WAR and REMEMBRANCE

The Truce of 1914

In 1914 when soldiers in Europe marched out to the first great European war of the 20th century, they said they would be home by Christmas to celebrate their victory.

The young men were not home by Christmas. The war dragged on and on for years and Europe was never to be the same again.

In December of 1914, however, a strange thing happened on the Western front. It was Christmas Eve, and the weather suddenly got cold, freezing the slush and water of the trenches in which the men were bunkered down. In the German trenches soldiers started lighting candles. British sentries reported that there appeared to be small lights, raised on poles or bayonets and although these lanterns clearly illuminated the German troops, the British held their fire. Even more startlingly, British officers saw through binoculars that some enemy troops were holding Christmas trees over their heads with lighted candles in their branches!'' The Germans, who celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, were extending holiday greetings to their enemies.

A few German soldiers started singing carols and it was soon picked up all along the line as others joined in harmonizing. Then they began singing "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" The British immediately recognized the melody and began singing "Silent Night" along with the Germans.

Then occurred one of the most unusual incidents in military history. One by one, soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons and ventured into no man's land - too many of them to prevent their superior officers from objecting. An undeclared truce had broken out spontaneously, against all orders and the rules of military combat.



One eye-witness account of the unofficial truce is given in the wartime diary kept by veteran Frank Richards. In it he wrote:"We stuck up a board with 'Merry Christmas' on it. The enemy stuck up a similar one.

"Two of our men threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads as two of the Germans did the same, our two going to meet them. They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench and so did the Germans."

Richards explained that some German soldiers spoke perfect English. One, who had worked in Brighton before the war, said how fed up he was that they were at war and he would be glad when it was all over. His British counterpart agreed.

The German officers appear to have taken the lead role in the Chritsmans get-together having provided barrels of beer not only for their own men but two barrels for the British soldiers too. The Brits, however, claimed the French-made beer was barely fit to drink. They gave each other small gifts from chocolate bars and tobacco to tins of processed beef. Others joined in and as the day progressed this mass fraternisation spread along the front to include soccer matches between the two forces. Men who the day before had been shooting to kill were sharing tots of rum and showing each other family snapshots.

The men sat around campfires together singing the choruses of Christmas carols, "Silent Night" being the favorite since it was known by both sides. Before midnight they said their farewells and returned to their own lines.







According to Peter Simkins*, of London's Imperial War Museum, the Christmas Truce took place in numerous places along the battlefront.

"Along the British section of the line, about 22 miles in Flanders, particularly on and around Christmas Day (it wasn't just a Christmas Day phenomenon), both sides began to detect in the opposing trenches, certain signs of Christmas celebration (if celebration is the right word in such a setting). Germans would be heard singing, 'Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.'

"People would shout messages like: 'Fritz, here. I was a waiter in a Manchester hotel before the war. How are my friends from the Lancashire?' On Christmas Day itself, the first curious, slightly headstrong people, perhaps, from both sides poked their head above the trenches, and being made aware that somebody on the other side wasn't going to shoot it off, then clambered cautiously out. Others followed suit. People stopped in the middle of no-man's-land, shook hands, exchanged buttons and badges, cigarettes. And, this went on, in some parts for two or three days. And, then, partly because the Generals didn't want it to happen, and partly because units moved out of the line and others came in, the thing died away. It was never repeated. So, it is very much a 1914 phenomenon."




Trevor Wilson*, of the University of Adelaide, says the Christmas Truce was not some act of rebellion against the commanders. "It just means that Christmas Day is supposed to be a day of exceptional pleasure and enjoyment. And, in terms of being in a trench, this was exceptionally pleasurable and enjoyable."




"It was a highly emotional moment," according to Paul Fussell*, University of Pennsylvania. "It's the last gesture of the 19th Century idea that human beings are getting better the longer the human race goes on. Nobody could believe that after the First World War, and certainly not after the Second."




The truce often ended just as it had begun, by mutual agreement. Captain C. I. Stockwell, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers recalled how, after a truly "Silent Night," he fired three shots into the air at 8.30 a.m. on December 26th and then climbed onto his parapet. The officer who had given him the beer the previous day also appeared on the German parapet. They bowed, saluted and climbed back into their trenches. A few moments afterwards, Stockwell heard the German fire two shots into the air and, as he said, "The War was on again."

* PBS "Great War" interview

 

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