Through a glass darkly – 45

The Christmas Truce

When I was writing about the international working class movement a few weeks ago [TaGD – 36], I regretted that international solidarity died with the outbreak of the Great War. When many of the delegates at the meeting of the Second International in Brussels in July 1914 rushed home to join up in their respective armed forces. And I made reference to the French film Joyeux Noël; a fictional reconstruction of the unofficial Christmas Eve truce of 1914, when front-line troops clambered out of their trenches to share greetings and drinks with their enemies; to play football and celebrate Christmas together. 

No Man’s Land, Christmas 1914

It is often said that the Christmas 1914 truce was a fairy story, like the Angel of Mons, a journalistic invention. And when people acknowledge that something did happen, it is often dismissed as a very small affair. Which was disowned and much frowned upon by senior officers on both sides. In order to try and establish the truth, I’ve been reading a [second-hand] copy of Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton: Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914. The authors are both television journalists and military historians. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Richard Holmes said: “It is unlikely that this fine book’s account of the truce will ever be bettered.”

The run-up to Christmas 1914

Although historians now tell us that the First World War was ‘inevitable’, it didn’t seem that way at the time. Harold Macmillan, then an undergraduate at Balliol, wrote many years later:

Had we been told, when we were enjoying the carefree life of Oxford in the summer term of 1914, that in a few weeks our little band of friends would abandon academic life for ever and rush to take up arms, still more, that only a few were destined to survive four years’ conflict, we should have thought such prophecies were the ravings of a maniac.”

The early weeks of the war were full of action and movement: the indecisive encounter at Mons, the  long retreat, the turning of the tide on the Marne, and the first attritional battle of the war on the river Aisne. After which the British Commander, Sir John French, wrote to King George V:  “I think the battle of the Aisne is very typical of what battles in the future are most likely to resemble … … The spade will be as great a necessity as the rifle”. So in the closing months of 1914 the two armies dug in where the last attacks and counter-attacks had left them. And long lines of trenches appeared across the terrain of France and Belgium, sometimes no more than fifty or even thirty yards apart. The enemy was so close in some places that you could hear him talk. As the weather deteriorated the trenches turned to mud, and the principal struggle was against the conditions rather than the enemy. Arthur Pelham-Burn of the Gordon Highlanders wrote in December to a school-friend:

I used to think I  knew what mud was before I came out here, but I was quite mistaken. The mud here varies from 6 inches to 3 and 4 feet, even 5 feet, and it is so sticky that, until we were all issued with boots, my men used to arrive in the trenches in bare feet.”

Closeness bred curiosity about the enemy. Which was a powerful motivation in what followed. What was the German soldier really like ? Was he the archetypal enemy with his spiked pickelhaube helmet, his barbaric record in Belgium, and his hymns of hate ? Was he happy to be there fighting for the Kaiser ? Coping with the rain, the mud, the lice, and the rats ? Or would he rather be home with his loved ones in the equivalent of ‘Blighty’ ? Imprecisely there developed  a kind of comradeship with the enemy, which no civilian could properly understand. Rifleman Leslie Walkinton of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, looking back years later, wrote:

We hated their guts when they killed any of our friends, then we really did dislike them intensely. But otherwise we joked about them, and I think they joked about us. And we thought, well poor so-and-sos, they’re in the same kind of muck as we are.”

Hostilities grumbled on with occasional spasms of activity, artillery fire, frequently limited on the British side by a shortage of shells, a certain amount of sniping, and trench raids that too often resulted in death or injury without yielding much advantage. Andrew Todd of the Royal Engineers wrote a letter home which ended up in The Scotsman:

Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the soldiers in both lines of trenches have become very ‘pally’ with each other. The trenches are only 60 yards apart at one place, and every morning about breakfast time one of the soldiers sticks a board in the air. As soon as this board goes up, all firing ceases, and men from either side draw their water and rations. All through the breakfast hour, and so long as this board is up, silence reigns supreme …”

