When war broke out in 1914, the general consensus was that it would “all be over by Christmas”. Borne out by the initial campaign medals which were struck with the year 1914. Alas, following the disaster of Mons, and the failed siege of Antwerp, it soon became abundantly clear that the hostilities would be continuing into the foreseeable future. Trenches were dug into a front line stretching some 450 miles, and men settled in for the long haul. In December high volumes of rainfall and persistent shelling had turned these lines, particularly around the areas now known so well for their association with the horrors of war, Fromelles, Armentieres, Ypres, Verdun into a consistent mass of liquid mud. The men were wet and getting wetter, with no respite. Pneumonia crept into the trenches, and began to pick off the men as fast as the snipers’ rifles.
Two weeks into December and the Pope made an appeal to the powers that be, to attempt some sort of cessation to the hostilities for the sake of “peace and goodwill” over the festive season. His plea fell on deaf ears, the verdict being that “they were at war and should continue the onslaught”. Factors were thrown into the pot such as the Eastern hostilities where Muslim Turks “did not recognize Christmas”, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches who celebrated according to the older style calendar, where Christmas was January 7th. It was felt that these differences would prevent a reasonable attempt at truce. The Pope later admitted his plea was not met with the agreement he had hoped for.
As Christmas approached, the rain gave way in some places to a persistent frost, which allowed a temporary respite from the boggy conditions in some places. In others, the snow started to fall. On December 24, 1914, German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas during WW1. They started by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, like Silent Night. The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols. And mustered as many candles as they could find, hastily positioned on the bayonets of upturned rifles.
The guns fell silent. As the hours ticked by, calls were made across No mans’ land for a mutual cessation of hostility, with assurances given that the Germans would not be shooting at anybody that day. The British responded in kind. Soon there were calls for visits across the “No man’s land”; men struggled up out of their trenches waving makeshift white flags, some led by officers. Hands were shaken and small gifts – buttons, chocolate, cigarettes – were exchanged. The truce also allowed a breathing space during which recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Funerals took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral, soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from Psalm 23. The truce occurred in spite of opposition at higher levels of the military command.
Many of the men later wrote home about these unusual and surprise hours of respite from the continuing slaughter. Some discussed football games that had taken place, either between teams of English and Germans, some between English and French, others just having a kick-about amongst themselves in front of the now frozen front-line. Some sources claim that these games are mere unsubstantiated myth, reasons against given as “lack of football” or “poor ground conditions would have made a game impossible” however letters home are quite specific, and as we have seen the weather had turned in many areas.
A young officer, Michael Holroyd was forwarded to Ploegsteert, Ypres, (affectionately called Plugstreet by the British men) in the days leading up to that Christmas of 1914. His letters of the cease of hostilities over the Christmas period are detailed and quite humorous. He particularly notes how at one point during the day, the Germans, in their trench, suddenly put up a red light on their parapet and called out a warning “Put your heads down” before sending over a barrage of shells. His unit duly took cover. A few minutes later a white light showed and a shouted apology came forth, “All right Hampshires. Our officer’s gone now.” His account highlights how much exchange there had actually been between the two bands of men, ostensibly enemies, for them to be aware of each other’s unit. In a letter home he states “If a senior officer of any side appears, a signal was given…. and a fierce fusillade took place doing any amount of damage to the air twenty feet over the enemy’s heads.”
During discussions with surviving soldiers, I heard a tale which never failed to amuse me of one such instance of fraternization, taking place in No mans’ land that first Christmas, where the narrator told me of the magnificent English spoken by one of the Germans. He commented on it and the young man told him he was in fact raised in England, to German immigrant parents. Eventually it transpired that the two men actually in peace-time lived two doors away from each other; the English lad’s father was a grocer and the German man’s father was a barber who had been cutting their hair since the Englishman was a boy.
He explained that as the slide into war began, many people began to distrust his father, and their family despite knowing them for years. Eventually as war broke out his parents were forced to leave for the duration and he had been compelled to join the war effort. As England’s armies refused him, he had been sent back to Germany to join theirs instead; not a situation he had wanted, but pressure in his native country for men to “do their bit” was as heavy as it was in England. He stated in his defence, that he had so far managed not to hit a single man when shooting, and indeed had honed his skill of firing above the heads of his “countrymen” to a fine art without being found out by his officers.
There were several instances of unfortunate injuries and deaths as a result of these impromptu cease-fires and truces. The main issue being that not everybody was either aware of such truces between certain parties, or bought into them. One letter home writes how one lad was hit, very likely to have his leg amputated, as well as having his arm broken in two places by fire from a non-participant. We also see diary entries and letters which make no mention of any peace over the period, to some it was business as usual.
Although frowned upon by the “men at the top” it has often been speculated that if the cease of hostilities had been left to the men, the war could indeed have been over that first Christmas. Months of dismal weather and stale-mate, shelling and death had worn them down. Many succumbed to mental breakdown as a result of their situation. Quietly snapping in the midst of mud and rain. In a few areas these sporadic truces led to long term unspoken refusals to fire directly at the enemy. Agreements were made to keep gunfire over heads, and minimize shell-fire as much as possible, with adequate prior warnings given. These truces often held out until units changed and new men were installed.
Attempts were made in a few areas in Christmas 1915 to celebrate the peace that took place during Christmas 1914, but these efforts were remote and short-lived. Following the horror of the Somme in 1916, and the use of gas and other horrific weapons, the feelings of fraternity were extinguished. Never again during the remainder of the war was that first fragile peace re-created.
Adela and Phoebe