First-hand Accounts of the Christmas Truce of 1914
Straight from the Front: First-hand Accounts of the Christmas Truce of 1914 by Austin Stewart
The Christmas Truce of 1914, as the events at the center of Silent Night are popularly known, was an outbreak of peace amid the devastation of war along the industrialized battlefields of the Western Front. It is one of the most documented and romanticized non-combat stories of the First World War—football matches, the exchange of cognacs, chocolates, and cigars, and of shared memorial services over the fresh graves in no man’s land. Silent Night is but one example that takes on the subject of the 1914 holiday cease-fire, from novels and histories to Paul McCartney’s 1983 music video for the anti-war song “Pipes of Peace.” Soldiers at the front that winter wrote diaries and letters home, and official records kept by the battalions and regiments establish the timeline of events that took place during that, as one young English private called it, “weird Christmas.” These are a few of those first-hand recollections, many of which have recently come to light in Terri Blom Crocker’s The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War.
“No war today,” announced a December 25, 1914 diary entry for the 16th Queen’s Westminsters infantry regiment, commenting also on the amicable “conversation with enemy between the trenches” that took place. “No shot fired all day,” wrote another diarist for the 1st Royal Warwickshire regiment, while another called it a “curious state of affairs” that occasioned an informal exchange of courtesies between troops. War records and letters sent from both sides of the Western Front convey the sense of relief, even delight, experienced by soldiers during their unexpected holiday in the trenches near the small village of Ploegsteert, Belgium. Following the First Battle of the Marne in September that had dashed any hopes of a swift conquest, both sides attempted to outflank the other. Eventually the soldiers had to dig in, creating some 475 miles of trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland. Emerging for just a few hours from those foxholes and ditches was a welcomed change. The cease-fires that occurred were not prearranged or coordinated. Similar events were not uncommon during the conflict, but the spontaneity and quantity of those that happened outside Ploegsteert make the Christmas Truce an almost unbelievable story.
The idea of a truce on Christmas was first suggested by Pope Benedict XI early in December 1914. As it became obvious that the conflict would not come to a quick end, the pope pleaded with combatant countries to let their “guns fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang,” allowing time for negotiations to lead to an honorable peace. Military leadership on all sides ignored the appeal. Sir John French, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, was the first to order “instant fire” on any German white flag raised on the Western Front. On December 22, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, sent a similar message to the Royal Navy: “Any white flag hoisted by a German ship is to be fired on as a matter of principle.” Yet while the pontiff’s request was officially rejected, news of it spread among the soldiers.
Roughly two-thirds of the troops along the front participated in some type of cease-fire on that day, with regiments stationed across more than fifteen miles of the twenty-mile front near Ploegsteert reporting no combat. In some cases, as Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade recalled, the armistice was foreshadowed the night before by carol singing: “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O Come, All Ye Faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” Germans placed lit Christmas trees, which had been provided to every unit, along the parapets of their dugouts. Rifleman Ernest Morley of London described in a letter home how the truce began in his sector: “[A German] shouted ‘A Merry Christmas English. We’re not shooting tonight.’ We yelled back a similar message. . . As fighting ceased the two lines looked like an illuminated fête. . . we had all the candles & lights we could muster stuck on our bayonets above the parapet.”
Lt. Michael Holroyd, a British machine gun officer in the 1st Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, noted that “the carols of Christmas Eve were followed by friendly exchange of greetings on Christmas morning,” and impromptu meetings were arranged in no man’s land. And they did not go empty handed. A young Private Squire wrote home that the “Germans came out of [their trench] and we met halfway and talked and exchanged souvenirs, our own bullets for theirs, and they also gave some of our fellows cigars of which they said they had plenty and we gave them tins of bully beef as they said they have very little food.” Others reported exchanging local liquors received from home for the holiday, buttons from their uniforms, and sharing photos of family. Another element of the meetings were makeshift football matches. A few games were actually played with teams being chosen and scores recorded, though without a proper soccer ball they were kicking about whatever they could find, and the outcome always favored the regiment reporting the game in their diary.
Not all of the interactions between the troops were this lighthearted, however. A number of battalions used the cease-fire as an opportunity to retrieve the bodies of their fallen comrades. Sergeant Richard Lintott recorded in his diary that he found in no man’s land men from both sides “burying some dead which had been lying about since October 21st.” Another English officer was present when “they stuck a bit of wood over the grave–no name on it only ‘Fur Vaterland and Freheit’ (For Fatherland and Freedom).” The troops also shared prayer services over the dead. These burial services, as brief as they were necessary, were a primary reason for many of the troops to observe the truce. “Our [chaplain] arranged the prayers and Psalms etc., and then our interpreter wrote them out in German. Then the service was read first in English by our own Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight.”
While the Christmas Truce reflected our better instincts and empathy as humans, it lasted but a few days at most and was not to be repeated the next year. In the end, the desire for peace would not be confused with the need for victory. Bruce Bairnsfather, a British officer and cartoonist whose personal account of wartime in the trenches, Bullets and Billets, became a bestseller in Britain, spoke for many comrades when he wrote, “There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match.” But the end of the Great War was nowhere near its last round. Bairnsfather’s report of the day ends with him heading back over the parapet, looking back to see a man in his batallion “who was a bit of an amateur hair dresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche [German soldier],” and reminding us that our enemy can also be a friend.