In the lead-up to Christmas 1914 soldiers on either side of the Western Front no man’s land set aside fear and their weapons to exchange surreal holiday greetings.
By late December 1914 World War I had been raging for nearly five months. Had anyone really believed it would be “all over by Christmas,” then it was clear they had been cruelly mistaken. With the strength of imperial Germany now evident to all, there appeared to be no chance of victory in the foreseeable future. By this time men were beginning, almost despite themselves, to gain a kind of grudging respect for their opposite numbers lurking across no man’s land. They were enduring the same terrible weather, the same dreadful living conditions, and, after all, they had managed to fight each other to an absolute standstill. The earlier rumors of atrocities, knavish tricks and the callous use of “dum-dum” bullets had abated as more experience was gained of the destructive power of high-velocity bullets, shrapnel bullets and shell fragments. The war had become the new reality for countless men, as they were wrapped up into the stultifying routines and deadly horrors of trench warfare. There seemed no respite in sight, but it was critical to maintain a high level of watchfulness, or else the consequences were often fatal.
Amid the continuing fighting, there was also growing evidence in some localized sectors of the line the two sides were edging to a modus vivendi that helped ameliorate some of the worst aspects of trench life. Many Germans could speak English, and a fair number of German soldiers had lived and worked in Britain before the war. Sometimes it seemed almost natural for an attitude of “live and let live” to creep in. Breakfast time seemed quieter, latrine breaks were respected, and men engaged in mundane tasks were left in peace. Soldiers would banter across no man’s land, and there were even rumors of informal shooting contests at impromptu targets displayed in each other’s trenches. Such behavior attracted the attention of General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien—commander of the British Expeditionary Force’s II Corps—who issued orders to try and eradicate such relaxed practices:
Experience of this and 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. Understandings—amounting almost to unofficial armistices—grow up between our troops and the enemy, with a view to making life easier. …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.…Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices…and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.
It is interesting to note the understanding tone taken in this order: This was not the knee-jerk reaction of high command of popular imagination.
On December 24 there was a severe frost, and it began to snow in some places. As the water froze in the trenches around their feet, the troops seemed to have little or nothing to look forward to. Peacetime Christmas celebrations seemed a world away. Nevertheless, that day Leutnant Walther Stennes, of the German 16th Infantry Regiment, noticed a distinct change in the tempo of the war:
On Christmas Eve at noon fire ceased completely. We had received mail from Germany.…When it became dusk, we opened the parcels and tried to be a little like at home— write letters. Of course it was unusual that the opposite side also ceased fire, because they always maintained sparse rifle fire. Then my officer controlling the sentries came in and asked, “Do you expect a surprise attack? Because it’s very unusual the situation.” I said, “No I don’t think so. But anyhow everybody’s awake, no one is sleeping, and the sentries are still on duty. So I think it’s alright.” The night passed, [and] not a single shot was fired.
The British, too, were being inundated with letters and parcels containing presents from home. There was even a special gift, commissioned for every soldier, originating from Princess Mary—a tin containing tobacco, cigarettes or sweets, among other ephemera, that would be issued on Christmas Day to troops in the field. All told there was a strange atmosphere—an awareness something was in the air. The question was, what? Perhaps a gesture of friendship, but equally possible was a sudden deadly attack to capitalize on the kind of lethargy identified by Smith-Dorrien. As they pondered, strange sights and sounds emanated from the German trenches, as Private William Quinton, of the 2nd Bedfordshire Regiment, noted:
Something in the direction of the German lines caused us to rub our eyes and look again. Here and there, showing just above their parapet, we could see very faintly what looked like very small colored lights.…We were very suspicious and were discussing this strange move of the enemy, when something even stranger happened. The Germans were actually singing! Not very loud, but there was no mistaking it.…Suddenly, across the snow-clad no man’s land, a strong clear voice rang out, singing the opening lines of “Annie Laurie.” It was sung in perfect English, and we were spellbound.…To us it seemed that the war had suddenly stopped!…Not a sound from friend or foe, and as the last notes died away, a spontaneous outburst of clapping arose from our trenches. Encore! Good old Fritz!
