Christmas 1914 and World War One
Many myths and legends surround World War One and Christmas – especially the first Christmas of the war in December 1914. The British public and the soldiers fighting in the mud of Flanders were given the impression by those in charge that the Germans, fighting possibly less than100 metres away, were blood-lusting psychopaths bent on destroying all in their way. Any form of friendship between the two sides fighting the war, would have been seen as detrimental to this impression. While the Germans remained the “evil Hun”, the government and the military could justify their respective tactics.
However, the first Christmas of 1914 clearly broke the impression that those in charge wanted to portray. For many years – even after the war – the government wanted to maintain the image of the dastardly Hun and any references to any fraternisation between both sides was clamped down on. There were whispers here and there but no actual evidence. The same happened with the football match between the British and the Germans. The image that the German soldiers were just like the British and the French would not have worked for the Allies. But recent research by Stanley Weintraub has proved that there was fraternisation – improvised at the time in December 1914 but with some ‘rules’ quickly built in.
Weintraub has found that the first smatterings that something was not quite right took place in the trenches where the Berkshire Regiment faced the XIX Corps of the German Army. The XIX’s were from Saxony. The Saxons started to put up small conifers on the parapets of their trenches – akin to our Christmas trees. The Berkshires could see many of them lining the tops of the XIX’s trenches. Groups of the Berkshires and the Saxons met in No-Mans Land and officers from both sides turned a blind eye to this fraternisation which broke military law. In fact, the officers in these trenches agreed to an informal truce between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
During the next 24 hours, impromptu cease fires occurred throughout the Western Front. The British High Command – stationed 27 miles behind the trenches – was horrified but little could be done. A military directive had been issued which stated:
|“It (fraternisation) discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.”|
This was ignored. British High Command then informed the front line that an attack by the Germans was expected on Christmas Eve:
|“It is though possible the enemy may be contemplating an attack during Christmas or New Year. Special vigilance will be maintained during this period.”|
This, too, was ignored. Troops on the front line had already got into the festive spirit as German troops had received Christmas trees and gifts and the British troops had received a Christmas gift from Princess Mary, the daughter of George V. The king had also sent a Christmas card to the front with the message “May God protect you and bring you home safe.”
On Christmas Eve many sectors along the Western Front did not experience any fire or very little when compared to the previous days in December. Christmas carols were sung between trenches. In the dark of night time, groups of German and Allied soldiers met in No-Man’s Land. No one is sure who started this truce and impromptu meetings but they certainly took place in many areas on the Western Front. Captain R J Armes of the 1st North Staffordshire Regiment arranged, with a German officer, for a cease fire in his sector that was to last until midnight on Christmas Day.
Christmas Day itself started with unarmed German and British soldiers collecting their dead from No-Man’s Land. This has been a pre-condition for a cease-fire. On Christmas Eve night, when the soldiers from both sides had met, they had done so among the bodies of their fallen comrades. In one burial service, German and British dead were buried alongside each other near Lille.
With this task over, both groups of men then exchanged gifts – primarily food. Sauerkraut and sausages came from the Germans while chocolate was given in exchange. In some sectors, it was reported that both Germans and British got together for a communal hunt for hares so that Christmas Day could be celebrated with fresh meat. The regimental records of the 133rd Saxon Regiment also records a football match which they won 3-2. This score was also supported by a letter published in “The Times” from a British major in the Medical Corps.
As midnight on Christmas Day approached, men from both sides drifted back to their trenches. Pre-arranged signals had been decided on to allow the men to get back. The use of a flare was enough to warn men to get back and that the cease fire was over.
On Boxing Day, the shooting started again.
Field Marshall Sir John French’s HQ issued a statement that the lack of firing on the Western Front was “a comparative lull on account of the stormy weather.”
“It was a curious scene – a lovely moonlit (Christmas) night, the German trenches with small lights on them, and the men on both sides gathered in groups on the parapets. It is weird to think that tomorrow night we shall be at it again. If one gets through this show it will be a Christmas time to live in one’s memory.” Captain R Armes of the 1st North Staffordshire regiment.
“It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked.” Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse, 2nd Scots Guards.
“What a sight little groups of Germans and British extending along the length of our front. Out of the darkness we could hear the laughter and see lighted matches. Where they couldn’t talk the language, they made themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill ” Corporal John Ferguson of the Seaforth Highlanders.
