Christmas Truce 1914

When Britian entered the Great War in August 1914 there was great anticipation that it could all be over by Christmas the same year. Many thought it would be a short swift conflict with the various countries flexing their muscles and then everyone shaking hands and life returning to normality.

This was not the case, this war would be different, no glamour or glory just grit and determination. Advances in technology meant the thunderous cavalry charge was assigned to the past and instead it was dig, dig, dig, and keep your head down.
With both sides not expecting the conflict to last, the defence lines were rough and rather basic. There was no point building elaborate trench systems for just a few months. Then there was the weather, cold and wet with the onset of winter not helping matters. The British Army was not expecting the war to last this long, and so warm winter equipment was slow to reach the front lines.
As the winter rains set in, the cold and damp along with the mud and slime made the troops quite miserable. The poor conditions caused supplies to be delayed or not even make it at all. So, improvisation and survival prevailed. The men in the trenches established their own code of behaviour towards the enemy. Both sides recognised that neither had the monopoly when it came to duty and honour and everyone would have loved to just go home to their families. An unwritten rule of ‘Live and Let Live’ was followed by both sides so it seems. This culminated in the widespread (but not complete) truce of Christmas 1914.

There was a natural longing to relax and be kind to one another at this time of year. With the weather changing for the good this helped things along. Christmas Eve was clear and crisp with a light frost on the ground, all helping to project the Christmas spirit on both sides.

In Europe, Christmas is normally celebrated on the 24th, Christmas Eve. The British soldiers had noticed that the Germans had decorated their trenches with candles, erected small Christmas Trees on the parapet and were singing Christmas Hymns. An officer from the Royal Irish Rifles reported back:

“The Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Christmas. Compliments are being exchanged but I am nevertheless taking all military precautions.”
Some parts of the front line were only a few metres apart and so the British could easily hear the Germans singing. They reciprocated and sang carols back, this all helped with the need to be kind to your fellow human being. Soldiers were heard shouting ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other across no-man’s land.

Later that day, it appears that a couple of soldiers shouted across the gap if they would like to meet in the middle. Quite a risky thing to do but as a one or two soldiers climbed up over the top, no shots were fired. This was soon followed by more and more soldiers, all meeting in the middle of no-man’s land where they swapped photos, badges, cigars, cigarettes, bully beef, chocolate, all in the name of kindness.

One letter back to the parents of Rifleman Oswald Tilley told of “literally hundreds of each side were out in no-man’s land shaking hands”. A war diary from the Scots Guards records that a certain Private Murker:
“met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.”
This understanding between the two sides seems to have happened up and down the front line at Ypres. A British soldier, Private Frederick Heath, wrote that:
“all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”
and in his letter home, he wrote:
“A German soldier shouted ’Come out, English soldier, come over here to us.’ For some little time, we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So, we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity, and fraternity – war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn – a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines’ laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”
At some places, football matches took place although scores were not recorded. There is a rumour that the Germans won on penalties, but the most likely score was 3-2 for Fritz being written in several letters home and diaries, but no-one really knows. Makeshift altars were erected to celebrate Mass, all was at peace for little while at least.
Grenadier Thimian of the 1st Grenadier Guard Regiment wrote of the 24th and 25th of December, telling of the brewing of hot toddy and the eating of cakes before going on watch:
“Up until the morning of Christmas Day, everything was noticeably quiet, then occurred something I shall never forget. I was on guard, when I suddenly noticed a Frenchman had climbed onto the parapet of his trench. I had just taken aim when I noticed one of our men had climbed out too. The two of them advanced step by step towards each other and shook hands. The others from both sides followed their example. The Frenchman, who were mostly old, looked ill-nourished and poorly clothed. They begged for tobacco. We chatted for forty-five minutes then we all returned quietly to our trenches.”
As Christmas Day came to a close, it started to rain again signalling the troops to return back to their trenches, in some area flares were fired to signal an end to the joviality. George Eade, of the Rifles, had become friends with a German artillery man who spoke good English, and as he left, this new acquaintance said to him,
“Today we have peace. Tomorrow, you fight for your country, I fight for mine. Good luck.”
You can listen to a first hand account from PrivateHenry Williamson, London Rifles, speaking to the BBC in the 1960’s. This is from BBC Teach and their YouTube Channel.
The truce was over and it was time to get back to the war, back to the mud and the guns. There would be no further truce until November 1918. Many, even the majority, who celebrated that Christmas on the front in 1914 would not live to see the return of peace. But those who did, the truce was something that would never be forgotten.
References:

Somme 1914-1918 Lessons in War – Martin Marix Evans
Not a shot was fired: Letters from the Christmas Truce 1914 – Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park
The Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914 – Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton