The 1914 Christmas truce has been sanitised and commercialised. But as Chris Fuller explains, the generals were terrified of where it could lead, and resolved to crush any similar fraternisation.
In November 1914 Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, asked the question, “What would happen if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike?” He was soon to find out.
The revolt by soldiers on all sides of the Western Front during and after Christmas 1914 was on a huge scale and took forms that represented a fundamental challenge to the ability of the high commands to conduct the war.
It is therefore an understatement simply to call it the “Christmas Truce”. The rebellion could not be covered up — so the attempts to empty it of meaning began straight away and have continued ever since.
And now, to cap it all, is the ultimate sanitisation of the rebellion by the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert depicting a romanticised version of the truce.
Even the Daily Telegraph newspaper condemned it, with one commentator stating that, “the important message of war being the most pointless waste of young life is entirely washed into the background of history by the ad’s real purpose, which is to make Sainsbury’s money”.
Unlike the Etaples mutiny of 1917 (the government papers on which will not be released until 2017) the Christmas rebellion was widely reported in the press at the time. However, the coverage aimed to downplay, distort or trivialise the events.
Some papers were crudely racist — the Great Deeds Weekly claimed that the Germans “made merry to military order”. The Manchester Guardian, on the other hand, explained that the “human soul stands out quite a simple thing and of infinite goodwill” — forgetting that the respective high commands had no such goodwill. More recently right-wing historian Niall Ferguson has lamented the “disproportionate attention” given to the Christmas Truce.
However, the reality of the revolt resonates more strongly than the noise of its detractors. The generals of the day were terrified by the mass fraternisation, while more recently the moving rendition of the events in the revived musical “Oh! What a Lovely War” is the Tories’ nightmare.
The government and media had done their best to send troops to the front full of hatred for the German enemy. “Be ready to defend your home and women from the German Hun” read one poster, while the Daily Mail exhorted its readers to “refuse to be served by any Austrian or German waiters”. Stories of babies murdered on the spikes of German helmets circulated widely.
Within months of the declaration of war it was clear what was to come. By the end of November 1914 the rapid mobile war predicted by most had settled into a trench-based standoff with the “hurrahs” of send-offs replaced by the sound of artillery.
Slime and mud
A German soldier, Karl Aldag, wrote, “I must confess this life of slime and mud often fills me with revulsion, also the never-ending wet, cold and futile work.” The 475-mile line of trenches was separated by a no man’s land 100 to 400 metres wide but in some places as narrow as just five metres.
The large-scale battles of Mons and the Marne were followed by pointless bloody raids, one of which, on 14 December, yielded 400 casualties and was described by a participant as little more than an act of murder.
The realities of war created an early response among troops on all sides. There were reports from camps across England of mass dissent and refusals to parade in protest at poor food and accommodation.
After the digging of trenches the proximity of enemy soldiers led to the first examples of the “live and let live” policy.
One soldier wrote, “Every morning one of the soldiers sticks a board up in the air. As soon as this board goes up all firing ceases and men from either side draw their water and rations.” The “breakfast truce” was born.
Before the war many Germans had lived and worked in Britain. They were now in a nearby trench and within hearing distance.
A member of the Royal Scots Greys recounted, “On day two, the Germans asked if I knew a certain hairdressers in Princess Street. He had worked there. I replied that I had worked practically next door and had often been in the shop.”
Such fraternisation terrified the high command. Three weeks before Christmas Brigadier General Forrester-Walker ordered, “Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices…are absolutely prohibited.”
The Vatican’s proposal for a truce was similarly rejected, with one local newspaper in Britain writing that the Allies had good cause to be sceptical of enemy intentions.
In the days before Christmas thousands of Christmas trees arrived on the German lines while parcels from home made their way to the English and French. The latter led one English general to complain about mixing war up with plum puddings.
The truce broke out in some areas on 23 December and eventually extended to two-thirds of the British sector. The Germans put up their trees complete with candles and started to sing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (Silent Night) to applause from the lines opposite them.
The fraternisation developed apace. On Christmas Eve men left the trenches, met with their supposed enemy in no man’s land, shook hands and exchanged greetings, gifts and stories.
The impact on those who took part was lasting. “I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life,” wrote one English soldier. A Belgian soldier recalled, “Christmas in the trenches. Well I am not sorry to have spent it there and the recollection of it will ever be one of imperishable beauty.”
On Christmas Day itself boards went up above the trenches extending the revolt. “If you don’t fire, we don’t fire”, they read, with the Germans in most accounts making the first moves to peace. Many of those that took part recall the silence of the day and listening to birds singing instead of the continuous whizz of shelling.
The stories of football matches played in no man’s land are legendary but also became distorted in Britain, with one cartoon showing a British general scoring a goal past the “Hun”. It was as if the truce had become war by another means. In fact the kick a rounds were just that and contemporary reports show that no scores were kept.
Perhaps most moving were the burial ceremonies. Some accounts hold that such burials were the real driving force of the revolt and that military tradition allowed for this. But this will not do.
Three years later thousands of dead bodies were rotting between the lines following the battle at Passchendaele but no truce was allowed to afford any dignity to the dead.
On occasions there were joint funerals. A 19-year-old English soldier described how “Our Padre…arranged the prayers and psalm, etc, and an interpreter wrote them out in German.
“They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a [German] boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared.”
The process of fraternisation led to obvious conclusions being drawn. Troops saw that they were all suffering the same hardships and barriers were broken down.
A member of a Welsh battalion recalled a German soldier explaining that “he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn’t the only one who was fed up with it.”
But the soldiers went further than this. Dum-dum bullets had been invented by the British but banned under the Hague Convention since their soft noses spread on impact and caused terrible injuries. Conventional bullets had then been adapted to have the same effect, but the fraternisation led to soldiers mutually agreeing not to use them.
When the German generals ordered new shelling to break the truce their soldiers warned the English in the trenches opposite that an attack was going to start but that they would fire above the heads of their so-called enemy
The ruling classes, comfortable well behind the lines, were determined that there should be no recurrence of the revolt. At a subsequent Christmas Haig ordered that any German appearing over the trenches at Christmas should be shot. One 16-year-old recalled the shock of being told that any further declaration of a Christmas truce would be met with the death penalty.
Fraternisation, refusal to obey orders, warning the other side about future attacks and open questioning of the legitimacy of war on a mass scale amount to far more than a seasonal celebration with a religious hue. Soldiers were learning who their real friends and enemies were and moreover were exercising what control they could over the conduct of war.
For some the Christmas revolt was much more than a moving story. In March 1915 Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote about the events:
“Only six months after the beginning of the war, in spite of all the political bosses, leaders and stars of the first magnitude who betrayed socialism, an opposition has grown up against those who voted for military appropriations and against the ministerialists, while the military authorities threaten death for ‘fraternisation’.”
Lenin drew a conclusion which would send shudders down the spine of the generals and the Manchester Guardian. “There is another practical question: whether we should perish in a war between slave-holders, ourselves blind and helpless slaves, or whether we should perish for the ‘attempts at fraternisation’ between the workers with the aim of casting off slavery.”
The Christmas revolt was a sign of soldiers’ willingness to overrule their masters’ commands. It was a sign of things to come.