The balance of power
Europe was organised into a network of formal and informal alliances to create a balance of power © The major powers of Europe avoided war with each other successfully for a generation until 1914. Instead, Europe largely exported its wars, in the last great age of imperial expansion.
Within Europe, a series of interlocking alliances grew, meant to preserve stability. In 1879 the two empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary allied together, joined by Italy in 1881. This was matched in 1894 by the unnatural alliance of republican France with imperial Russia. Finally, in 1904, Britain agreed to an 'Entente Cordiale' (literally a 'friendly understanding') with France, and in 1907 with Russia.
. an attack on any one major power by another would produce a general European war.
The basis was that each alliance would support its members - the 'Triple Alliance' of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy against the 'Triple Entente' of France, Russia and Great Britain, so that an attack on any one major power by another would produce a general European war. In Britain's case this was not a formal alliance, but an informal military commitment with the French. The Italians also were less secure in their alliance in 1914 they were to stand neutral, and a year later they joined the Entente powers.
Between 1871 and 1914 further institutional, technological and scientific developments, at least as great as those that had gone before, made differences to the conduct of warfare that could not be tested without a major European war. Colonial wars before 1914, and even quite sizeable wars fought outside Europe like the South African War (1899-1902) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) gave only partial clues to the future.
At full mobilisation, armies of many millions became possible, and in 1914 France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia each mobilised between three and six million men. As the 20th century loomed, electricity and chemicals joined iron and steam in industrial importance. In communications, the telegraph was followed by the telephone in 1876, and then by wireless and radio. In 1901 the first radio transmission was made across the Atlantic. By the same date, trains had exceeded speeds of 160kph (100mph), the first cars and lorries were making their appearance, and the diesel engine made the ocean-going submarine a practical weapon of war.
Two years later came the Wright brothers' first flight, potentially adding air power to the means of war. The changes also included a new generation of weapons, rifles, artillery and machine-guns, that would remain in service throughout the first half of the 20th century, and would not be entirely obsolete even at its end.
(1) Lieutenant Edward Hulse, battalion war diary (December, 1914)
A scout named Murker went out and 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.
(2) Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather was one of those who took part in the Christmas Truce.
A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a strong German accent, "Come over here!" A ripple of mirth swept along our trench, followed by a rude outburst of mouth organs and laughter. Presently, in a lull, one of our sergeants repeated the request, "Come over here!"
"You come half-way - I come half-way," floated out of the darkness.
"Come on, then!" shouted the sergeant. "I'm coming along the hedge!"
After much suspicious shouting and jocular derision from both sides, our sergeant went along the hedge which ran at right-angles to the two lines of trenches.
Presently, the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Machonochie's and a tin of Capstan, which he had taken with him.
On Christmas morning I awoke very early and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist.
"Fancy all this hate, war, and discomfort on a day like this! I thought to myself. The whole spirit of Christmas seemed to be there, so much so that I remember thinking, "This indescribable something in the air, this Peace and Goodwill feeling, surely will have some effect on the situation here to-day!"
Walking about the trench a little later, discussing the curious affair of the night before, we suddenly became aware of the fact we were seeing a lot of evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over the parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced.
A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet, and looked about itself. This complaint became infectious. It didn't take "Our Bert" (the British sergeant who exchanged goods with the Germans the previous day) long to be up on the skyline. This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by our men, until in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in no-man's land.
I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in a muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches.
This was my first real sight of them at close quarters. Here they were - the actual practical soldiers of the German army. 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.
The difference in type between our men and theirs was very marked. There was no contrasting the spirit of the two parties. Our men, in their scratch costumes of dirty, muddy khaki, with their various assorted head-dresses of woollen helmets, mufflers and battered hats, were a light-hearted, open, humourous collection as opposed to the sombre demeanour and stolid appearance of the Huns in their grey-green faded uniforms, top boots, and pork-pie hats.
These devils, I could see, all wanted to be friendly but none of them possessed the open, frank geniality of our men. However, everyone was talking and laughing, and souvenir hunting. Suddenly, one of the Boches ran back to the trench and presently reappeared with a large camera. I posed in a mixed group for several photographs, and I have ever since wished I had fixed up some arrangement for getting a copy.
