WWI: Christmas 1914
Christmas 1914, the first World War had been raging for just over four months, but things didn’t quite go as the Leaders planned…
As the soldiers of both sides cheerily departed for the front-lines in France and Belgium, the politicians told them it would “all be over by Christmas.” But it wasn’t. Instead, on that first Christmas of the War, the soldiers – many of them volunteers from Ireland, indeed a great number of them probably hurlers and footballers – found themselves bogged down in deadly trench warfare, sometimes less than a hundred metres apart.
Compassion for Ones Foes
After heavy rains near Ypres, where the Germans held the high ground and the British the lower ground, English troops came out of their flooded trenches in full view of the Germans who expressed their sympathy and did not open fire on their soaked and vulnerable enemy.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914, something magical and mysterious happened… the killing stopped – and men from both sides gingerly left their positions and fraternised in the ‘No Mans’ Land’ between the trenches.
For that first Christmas away from home, family and friends of the soldiers wanted to make their loved ones’ Christmas as special as could be, under the circumstances that is. They sent packages filled with letters, warm clothing, food, cigarettes, and medications. Yet what made Christmas at the front really seem like the traditional festival, was the arrival of so many small Christmas trees in the German trenches.
On Christmas Eve, many German soldiers put up their Christmas trees, decorated with candles, on the parapets. Hundreds of the trees lit up the trenches. The British ‘Tommies’ could see the lights, but it took them a few minutes to work out what they were looking at. They could hear the Germans celebrating and calling out to them. In some parts of the front line, the two sides took turns to sing Christmas carols to each other.
At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongue. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers, even exchanging hats.
This friendliness on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day, was in no way officially sanctioned, nor organised. Some of those who went out to meet the enemy in the middle of No Man’s Land, negotiated a peace their ‘Leaders’ seemed to have great difficulty in (or perhaps reluctance in) establishing… it was simple:
“We won’t fire … if you won’t fire.”
Another opportunity undertaken by the truce, was to bury the dead. There were corpses out in No Man’s Land that had been there for several months. Along with the revelry that celebrated Christmas, was the sad and sombre job of burying their fallen comrades. On Christmas Day, British and German soldiers appeared on No Man’s Land and sorted through the bodies. In a few instances, joint services were held together for both the British and German dead.
Many soldiers enjoyed meeting the un-seen enemy and were surprised to discover they were more alike than they had thought. They talked, shared Christmas trees and family pictures, and exchanged Christmas gifts, such as cigarettes, puddings, wine, regimental badges and brass buttons etc.
Another wonderful example of the fraternisation, was soccer games played in the middle of No Man’s Land, where one such match between a British regiment and the Germans, the Germans won by three goals to two.
This impromptu, unsanctioned Christmas Truce of 1914, came shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe – much to the anger of the ‘Chain of Command’ who, in many instances, threatened repercussions for lack of discipline. Numerous Officers ordered their artillery to open fire on their fraternising troops in no-mans-land. On none of these occasions did the artillery obey orders. There are numerous complaints on record by officers shocked at the total breakdown of discipline as men point blank refused orders to open fire on their own soldiers, who were mingling with the enemy in no-mans-land – on Christmas Day. The reinstatement of combat was ordered and in various areas of the front, recommenced the day after Christmas, others after New Year and on the Eastern front a week later again. It was the last example of the supposedly outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated. An Easter Sunday Truce was attempted by German units in 1915, but they were suppressed by British artillery fire. Future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by Officers, with threats of disciplinary action, court martial, Treason, the death penalty and so, became somewhat of a legend… But it served as heartening proof and showed, however brief, that even in the most hell-like of conditions, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, soldiers’ essential goodness and humanity prevails… and with the spirit of Christmas and what it represents, can overcome the enmity and bring people together.
The Irish poet, Thomas Kettle, was killed in the War in September 1916. He captured that Christmas spirit in a poem he wrote to his little daughter, Betty, shortly before he died:
“So, here while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor –
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret scripture of the poor.”
The French government was the first to severely censor any reports on what they called “fraternisation with the enemy.” In a letter dated 7 December 1914, Charles De Gaulle expressed his dismay at fraternisation with the enemy, where French and German troops had exchanged newspapers and recovered their dead and organised burial parties in no-mans-land. French General d’Urbal, expressed alarm over soldiers staying too long in the same sector becoming friendly with their enemies, to the extent that they were conducting conversations between the lines and even visiting one another’s trenches!
Political pressure was brought to bear in order to censor all reports of the event from mainstream history books for decades. For years the extraordinary event was known only by word of mouth from participants. The damage caused by the Christmas Truce to propaganda campaigns to demonise the enemy, was regarded as a serious threat to the war. It has taken decades to unearth the details of the fascinating events surrounding Christmas 1914.
The soccer match was re-enacted recently by English, German and other NATO troops in Kabul; midway through the match, in perfect synchronicity, play on the make-shift pitch had to be postponed for the landing of a Black Hawk helicopter carrying John McCain, visiting American troops. Never was John McCutcheon’s great song about the Christmas Truce more timelessly and heart-breakingly true.
“Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I’ve learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”
“Without an Enemy, there can be no war.”
The famous Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, who had exposed to the world the horrors of Lord Kitchener’s scorched earth campaign against the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and the horrors of the British concentration camps in South Africa, was the most prominent campaigner against British involvement in the First World War.
Open Christmas Letter
Emily Hobhouse authored the Open Christmas Letter calling for peace. 101 British women signed Emily’s Open Christmas Letter which was endorsed by 155 prominent German and Austrian women in response. Under the heading: “On Earth Peace, Goodwill towards Men”, Emily Hobhouse wrote: “Sisters: The Christmas message sounds like mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished, and still wish, for peace, may surely offer a solemn greeting to such of you who feel as we do.” She mentioned that “as in South Africa during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902), the brunt of modern war falls upon non-combatants and the conscience of the world cannot bear the sight.”
Christmas Hastens Peace
“Is it not our mission to preserve life? Do not humanity and common sense alike prompt us to join hands with the women… and urge our rulers to stave off further bloodshed?… May Christmas hasten that day…”
The German Mothers responded: “To our English Sisters, sisters of the same race, our warm and heartfelt thanks for Christmas greetings… women of the belligerent countries, with all faithfulness, devotion and love to their country, can go beyond it and maintain true solidarity with the women of other belligerent nations, that really civilised women never lose their humanity…”
Love for One’s Enemies
Emily Hobhouse also oversaw the raising of funds and shipping of food and medicines to the women and children of Germany and Austria who were suffering as a result of the English Naval blockade.
Preaching for Peace
Numerous ministers were proclaiming from the pulpit: “That the guns may fall silent at least upon the night when the Angels sang.” Although these messages were officially rebuffed, and suppressed in the heavily censored media, many of the soldiers in the frontlines seemed to share these sentiments.