There were several reports of trees being erected in the German front lines to brighten up the dark, miserable night. It was ironic that several much-loved “British” Yuletide customs, including Christmas trees and colored lights, had been imported from Germany during the Victorian era through the influence of Prince Consort Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In some sectors there was no doubting the underlying friendly intent, and soon there were fraternal demonstrations from both sides.
The men who took the initiative in initiating the truce were brave—or foolish—men. To show themselves above the parapet meant breaking the ingrained habits from painful experiences of the accuracy of snipers. Still, the distinct signs of a thaw in relations meant some men were tempted to test the waters despite the obvious risks. What were their foes really like? Were they really the monstrous creations of propaganda or just ordinary soldiers like themselves? Yet the risks were still very real, as illustrated when Sergeant Frederick Brown, of the 1/2nd Monmouthshire Regiment, watched Sergeant Frank Collins take his first steps out into no man’s land:
About 8 a.m. voices could be heard shouting on our right front, where the trenches came together to about 35 yards apart, German heads appeared, and soon our fellows showed themselves, and seasonal greetings were bawled back and forth, evidently Xmas feeling asserting itself on both sides. Presently, a Sergeant Collins stood waist high above the trench, waving a box of Woodbines above his head. German soldiers beckoned him over, and Collins got out and walked halfway toward them, in turn beckoning someone to come and take the gift. However, they called out, “Prisoner!” and immediately Collins edged back the way he had come. Suddenly a shot rang out, and the poor sergeant staggered back into the trench, shot through the chest. I can still hear his cries, “Oh, my God, they have shot me!” and he died immediately. Needless to remark, every head disappeared in a trice with very bitter feelings on our part.
This was not a unique occasion. Yet despite the obvious risks men were still tempted into making approaches to their enemies. Individuals would get out of the trench, then dive back in, gradually becoming bolder. As Private George Ashurst, of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, recalled:
We’d been standing up on the firing parapet, and nobody was shooting. So one or two fellows jumped out on top …others followed, and there were scores of us on top at the finish.…We tied an empty sandbag up with its string and kicked it about on top—just to keep warm of course.…Some Germans came to their wire with a newspaper; they were waving it. A corporal in our company went for it, went right to the wire, and the Germans shook hands with him, wished him “Merry Christmas” and gave him the paper….It was so pleasant to get out of that trench from between them two walls of clay and walk and run about—it was heaven.
Although such friendly overtures and resulting fraternization in no man’s land were not universal, there is no doubt a fair proportion of the British battalions in the front line, particularly in III and IV Corps areas, were involved to some degree. Some officers tried to direct what occurred, but the press of events soon swept them along. One such was Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse, of the 2nd Scots Guards:
By 8 a.m. there was no shooting at all, except for a few shots on our left. At 8:30 I was looking out and saw four Germans leave their trenches and come toward us. …I went out alone and met Barry, one of our ensigns, also coming out from another part of the line. By the time we got to them, they were three-quarters of the way over and much too near our barbed wire, so I moved them back. They were three private soldiers and a stretcher-bearer, and their spokesman started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a happy Christmas and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce.
The spreading truce proved an organic process, taking on its own impetus and expanding beyond the control of individuals. It was not planned or controlled, it just happened. That it was the same for both sides was vouchsafed by Leutnant Stennes:
The whole thing was an absolutely spontaneous action. Not even the officers knew anything about it. When I rushed out of the dugout, I found many of my company standing in the open, waving and saying, “Merry Christmas!” On the other side some Indians were standing up and waving! The men hesitantly advanced to the middle, first hesitating, then later on stepping freely forward, and in the middle of no man’s land they met, shook hands and then began talking. Then more men came out. Suddenly no man’s land was covered with Indian and German soldiers. I met some English officers, we shook hands, offered cigars and talked as much as we could. Anyhow, we understood each other. Of course everybody was unarmed—not even a knife—that was given out as a rule. But the sentries, they were standing on duty, rifle at the ready, on both sides.
There is no doubt precautions were taken in the opposing trenches against the very real possibility of betrayal. Chastened by the death of their comrade, many of the Monmouthshires would remain on their guard against any more of the “mistakes” of the kind that had cost Frank Collins his life.