(3) Second Lieutenant Dougan Chater, letter to his mother (25th December, 1914)
I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o'clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trenches and some came towards ours. We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles so one of our men went out to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.
(4) Lieutenant J. A. Liddell, letter to his parents (29th December, 1914)
On Christmas Day everyone spontaneously left their trenches and had a meeting halfway between the trenches. Germans gave us cigars, and we gave them chocolate and tobacco. They seemed very pleased to see us! Some had lived in England for years, and were very buckled at airing their English again.
(5) Captain P. Mortimer, diary entry (26th December, 1914)
The enemy came out of their trenches yesterday (being Christmas Day) simultaneously with our fellows - who met the Germans on neutral ground between the two trenches and exchanged the compliments of the season - presents, smokes and drinks - some of our fellows going into the German lines and some of the Germans strolling into ours - the whole affair was particularly friendly and not a shot was fired in our Brigade throughout the day. The enemy apparently initiated the move by shouting across to our fellows and then popping their heads out of their trenches and finally getting out of them altogether.
(6) Second Lieutenant Drummond was one of those involved in the Christmas truce in 1914.
The German climbed out of his trench and came over towards us. My friend and I walked out towards him. We met, and very gravely saluted each other. He was joined by more Germans, and some of the Dublin Fusiliers from our own trenches came out to join us. No German officer came out, it was only the ordinary soldiers. We talked, mainly in French, because my German was not very good, and none of the Germans could speak English well, but we managed to get together all right. One of them said, "We don't want to kill you, and you don't want to kill us. So why shoot?"
(7) Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch, diary entry, (December, 1914)
Möckel from my company, who had lived in England for many years, called to the British in English, and soon a lively conversation developed between us.
Afterwards, we placed even more candles than before on our kilometre-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination - the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake. It was a wonderful, if somewhat cold, night.
(8) Second Lt Alfred Dougan Chater, 2nd Gordon Highlanders, letter to parents (25th December, 1914)
I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o&rsquoclock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trench and came towards ours.
&ldquoWe were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.
This continued for about half an hour when most of the men were ordered back to the trenches. For the rest of the day nobody has fired a shot and the men have been wandering about at will on the top of the parapet and carrying straw and firewood about in the open &ndash we have also had joint burial parties with a service for some dead, some German and some ours, who were lying out between the lines.
I don&rsquot know how long it will go on for &ndash I believe it was supposed to stop yesterday, but we can hear no firing going on along the front today except a little distant shelling. We are, at any rate, having another truce on New Year&rsquos Day, as the Germans want to see how the photos come out!
The Germans in this part of the line are sportsmen if they are nothing else.
(9) Lieutenant Gustav Riebensahm, 2nd Westphalian regiment, diary entry, (December, 1914)
The English are extraordinarily grateful for the ceasefire, so they can play football again. But the whole thing has become slowly ridiculous and must be stopped. I will tell the men that from this evening it's all over.
(10) J. A. Farrell, The Bolton Chronicle (2nd January, 1915)
In the afternoon there was a football match played beyond the trenches, right in full view of the enemy.
(11) The Times, quoting an anonymous major (1st January, 1915)
The. Regiment actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2.
(12) Ernie Williams, television interview (1983)
The ball appeared from somewhere, I don't know where, but it came from their side - it wasn't from our side that the ball came. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at 19. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melee - nothing like the soccer you see on television. The boots we wore were a menace - those great big boots we had on - and in those days the balls were made of leather and they soon got very soggy.
(13) Company-Sergeant Major Frank Naden of the 6th Cheshire Territorials, interviewed by The Newcastle Evening Mail (31st December, 1914)
On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of theirs, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification, which included football in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.
(14) Luke Harding, The Guardian (11th November, 2003)
A new book by a German historian last night cast fresh light on one of the most extraordinary episodes of the first world war and revealed that the celebrated 1914 Christmas truce took place only because many of the Germans stationed on the front had worked in England.
The book, Der Kleine Frieden im Grossen Krieg, or The Small Peace in the Big War, shows that the German and British soldiers who famously played football with each other in no man's land on Christmas Day 1914 didn't always have a ball. Instead, they improvised. On certain sections of the front, soldiers kicked around a lump of straw tied together with string, or even an empty jam box.