According to Brown and Seaton, such breakfast truces became an accepted ritual on many parts of the Western Front throughout the duration of the war. Other minor acts of fraternisation included lobbing across tins of bully beef or jam or biscuits, and some reciprocal hymn singing on quiet nights.  Captain C.I. Stockwell of the Royal Welch Fusiliers noted in his diary that a German soldier in the facing tenches who spoke excellent English revealed that before the war he had been the head-waiter at the Grand Central Hotel.  A trooper in the Scots Greys had a shouted exchange with two Germans who had worked in a hairdressers shop in Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Maconochie’s Army Stew

Christmas Eve 1914

On Christmas Eve there was a curiously prophetic article in The Manchester Guardian:

It will be strange if one of those truces tacitly arranged by the men and winked at by the commanders does not occur tonight in order that, if possible, the Germans may find something to take the place of Christmas trees and the English something to take the place of holly in the trenches … … For the longer the troops lie over against each other in trenches there grows up a friendly interest . This however does not interfere with the business of fighting.”

December 24th was ‘very quiet’ on the front occupied by the Royal Welch Fusiliers. South of Armentières a German band was playing hymns in or near the trenches all the afternoon. Near Pont Rouge the 133rd Saxon Infantry Regiment  posted lighted Christmas trees on the breastwork of the trench, and began to sing old Christmas songs, ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht and O du Fröliche. Private Albert Moren of the Royal West Surrey Regiment recalled the singing years later: “I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life. I thought what a beautiful tune.”

Near Ploegsteert Wood Private Tapp of the Royal Warwicks watched as a sergeant made his way into No Man’s Land, and returned with cigars and cigarettes  which he had exchanged for tins of Maconochie’s and a tin of Capstan tobacco. Together with an offer from the Germans not to fire until Boxing Day. A little way to the north the Seaforth Highlanders shared in some competitive carol singing with the Germans opposite, and then climbed out of their trenches to share conversation and cigarettes in front of the barbed wire entanglements.

Major Buchanan-Dunlop of the 1st Leicesters, a committed Christian and an old boy of Loretto, wrote to his wife to tell her that he had organised a select choir of officers and men to sing carols to the Germans, who then responded with carols of their own. This exploit made him briefly famous as ‘The Major who sang Carols between the Trenches’, which later got him into difficulties with the military authorities.

Major Colin Napier Buchanan-Dunlop

Christmas Day 1914

Christmas Day dawned with light mist and a hard frost. British accounts suggest that again the Germans made the first overtures of goodwill, as they had the night before with their carol singing. Numerous local agreements were made for the burial of the dead  whose bodies lay in No Man’s Land. The Revd J. Esslemont Adams, a Free Church minister and Chaplain of the Gordon Highlanders, agreed with the local German commander for burial of the dead, after which there would be a short, shared service with the reading of the 23rd Psalm and prayers in both English and German. Second Lieutenant Arthur Pelham-Burn of the Gordon Highlanders, who intended to train for the Anglican ministry, wrote about the service at Fleurbaix to an old Lancing school-friend: 

We then had a wonderful joint burial service. Our Padre arranged the prayers and psalm etc … … They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other  … … Yes, I think it is a sight one will never see again.”

Christmas Day, 1914

Other burial ceremonies involved fewer people. North of Ploegsteert Wood some Germans helped dig graves for two dead Frenchmen. At Bois Grenier seven stretcher-bearers, all wearing Red Cross armbands, were allowed by the Germans to bury dead British troops who had been lying behind German lines. As well as burial of the dead, men from both armies met together in friendship and good humour to celebrate Christmas in their own particular fashion. Second Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather of the Royal Warwicks, destined to become a celebrated cartoonist of the war, stated that “there was not an atom of hate on either side that day”. Up and down No Man’s Land gifts were exchanged: bully beef, Maconochie’s stew, Tickler’s jams, cake, biscuits, tea and Christmas puddings were offered by the British; cigars, sweets, nuts, sausages, sauerkraut, cognac and schnapps were offered by the Germans in return. Buttons and cap-badges were valued souvenirs. It was a day of instant friendships. Photographs were brought out and admired.

