some cases, the fraternisation was short-lived; and, by
Boxing Day, normal hostilities were resumed. Sometimes, this was
because new troops were rostered in. The Bavarian officer mentioned
is quoted as saying: "By the by, on Thursday, we are relieved by
the Prussians. Give 'em hell; we hate them."
In some cases, though, troops contrived to shoot over the heads
of those opposite, or simply managed not to engage in warfare at
all for considerable lengths of time.
Major Buchanan-Dunlap, in a letter to his wife on 3 February
1914, mentions that the fighting where he was based had only just
resumed; and Captain F. E. Packe, in a letter on 19 March 1915,
mentions an "absurdly quiet" time in a spot they had relieved where
a truce had taken place.
Not all was camaraderie and festive cheer, however. Some tried
to use the occasion for reconnaissance. Pte Williamson donned a
German coat, and was asked by a German officer what he was doing.
He admitted to "admiring" the German fortifications. The officer
merely smiled, and saluted. On his return, Williamson's 2nd
Lieutenant ordered him not to do it again.
Some incidents were more accidental. Philip Maddison, worried
that he might become trapped behind German lines, was discovered
trying to make his way back.
A German officer asked him: "May I count on the word of a
Highlander that you would regard your recent visit behind our lines
as, shall we say, never for a moment approximating to that of [a
spy]?" Maddison promised that this was the case, and the officer
concluded by saying: "Perhaps we may meet again when [this war] is
over. Until then, goodbye. I am happy to rely on your word."
It is reported that a Corporal Adolf Hitler thought that the
truce was insufficiently martial, and that it was dishonourable to
fraternise, so sat it out in his bunker - refusing even to attend
the mass held near by.
The truces were reported in the press back home - often
favourably, at first. But there was also some grumbling about
disloyalty. In 1930, the MP for Banff, Murdoch McKenzie Wood,
responded to the criticism: "A great number of people think we did
something that was degrading. . . If we had been left to ourselves,
there would never have been another shot fired. For a fortnight
that truce went on. . ."
Sgt George Ashurst, 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, said:
"Eventually, we got orders. . . 'Get back in your trenches, every
man!' The order came round by word of mouth down each trench. Some
people took no damn notice.
"Anyway, the generals behind must have seen it and got a bit
suspicious; so they gave orders for a battery of guns behind us to
open fire and a machine-gun to open out, and officers to fire their
revolvers at the Jerries. That started the war again.
"We were cursing the generals to hell. You want to get up here
in this mud. Never mind you giving orders in your big chateaux and
driving about in your big cars. We hated the sight of bloody
generals; we always did. We didn't hate them so much before this,
but we never liked them after that.
"Then we had newspapers coming here from England, accusing us of
fraternising with the Germans: parsons accusing us of fraternising
with the Germans when there had been an armistice on Christmas Day.
I wrote back home and told my family off. I said we could do with
that parson and the fellows that are writing in the newspapers
here, I said. We want them here in front of us instead of Jerry, so
we could shoot them down for passing remarks like that while nice
and safe in England."
It seems significant that Christian songs and festivities were
so often the immediate causes of soldiers' meeting each other as
people rather than as enemies, and that this took place despite the
propaganda that dehumanised the opposition, and even the heat of
There was something about the Christmas truce that points
towards the Revelation narrative of a great multitude "from every
nation, tribe, people, and language" worshipping together.
Carl Muehlegg, of the 17th Bavarian Regiment, recalls shouting
"Nie wieder Krieg! Das walte Gott." ("No more war! That's
what God wants.")
Andii Bowsher and Nick Megoran are co-conveners of the
Martin Luther King Peace Committee of Northumbria and Newcastle
They have produced a set of materials to encourage churches
to celebrate the Christmas Truce, which can be downloaded free from
100 years ago: A veritable truce of God