According to Jürgs, the fraternisation involving mostly Catholic Saxon and Bavarian regiments was only possible because many of the German soldiers spoke good English as they had previously been employed in Britain. "They had worked as cab drivers and barbers in places like Brighton, Blackpool and London," he said. "When war broke out in August 1914 they were forced to go home. Some even left families behind in England."
One German soldier had worked in the Savoy when the war started British soldiers would apparently shout "Waiter!" across their newly dug positions. Another German infantryman described how on Christmas Day, when both sides climbed out of their trenches and over the barbed wire, a British Tommy had set up a makeshift barber's shop in no man's land. The barber was "completely indifferent" to whether his customers were German or British, and charged a couple of cigarettes per haircut, Bavarian Josef Sebald observed. "This was war. but there was no trace of enmity between us," he added.
The informal ceasefire stretched all across the 500-mile western front where more than a million men were encamped, from the Belgian coast as far as the Swiss border. The truce was especially warm along a 30-mile line around the Belgian town of Ypres, Jürgs notes. Not everybody, though, approved. One Austrian soldier billeted near Ypres complained that in wartime such an understanding "should not be allowed". His name was Adolf Hitler.
Happy Christmas From the Western Front – A Hero Too Hot To Handle
A Christmas card sent 100 years ago by one of the First World War’s most heroic tank officers is to go on display for the first time.
Elliot Hotblack sent the simple card from ‘Advance Headquarters Tank Corps’ in December 1917, presumably to his parents in Norfolk.
It includes a print of a crewman waving his cap from a Mark IV tank beneath the words “Christmas Greetings”.
Hotblack’s heroics feature in The Tank Museum’s ‘Tank Men’ exhibition, but the Christmas card has only just been added to the display in the Dorset attraction because of the centenary.
The small postcard-size item includes the Tank Corps’ crest and its battle honours Somme, Ancre, Arras, Messines, 3 rd Ypres and Cambrai.
The cards were printed especially for the Tank Corps which was a little more than a year old.
Hotblack, who signed it with his name in pencil, was one of the most decorated members of the Tank Corps and the list of injuries he sustained is astonishing.
The Christmas card sent 100 years ago. Photo credits: The Tank Museum
He was born in Norfolk into a brewing family and was at first an intelligence officer attached to the Machine Gun Corps – the forerunner of the Tank Corps.
He was a pioneer in reconnaissance which led to him often venturing past the front lines without the protection of a tank.
Hotblack – nicknamed ‘Boots’ – was awarded four gallantry medals – including the DSO and bar and Military Cross with bar, was mentioned in despatches five times and was wounded six times.
Elliot Hotblack, the hero tank commander from WW1. Photo credits: The Tank Museum
David Willey, curator of the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset, said: “Hotblack, who became a Major-General, is one of the most extraordinary early Tank Corps officers.
“He is a boys’ own hero of outstanding bravery but also intelligent, very human and caring. We have an exhibition in which his story is told and he is depicted with a life-size model, and this Christmas card adds another angle to his and the other servicemen’s lives.
Tank Museum curator David Willey with a Christmas card sent by tank hero Elliot Hotblack 100 years ago. Hotblack is depicted in the museum exhibition (he is the mannequin behing David Willey). Photo credits: The Tank Museum.
“It is a century since he sent it home from a war we still find hard to imagine or understand, such were its horrors.
“We enjoy our relative peace and safety today because of men like Hotblack whose astonishing bravery was recognised over and over again.
Cpt Elliot Hotblack the hero officer of the Tank Corps, in characteristic style standing in front of the tank. Photo credits: The Tank Museum
“Despite being on the Western Front in December 1917 he and his men would have been thinking of Christmas and their families and of course whether this might be their last communication with them or whether they’d see them again.
“And yet the cards send a cheerful, optimistic message.
“Christmas cards at the time were commonly sent in postcard form. The elaborate Victorian ones had made way for the simpler sort, and in the 1920s the card and envelope type that we now know became popular.
“This small, modest item from the archive gives us a poignant reminder of how our men in the First World War spent their festive period 100 years ago. We should, and surely can, spare a thought for them and today’s servicemen this Christmas.”
