The day the war stood still

by
19 December 2014

The Christmas truces of 1914 were not planned or officially approved and were started by the Germans, say Andii Bowsher and Nick Megoran

TOPFOTO

A German soldier gives a light to his British counterpart

A German soldier gives a light to his British counterpart

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 singing carols."

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 Christmas".

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 Christmas spirit.

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 fraternisation.

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 it.

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 givenback.

 

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 tomorrow?"

 

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 battle.

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 Universities.

They have produced a set of materials to encourage churches to celebrate the Christmas Truce, which can be downloaded free from www.mlkpc.org .

100 years ago: A veritable truce of God

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