Fraternisation and the Christmas truce

British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914, front of 11th Brigade, 4th Division. © IWM (Q 11745)

One of the best known events of the Great War is the Christmas truce of 1914.  On Christmas Day, British and German troops posted along some parts of the front line put down their weapons and met in No Man’s Land to sing Christmas carols, exchange gifts and – according to some accounts – play football.  The truce has, over time, become heavily mythologised.  It is sometimes portrayed as a unified act of defiance which occurred only along the British section of the Western Front, or as the only truce that occurred during the war.  The real story is more complex, and it provides insights into life in the trenches and some of the personal experiences that made truces like the one in December 1914 possible.

Origins of the Christmas Truce

Although the Christmas truce of 1914 stands out as a remarkable event during the conflict, it was by no means an isolated incident during this war, or indeed others.  There were various impromptu truces and cases of fraternisation between armies throughout the 19th century.  For example, during the Second Boer War, days with religious significance, such as Sundays and Christmas, led to cease-fires between Boer commandos and British troops.  A proposed football match nearly took place in 1902 between British troops commanded by Major Clement Edwards and Boer commandos under Field General S.G. Maritz, but a brief skirmish the night before stopped it from happening.

German troops decorating a Tannenbäume in their trench during Christmas 1914.

This common cultural ground, which British and German troops also shared, explains how individual truces occurred during the first Christmas of the Great War.  Pope Benedict XV was the first to suggest that Christmas be a day of peace between the belligerent forces, asking ‘that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.’  Although this request was largely ignored, efforts by both the British and German governments to raise morale inadvertently encouraged troops to take to heart notions of ‘peace on earth’ and ‘goodwill to all men.’

The British government sent about 2.16 million Princess Mary boxes, filled with tobacco, chocolate and a photo of the princess, to Imperial troops.  The German Government sent Weihnachtspakete (Christmas packages) to their troops, along with Tannenbäume (pine trees) to decorate trench parapets.  The Christmas cultural traditions of both sides, such as carol singing, helped initiate spontaneous truces along the front and led to temporary ceasefires.

The Live and Let Live System

The environment in which soldiers lived and fought also helped make the first Great War Christmas truce possible.  By September 1914, men fighting on both sides were no longer on the offensive but were entrenching positions to give themselves some protection.  Enemy troops found themselves in close proximity to each other, separated only by No Man’s Land and enduring appalling conditions while under enemy fire.  As winter weather set in, soldiers suffered from exposure to cold and lost fingers to frostbite in trenches filled with freezing mud and rainwater, as well as the perils of artillery and machine gun fire.  By Christmas, the Germans and their allies had suffered 800,000 casualties, while the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had lost 86,237 men out of 111,000 and the French Army had lost about 300,000.

Group photograph showing men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers with German soldiers in no man’s land on Boxing Day, 1914.

In these conditions, some soldiers developed a degree of empathy for those on the opposing side and adopted an unofficial policy of ‘live and let live’.  While this was feasible on quiet sectors of the Western Front, on other, more contested sectors a policy of ‘kill or be killed’ was in place and truces were much less likely to occur there.

Unofficial truces on quiet sectors were also strictly forbidden by High Command, but they occurred throughout the war.  Some of them reflected men’s daily habits; for example, front line troops generally refrained from shelling enemy trenches during breakfast, partly due to the risk of retaliation which would disturb their own morning routine.  Captain B. Liddle Hart of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry wrote:

Unforgettable too, is the homely smell of breakfast bacon that gained its conquest over the war reek of chloride of lime, and in so doing not only brought a tacit truce to the battlefront, but helped in preserving sanity.

Similar truces often took place in the evening, when ration parties for both sides were carrying supplies to the front lines.  They fostered mutual respect between the lines.  As one British Non-Commissioned Officer remarked, ‘Mr. Boche [a derisive nickname for a German soldier] ain’t a bad feller.  You leave him alone: he’ll leave you alone.’  These informal truces occurred without direct communication with the enemy; the choice of one side not to attack the other demonstrated its intentions.