David Willey, curator of the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset, with the Christmas card sent by Elliot Hotblack (depicted behind) 100 years ago. Photo credits: The Tank Museum
That Hotblack survived the war was remarkable he was first injured in May 1915 when he was shot by a sniper.
In April 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Arras he suffered serious head wounds but escaped from hospital in order to re-join colleagues.
He trecked five miles through a snow storm with blood seeping through his bandages and managed to convince officers that he was fine.
Three months later he sustained an injury to the leg and then in May 1918 he was again wounded in the head and for two weeks was too unwell to sit up or eat.
An image of Elliot Hotblack, the heroic officer of the Tank Corps. Photo credits: The Tank Museum
In September that year he was awarded the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry, initiative and devotion to duty’ and was again injured.
He found a German position blocking an advance and organised two tanks into action against it, riding in one of them himself.
His tank was hit killing four crew and he was injured in the eye, but continued fighting for several hours, got the wounded to safety and arranged infantry for a defence against a counterattack. He was left temporarily blinded.
Finally in October he was returned to the UK for further treatment.
His other medals included the Legion of Honour and the Russian Order of St Anne.
Hotblack continued to serve his country after the war and at the start of World War Two commanded the 2nd Armoured Division before being injured and invalided out of the army.
Christmas Day in the trenches, 1914
“This will be the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don’t think theres been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us – wishing us a Happy Christmas etc. They also gave us a few songs etc. so we had quite a social party. Several of them can speak English very well so we had a few conversations. Some of our chaps went to over to their lines. I think theyve all come back bar one from ‘E’ Co. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir. In spite of our fires etc. it was terribly cold and a job to sleep between look out duties, which are two hours in every six.
First thing this morning it was very foggy. So we stood to arms a little longer than usual. A few of us that were lucky could go to Holy Communion early this morning. It was celebrated in a ruined farm about 500 yds behind us. I unfortunately couldnt go. There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as to day we are all on top of our trenches running about. Whereas other days we have to keep our heads well down. We had breakfast about 8.0 which went down alright especially some cocoa we made. We also had some of the post this morning. I had a parcel from B. G’s Lace Dept containing a sweater, smokes, under clothes etc. We also had a card from the Queen, which I am sending back to you to look after please. After breakfast we had a game of football at the back of our trenches! We’ve had a few Germans over to see us this morning. They also sent a party over to bury a sniper we shot in the week. He was about a 100 yds from our trench. A few of our fellows went out and helped to bury him.
About 10.30 we had a short church parade the morning service etc. held in the trench. How we did sing. –
‘O come all ye faithful. And While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ were the hymns we had. At present we are cooking our Christmas Dinner! so will finish this letter later.
Dinner is over! and well we enjoyed it. Our dinner party started off with fried bacon and dip-bread: followed by hot Xmas Pudding. I had a mascot in my piece. Next item on the menu was muscatels and almonds, oranges, bananas, chocolate etc followed by cocoa and smokes. You can guess we thought of the dinners at home.
Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came 1/2way over to us so several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I’ve also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they won’t fire tomorrow if we don’t so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday – perhaps. After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner.
We can hardly believe that we’ve been firing at them for the last week or two – it all seems so strange. At present its freezing hard and everything is covered with ice…”.
Near the end of the letter the writer tells his mother, “As I can’t explain to everyone how I spent my 25th – you might hand this round please”.
The letter ends: “There are plenty of huge shell holes in front of our trenches, also pieces of shrapnel to be found. I never expected to shake hands with Germans between the firing lines on Christmas Day and I don’t suppose you thought of us doing so. So after a fashion we’ve enjoyed? our Christmas.
Hoping you spend a happy time also George Boy as well. How we thought of England during the day.
Kind regards to all the neighbours.
With much love from
CHRISTMAS TRUCE MEMORIALS OF THE WESTERN FRONT
For men who go to war, there are few times as lonely as Christmas, when home and family can seem so far away. Few men in such times look for the hope of holiday joy, and fewer still expect much in the way of miracles. But on December 24, 1914, in the midst of the carnage of the greatest war mankind had yet seen, English, French and German soldiers on the Western Front experienced the miracle, at least for a few days, of Peace on Earth. This was the famous Christmas Truce, the greatest, most spontaneous display of the true spirit of Christmas in wartime in history.
