Many myths and legends surround World War One and Christmas – especially the first Christmas of the war in December 1914. The British public and the soldiers fighting in the mud of Flanders were given the impression by those in charge that the Germans, fighting possibly less than100 metres away, were blood-lusting psychopaths bent on destroying all in their way. Any form of friendship between the two sides fighting the war, would have been seen as detrimental to this impression. While the Germans remained the “evil Hun”, the government and the military could justify their respective tactics.
However, the first Christmas of 1914 clearly broke the impression that those in charge wanted to portray. For many years – even after the war – the government wanted to maintain the image of the dastardly Hun and any references to any fraternisation between both sides was clamped down on. There were whispers here and there but no actual evidence. The same happened with the football match between the British and the Germans. The image that the German soldiers were just like the British and the French would not have worked for the Allies. But recent research by Stanley Weintraub has proved that there was fraternisation – improvised at the time in December 1914 but with some ‘rules’ quickly built in.
Weintraub has found that the first smatterings that something was not quite right took place in the trenches where the Berkshire Regiment faced the XIX Corps of the German Army. The XIX’s were from Saxony. The Saxons started to put up small conifers on the parapets of their trenches – akin to our Christmas trees. The Berkshires could see many of them lining the tops of the XIX’s trenches. Groups of the Berkshires and the Saxons met in No-Mans Land and officers from both sides turned a blind eye to this fraternisation which broke military law. In fact, the officers in these trenches agreed to an informal truce between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
During the next 24 hours, impromptu cease fires occurred throughout the Western Front. The British High Command – stationed 27 miles behind the trenches – was horrified but little could be done. A military directive had been issued which stated:
|“It (fraternisation) discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.”|
This was ignored. British High Command then informed the front line that an attack by the Germans was expected on Christmas Eve:
|“It is though possible the enemy may be contemplating an attack during Christmas or New Year. Special vigilance will be maintained during this period.”|
This, too, was ignored. Troops on the front line had already got into the festive spirit as German troops had received Christmas trees and gifts and the British troops had received a Christmas gift from Princess Mary, the daughter of George V. The king had also sent a Christmas card to the front with the message “May God protect you and bring you home safe.”
On Christmas Eve many sectors along the Western Front did not experience any fire or very little when compared to the previous days in December. Christmas carols were sung between trenches. In the dark of night time, groups of German and Allied soldiers met in No-Man’s Land. No one is sure who started this truce and impromptu meetings but they certainly took place in many areas on the Western Front. Captain R J Armes of the 1st North Staffordshire Regiment arranged, with a German officer, for a cease fire in his sector that was to last until midnight on Christmas Day.
Christmas Day itself started with unarmed German and British soldiers collecting their dead from No-Man’s Land. This has been a pre-condition for a cease-fire. On Christmas Eve night, when the soldiers from both sides had met, they had done so among the bodies of their fallen comrades. In one burial service, German and British dead were buried alongside each other near Lille.
With this task over, both groups of men then exchanged gifts – primarily food. Sauerkraut and sausages came from the Germans while chocolate was given in exchange. In some sectors, it was reported that both Germans and British got together for a communal hunt for hares so that Christmas Day could be celebrated with fresh meat. The regimental records of the 133rd Saxon Regiment also records a football match which they won 3-2. This score was also supported by a letter published in “The Times” from a British major in the Medical Corps.
As midnight on Christmas Day approached, men from both sides drifted back to their trenches. Pre-arranged signals had been decided on to allow the men to get back. The use of a flare was enough to warn men to get back and that the cease fire was over.
On Boxing Day, the shooting started again.
Field Marshall Sir John French’s HQ issued a statement that the lack of firing on the Western Front was “a comparative lull on account of the stormy weather.”
|“Altogether we had a great day with our enemies, and parted with much hand-shaking and mutual goodwill.” Percy Jones of the Queen’s Westminster Regiment.
“It was a curious scene – a lovely moonlit (Christmas) night, the German trenches with small lights on them, and the men on both sides gathered in groups on the parapets. It is weird to think that tomorrow night we shall be at it again. If one gets through this show it will be a Christmas time to live in one’s memory.” Captain R Armes of the 1st North Staffordshire regiment.
“It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked.” Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse, 2nd Scots Guards.
“What a sight; little groups of Germans and British extending along the length of our front. Out of the darkness we could hear the laughter and see lighted matches. Where they couldn’t talk the language, they made themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill ” Corporal John Ferguson of the Seaforth Highlanders.