On quiet sectors, overt fraternisation was a fairly common occurrence.   It often took the form of yelling matches between the lines, message boards being posted above parapets, or even messages attached to stones being thrown into the enemy trench.  For instance, the German troops opposite the East Surrey Regiment once tried to initiate a temporary truce with a board that stated, ‘Don’t fire, East Surreys, you shoot too well.’  These informal truces set a precedent for the 1914 Christmas truce; soldiers had already become familiar with their neighbours and receptive to opportunities to reduce violence.

Peace at Christmas

The historian Tony Ashworth compares the Christmas truce of 1914 ‘to the sudden surfacing of the whole of an iceberg, visible to all including non-combatants, which for most of the war remained largely submerged invisible to all save the participants.’  What makes it unique is the fact that, unlike the more sporadic, localized truces that occurred throughout the war, it spread along 15 miles of the 25-mile front manned by the BEF and involved over a third of British troops.

While the nature of the truce varied considerably along different parts of the front line, in many places it was the singing of Christmas carols that triggered it.  Private Frank Sumter of the Rifle Brigade later recalled:

While they were signing our boys said, ‘Lets join in,’ so we joined in and when we started singing they stopped.  And when we stopped, they started again…  Then one German took a chance and jumped up on top of the trench and shouted out, ‘Happy Christmas, Tommy!’ So of course our boys said, ‘If he can do it, we can do it,’ and we all jumped up.  A sergeant-major shouted, ‘Get down!’  But we said, ‘Shut up Sergeant, it’s Christmas time!’  And we all went forward to the barbed wire.

Burying those killed in the attack of 18 December. The 1914 Christmas truce was an opportunity for both sides to bury their dead.

As this account shows, sometimes insubordination did occur.  It was not the norm, however, as officers were often the ones negotiating the length and terms of the ceasefire.  The notion that soldiers were punished for participating in the Christmas truce is false; it simply resulted in strongly worded orders from High Command prohibiting fraternisation in the later years of the war.  Once agreed, truces provided opportunities for necessary work:  trenches were mended and defences rebuilt, and dead comrades – or even enemy fallen – whose bodies had been left in the dangerous zone of No Man’s Land were buried.  Alfred V. Lovell described how ‘today I stood shoulder to shoulder with a German and dug a grave for his late comrade.  Crosses now mark the spot where for weeks there had lain three gruesome forms.’  After the dead were buried, overt fraternisation occurred, with troops discussing the war and their occupations before it, exchanging gifts, sharing cigarettes and occasionally playing football.

Again, different truces varied quite a lot, particularly in how they ended.  Some, such as one involving the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, lasted from Christmas until early January and ended in a formal manner.  However, many ended abruptly with fighting re-commencing instantly.  Private Edward Roe of the East Lancashire regiment wrote on December 28, 1914 how peace between the two forces ended on a nasty note:

About 9.30 am a shot is fired from the direction of our company headquarters and a German falls. That started the war again… We found out who fired the shot.  It was a young fellow, about 16 or 17 years of age and a lance corporal…  He got a couple of tots of buckshee rum and he got brave.  It was a wonderful achievement to shoot down a man standing behind his trench unarmed and smoking, a man that placed his trust in us.  The young lance corporal thought he had performed a wonderful deed. We did not like the idea of being the first to break the mutual agreement.  The honour of the British Army was at stake, and we lost it.

Overall, no universal experience is applicable to those troops which participated in the truce.  Numerous ceasefires originated under different circumstances, occurred in various locations, consisted of varying degrees of fraternisation and varied in length considerably.  This account does not extend to the experiences of allied or Central Powers’ troops on other fronts, such as the French or Austrians who had their own unique ceasefires.

The Christmas truce was a remarkable event which illustrates not only a flicker of humanity during a period of violent conflict, but also how mutual empathy between enemies could persist throughout a conflict and take different forms in everyday actions.

Words by Conall Treen