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Across The Fence: The Christmas Truce of 1914
December 25, 2014 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting

London News illustration of the Christmas Truce published Jan. 1915

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the ‘unofficial’ Christmas Truce of 1914.

On June 28, 1914 Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austria-Hungary heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand. The assassination stirred a diplomatic crisis that would escalate to the scale of world war, The Great War. A month later on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and invaded. Russia came to the aid of Serbia and Germany invaded Belgium and Luxembourg and advanced on France.

This invasion forced Britain to declare war on Germany. The British were able to stop Germany’s advance on Paris and there established the Western Front, a network of miserable earthen trenches covering an area aptly named ‘no mans land.’ A final truce would not be reached until November 11, 1918 leaving in its wake more than 10 million soldiers dead on the battlefields, 20 million wounded, nearly 8 million missing and more than 7 million civilian casualties.

When British troops mustered arms and marched against the invading Germans it was thought that the conflict would be over in little more than a few weeks. However, in less than six months the number of soldiers who had died in battle had surpassed 1 million and as more and more nations were becoming involved it became obvious that the end of hostilities was a long way off.

As summer months passed away and fall faded into the early stages of winter, the trench warfare on the Western Front became a miserable and disheartening proposition. Both sides suffered equally as rains filled the trenches with mud to depths as much as a foot. Wounded men rested uncomfortably against walls of mud and shivered in the freezing rain that penetrated their soggy uniforms. The dead, who had been carried back to the trenches, were stacked in gruesome heaps of jumbled arms and legs and unrecovered bodies lay scattered across the scarred and cratered battlefield between the opposing trenches.

After nearly six months of combat and the closing days of 1914 approached, British and German troops occupied a network of trenches stretching for close to 27 miles in length. The trenches of the enemy would often be no more that 70 yards away or as close as 30 yards distant. This close proximity of opposing combatants would often result in an exchange of greetings or insults between the British and German soldiers.

In fact, in those earlier months of the war, it was not uncommon for temporary truces to be called and brief conversations held between troops on opposite sides. Often these unofficial mini-truces would be called in order for the dead to be carried from the battlefield and during that time British and German troops would stop to visit or share a cigarette. It would seem that during that period of time chivalry, even during war, was not yet dead.

Christmas was just around the corner and for both sides the thoughts of home seemed to override the starkness of war. Both British and German armies received supplies from behind their front lines and cease-fires were traditionally called as supplies arrived and troops were exposed in order to receive and unload those provisions. With the Christmas season came packages from home, candies, canned meats, clothing and other gifts. For the British troops this included gifts from King George V consisting of plum pudding, chocolates, butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco along with a personal message from George which read, “May God protect you and send you home safe.”

German solders received gifts from the Kaiser, a large meerschaum pipe with tobacco for the troops and a box of cigars for the officers. Additionally, townsfolk and other support groups, for both the British and German troops, sent packages of food, clothing and letters of encouragement and thanks.

Somehow despite the carnage of the preceding months battles, drizzling rains, mud filled trenches and the stark images of fallen comrades nearby, the spirit of Christmas found its way. A correspondent for the British newspaper, Daily Telegraph, recorded an event that occurred along the line of trenches. A group of German soldiers had managed to get a chocolate cake into the British trenches along with a note requesting a ceasefire on Christmas Eve in order to celebrate the season as well as their Captain’s birthday.

The German troops proposed a concert to begin at 7:30 p.m. and candles to be placed along the edges of their trenches. British troops accepted the proposal and reciprocated the gift of a chocolate cake with a gift of tobacco. At the appointed time the German soldiers came out of their trenches and began to sing and British troops applauded their performance.

What transpired from that one event was a spontaneous and contagious outpouring of peace and goodwill all along the Western Front. It is important to note that these Christmas celebrations were initiated by the rank and file soldiers in many cases against the direct orders of their commanding officers. Fraternization with the enemy was a treasonable offense. Also, not all units along the front participated but it has been estimated that thousands up to perhaps as many as 100 thousand troops participated in the Christmas Truce of 1914.

The ceasefire continued throughout the night with singing of Christmas carols and greetings filling the night. As the sun rose on Christmas day the troops began to leave the trenches and join together in the battle-torn no mans land. Soldiers exchanged gifts, visited with one another, shared family photos and initiated impromptu soccer matches.

Many used the truce for other needs as well. The 6th Gordon Highlanders organized a burial truce with the Germans and gathered up their dead who still lay on the field.

Second Lt. Arthur Pelham Burn of the Highlanders was there: “Our Padre …arranged the prayers and psalms, etc., and an interpreter wrote them out in German. 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 most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared.” However, after that unhappy task was completed they too joined together to celebrate.

Kurt Zehmish of the 134th Saxons wrote in his diary: “The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse described a sing-along at his trenches saying, “[We]…ended up with “Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn it was faked!”

Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment wrote of that Christmas Eve: “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they sang “Silent Night” – “Stille Nacht.” I shall never forget, it was one of the highlights of my life…”

Of course not everyone was in favor of such blatant fraternization. Corporal Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarians vehemently chastised his comrades for their disregard for military protocol; “Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?”

British commander Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was outraged when he learned of the conduct of his troops during the Christmas Truce; “I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse.”

Captain J. C. Dunn, Medical Officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers told how the Christmas Truce of 1914 ended at his trenches on the Western Front; “At 8:30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] 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, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.”

I am certain that there have been extensive social, political, psychological and philosophical studies done on the significance of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Perhaps my views are a gross simplification of a complex event. It seems to me that part of what happened on that Christmas Eve was the emergence of the inherent good that rests in the hearts of mankind. We seem to try to convince ourselves that we are inherently evil and that compassion for our fellow man is the exception and not the rule.

However, on that Christmas Eve nearly 100,000 men, men who were taught, even commanded to hate and kill their enemies, stood together on a battleground that they knew would soon enough re-erupt in bloodshed and death, and yet together they sang, Silent night, Holy night…
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