There was much photographing on Christmas Day 1914, enemy photographing enemy, soldiers standing cheerfully side by side. There was a general regulation against taking photographs while on active service, and a crackdown on cameras in the trenches began shortly after Christmas. But papers like the Daily Mail were offering payments for war photographs throughout 1915.

Christmas Truce, 1914

It has become widely accepted that a central part of the Christmas truce was a game of football between the English and the Germans. [Which the Germans presumably won ?] Football, or ‘footer’, would certainly have been the game of choice for the fraternising soldiers on both sides. Private Tapp of the Royal Warwicks wrote that: “We are trying to arrange a football match with them for tomorrow, Boxing Day.” But there is no evidence that such a game took place. And the ground between the lines was certainly in no fit shape for any serious game of football.

… and after

Rifleman Bernard Brooks recorded in his diary: “The Germans wanted to maintain a partial truce until the New Year, for, as some of them said, they were heartily sick of the war, and did not want to fight; but we were due to leave the trenches … and insisted on the truce ending at midnight … Death and bloodshed would once more reign supreme.

On Boxing Day there was a reluctance in many sectors to get back to fighting. But General Horace Smith-Dorrien, after a visit to the trenches, circulated a memorandum to all commanders in II Corps which pulled no punches:

“”I was shown a report from one section of how, on Christmas Day, a friendly gathering had taken place of Germans and British on the neutral ground between the two lines, recounting that many officers had taken part … … This is only illustrative of the apathetic state we are sinking into … illustrating that any orders I issue on the subject are useless, for I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposing troops … … To finish this war quickly we must keep up the fighting spirit …”

General Horace Smith-Dorrien

As the foul weather continued at the start of 1915, so did the war. There was no large-scale fighting on the British front until the costly Battle of Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915. But for many units the Christmas truce was now slipping back into history.

There is a suspicion that certain units were punished in some way for their participation, by being taken out of the line as untrustworthy. But Brown and Eaton find no evidence for this. Nor is there any evidence for the idea that Saxon regiments were sent to the Russian Front for fraternising.

In January the New York Times broke the story under the breezy headline, FOES IN TRENCHES SWOP PIES FOR WINE.  The story reappeared in England in The Daily Sketch with several photographs captioned TOMMY’S TRUCE BETWEEN THE TRENCHES. A thoughtful leader in the Daily Mirror commented that it was hard “to keep up the gospel of hate when chance throws men into companionship of toil and danger”. When a photograph of Major Buchanan-Dunlop appeared in the Daily Sketch under the caption MAJOR WHO SANG CAROLS BETWEEN THE TRENCHES, Generals Smith-Dorrien and Ingouville-Williams were both furious. But there was no court-martial and no reprimand. [Buchanan-Dunlop survived this war and the next, and died with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1947.] But it is believed by his family that he failed to receive the DSO  he wold have been awarded because of his involvement in the truce.

Envoi

Was the Christmas truce a significant event, or just a sentimental aside in the dialogue of war ? A boyish prank ? An end-of-term bit of fun ? In a debate in the House of Commons in 1930 the Liberal MP for Banff, Major Murdoch McKenzie Wood, who had been at the front in 1914 with the Gordon Highlanders, made this comment:

In the early stages of the war, at Christmas 1914, I was in the front trenches, and took part in what was well known at the time as truce. We went over in front of the trenches, and shook hands with many of our German enemies. A great number of people think we did something that was degrading … … The fact is we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired. For a fortnight that truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot each other again.”

The song of the Christmas angels was “ On earth peace to men on whom [God’s] favour rests”. Or, as Private William Tapp of the Royal Warwicks put it: “… it just doesn’t seem right to be killing each other at Christmas time”. 

Amen to that.

March 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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