According to tradition, it began on Christmas Eve in the area around Ypres, in Belgium. Soldiers in the German trenches began to sing Christmas carols. Legend has it that Silent Night was the first to be crooned. They were answered by singing from the English trenches. The singing quickly spread up and down the line on both sides. An informal truce was called so that the dead lying out in no-man’s land could be collected and buried. Informally organized by the soldiers and low-ranking officers, the cease-fire came to be known as the Khaki Chums Christmas Truce. A simple cross, erected in 1999 outside of Ypres in Belgium, marks the place where the truce started.
Soldiers at the Truce (wikipedia.com)
Much to the consternation of the senior officers on both sides, the enemy combatants began to fraternize. This was especially true between the German and British soldiers. They sang carols, exchanged addresses and gifts, drank toasts, and aided each other in the burial of the dead. At several points in the line, impromptu football matches took place between the enemies. One notable game took place at Frelinghien in France between the British Royal Welch Fusiliers and the German Saxon Infantry Regiment. A memorial stone was erected on the site of this match in 2008.
Christmas on the Western Front
This image depicts British soldiers eating Christmas Dinner on the Western Front in 1916 and I found it on the Imperial War Museum webpage in the First World War Gallery.
I believe this would have been an image that may have been seen in England during World War I. Personally when I look at this photo I see war propaganda. In looking at this photo I see camaraderie, death, filth, scarcity and discomfort. But I also see guys sitting around shooting the breeze, enjoying a cigarette and generally looking peaceful. There is also an overwhelming barrenness in the trenches, but I don't see fear. I don't see "we shouldn't be in this war."
Our focus is the soldiers, sitting around in a circle eating their Christmas dinner. There is mud and rocks all around. They are eating (for the most part) on the ground sitting around a tiny makeshift table of some sort. The actual food, if you zoom in seems scarce, nothing like Christmas dinner. You see a few pieces of what looks like bread, but that's all you can really make out. There is one guy eating, or drinking out of a tin pot- I picture stew. Some of them are eating with their bare filthy hands, some with mittens on. Everything looks dirty. If you look closely you can also see a grave in the background which gives a sense of the seriousness to the war. But at the same time, there is one grave and twelve men very much alive. I would almost bet that this photo was staged. The photo seems to be asking the viewer to feel sorry for the men on the front. They have no comforts. This photo seems to be shouting "Support our Troops!" But while it's asking the viewer to take war seriously, because in war people do die, it doesn't seem to be asking them to be overly alarmed or afraid for their brothers, husbands, fathers, etc. who are there. It's asking them to reach out to the family of the one who was killed. A couple of these guys are actually smiling, sitting back smoking cigarettes. It's a hard day's work, and their filthy, but they are ok. They have a minute to sit back and relax, enjoy a smoke and a good joke with the guys.
For me, it seems like the real war story is in the background. There is nothing on that horizon, nothing but mud and rocks. War is lonely. War is barren and empty.
The Christmas Letter Of 1914
In 1914, a British private wrote five pages in pencil on notebook paper. To his mother he writes, "dear Mater. the Germans began placing . lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us - wishing us Happy Christmas. since about teatime yesterday, not a shot has been fired on either side up to now."
"They also gave us a few songs so we had quite a social party. Some of our chaps went over to their lines. I think they&aposve all come back bar one from E Co. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir."
"After breakfast we had a game of football at the back of our trenches! We&aposve had a few Germans over to see us this morning. They also sent a party over to bury a sniper we shot in the week. He was about 100 yds from our trench. A few of our fellows went out and helped to bury him. About 10.30 we had a short church parade, held in the trench. How we did sing. O come all ye faithful."
For dinner on Christmas day, the enemies ate together a meal of "fried bacon and dip-bread followed by hot Xmas pudding, then muscatels and almonds, oranges, bananas, chocolate, cocoa and smokes."
". There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as today we are all on top of our trenches running about. Whereas other days we have to keep out heads well down. I had a parcel from B G&aposs Lace Dept containing a sweater, smokes, under clothes etc. We also had a card from the Queen, which I am sending back to you to look after please. "
British and German troops meeting in "No-Mans&aposs Land" between camps during the unofficial truce of 12/25/1914.
Photograph Q 50719 from the collections of the UK Imperial War Museums CC0