The idea soccer matches were played between the British and Germans in no man’s land during the truce has taken a strong hold, but the evidence seems a little intangible. Yet there are several semi- feasible accounts, including one interview recorded in the 1960s with Leutnant Johannes Niemann, of the Saxon 133rd Regiment, who told of a game with Scottish Highlanders in no man’s land:
A Scottish soldier appeared with a football, which seemed to come from nowhere, and a few minutes later a real football match got underway.…It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour, and that we had no referee. A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm.… But after an hour’s play, when our commanding officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it. A little later we drifted back to our trenches, and the fraternization ended. The game finished with a score of three goals to two in favor of “Fritz” against “Tommy.”
Of course not everyone was involved in the truce, and some battalions remained collectively aloof. Private Clifford Lane and his comrades in the 1st Hertfordshire Regiment were simply not in the mood for a truce:
When relieved by another section after dark, [we] returned to the forward trench, soaked to the waist and plastered with mud.…We were now ready to enjoy what the English news papers described as our Christmas dinner! This consisted of the usual bully beef and hard biscuits with the addition of a lump of cold Christmas pudding about the size of a tennis ball. There wasn’t even a rum issue! The night was completely silent apart from the occasional rifle shot fired by a nervous sentry, but towards midnight there seemed to be some commotion in the enemy trenches, and shortly afterwards a Chinese lantern was raised above the enemy parapet and shouts of, “Zum wohl!” [cheers] were heard. We were immediately ordered to open fire, and thus what was undoubtedly a friendly gesture was brutally repulsed.
This unfriendly attitude was the case where British battalions were facing Prussian units, who were generally considered far more dangerous opponents than the Saxons or Westphalians. In fact, General Douglas Haig’s I Corps was unaffected by the truce, as was most of Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps.
The truce lasted for a varying amount of time. In some areas it was just Christmas Eve or Christmas Day itself. But elsewhere the truce endured for several days. Indeed, once the truce was established, the new status soon achieved a strange “normality” for those taking part. However, other motivations lurked below the surface, as both sides seized the opportunity to bring up supplies of building materials and set to work on improving their sorry trenches. Hulse was typical of this pragmatic approach:
We improved our dugouts, roofed in new ones and got a lot of very useful work done towards increasing our comfort. Directly it was dark, I got the whole of my company on to improving and remaking our barbed wire entanglements all along my front and had my scouts out in front of the working parties, to prevent any surprise; but not a shot was fired, and we finished off a real good obstacle unmolested.
It is crucial to realize that for the vast majority of the participants the 1914 Christmas truce was a matter of convenience and maudlin sentiment. It did not mark some deep flowering of the human spirit rising up against the war or signify political antiwar emotions taking root among the ranks. The truce simply enabled the soldiers to celebrate Christmas in a freer, more jovial and above all safer environment, after all the exhausting torments they had been enduring. It also allowed them to satisfy their natural curiosity about the one another. Finally, it let them to carry out vital construction works, which would have been nigh impossible under the constant threat of snipers.
In these circumstances the truce could not last. It was a break from reality, not the dawn of some brave new peaceful world. The gradual end of the truce mirrored the start—it too was a dangerous business, where a mistake could cost lives if the firing opened up while men were still milling about between the trenches. For Captain Charles Stockwell, of the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the truce ended early on Boxing Day, and the transition was handled with a consummate courtesy.
Not a shot all night: our men had sing-songs—ditto the enemy. He played the game and never tried to touch his wire or anything. At 8:30am I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He put up a sheet with, “Thank you” on it, and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches— he fired two shots in the air, and the war was on again!
Soon war had regained its grip on the whole of the British sector. When it came to it, the troops went back to war willingly enough. Many would indeed have rejoiced at the end of the war, but they still stood fast alongside their friends— their comrades—in the line, still willing to accept the orders of their NCOs and officers, still willing to kill Germans. It is this last point that must give most pause for those who believe the truce to have been some kind of moral epiphany. If that were true, then it was short-lived and shallow indeed; even after meeting and “putting a face” on their enemies, the average British soldier was more than willing to shoot them the moment the truce was over. Belgium and a good part of northern France were still occupied; German aggression had not visibly diminished. The Germans and French were still embroiled in what they perceived to be a war of national survival. As such the truce had changed nothing and meant nothing.
Peter Hart is oral historian of the Imperial War Museum London. He is author of The Great War (2013); Gallipoli (2011); The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (2009); and 1918: A Very British Victory (2008).