The Christmas Truce (a review, excerpts and my own thoughts)

I have decided to examine the Christmas Truce by quoting the words of the men who were there in that late December of 1914. I found these quotations in a book which I originally bought many years ago when it was first published, I should think, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Christmas Truce in 1994. The book is called, naturally enough, “Christmas Truce” and this is the edition I have…

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The authors are Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton. The volume is still there on Amazon in an updated edition and I would expect to find it on many other Internet book selling sites. It is a wonderfully written and extremely moving book which I would recommend to you wholeheartedly. It tells so very well the story of a brief poignant moment during the fire and fury of the Western Front. This book certainly inspired me to go deeper into this wonderful event. It is also now available in a more up to date edition, and is required reading for every student of the Great War, of whatever nationality.

new edition

There are many soldiers quoted in the book and I have used a good number of them, with a few abridgements here and there. Quite simply, the tales they told were so moving that I found it virtually impossible to select only a tiny few to use. The book, of course, provides many, many more of them and goes into great detail about what exactly transpired that cold and frosty day in late December 1914. I do hope, though, that you will enjoy these brief extracts from a book that I still look at regularly today, some twenty years after I bought it:

“Several of my chums had been able to get hold of two small Christmas trees complete with candles, to be mounted on the parapet of the trenches, while others dragged planks with them, usually used in the battle against water and mud. As was usual at that time, having settled in the trenches, we just fired the occasional shot from our outposts to let the enemy know we would not let ourselves be surprised.”

*****

On Christmas Eve we got the order to go into the trenches. The day before we had celebrated Christmas in our rest quarters with the civilian people and their children who were presented with chocolate, bonbons and cake. It was all in good humour.
Then at darkness we marched forward to the trenches like Father Christmas with parcels hanging from us. All was quiet. No shooting. Little snow. We posted a tiny Christmas tree in our dugout – the company commander, myself the lieutenant, and the two orderlies. We placed a second lighted tree on the breast work.
Then we began to sing our old Christmas songs “Silent Night Holy Night” and “O Du Fröhliche”, a German Christmas carol.

*****

It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches. And then they sang “Silent night”, “Stille Nacht”. I shall never forget it.  It was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, “What a beautiful tune”.

*****

Suddenly a man from my company reported, “The English are letting off fireworks”. And sure enough across the way from us, the enemy trenches were lit up with fires and rockets and so on. We then made a few banners reading “Happy Christmas” with a couple of candles behind and a couple on top.

*****

I was gazing towards the German lines and thinking what a very different sort of Christmas Eve this was from any I have experienced in the past. In the ordinary way of things, my father would have been making rum punch from an old family recipe, which had been written out by his grandfather, and was kept, of all places, in the Family Bible! Earlier, after the evening meal, we would have decorated the living rooms and hall with traditional greenery, and would now be looking forward to wishing one another a Happy Christmas, and toasting the occasion in the results of my father’s labours. Instead of this, here was I, standing in a waterlogged trench, in a muddy Flemish field, and staring out over the flat, empty and desolate countryside, with no signs of life……
Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently makeshift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles!  Then our opponents began to sing “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”. They finished their carol so we sang “The First Nowell”, and when we finished they began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, “O Tannenbaum”. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing 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 was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.

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When I got back to the trenches after dark on Christmas Eve I found the Germans had got little Christmas trees burning all along the parapet of the trench. Meanwhile, unknown to us, two officers  got out of their trench and walked halfway to the German trench and were met by two German officers. They talked away quite civilly and actually shook hands!

*****

I have just been through one of the most extraordinary scenes imaginable. Tonight is Christmas Eve. Firing was going on all the time and the enemy’s machine guns were firing at us. Then about seven o’clock the firing stopped. I was reading the paper and the mail was being dished out. It was reported that the Germans had lighted their trenches up. I went out and they shouted “No shooting” and then somehow the scene became a peaceful one. All our men got out of the trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English. I got onto the top of the trench and talked German and asked them to sing a German folk song, then our men sang and each side clapped and cheered the other. Pope and I walked across and held a conversation with the German officer in command. He presented me to his officer. I gave permission to bury some German dead and we agreed to have no shooting until midnight tomorrow. We talked together, ten or more Germans gathered around. I was almost in their lines within a yard or so. We saluted each other, he thanked me for permission to bury his dead, and we fixed up how many men will do it, and that otherwise both sides must remain in the trenches.

Then we wished one another good night and a Happy Christmas and parted with a salute. I got back to the trench and the Germans sang “Die Wacht am Rhein”. Our men sang “Christians Awake”, and with a good night we all got back into our trenches. It was a lovely moonlight night, the German trenches with small lights on them, and the men on both sides gathered in groups on the parapets. At times we heard the guns in the distance  but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German or two halfway. They exchanged cigars and smoked and talked. The officer I spoke to hopes we should do the same on New Year’s Day. I said “Yes if I am here”.

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I felt I must sit down and write the story of this Christmas Eve before I went to lie down. If one gets through this show it will be a Christmas Time to live in one’s memory. I am just going for a walk round the trenches to see all is well. Good night.

*****

The Germans came out, and we gravely saluted each other. I then pointed to nine dead Germans lying in midfield and suggested burying them. We gave them some wooden crosses, and soon the men were on the best of terms and laughing.

*****

 There was no firing, so each side began gradually showing more of themselves and then two of their men came halfway and called for an officer. I went out and found they were willing to have an Armistice for four hours and to carry our dead men back halfway for us to bury. Then both sides came out, shook hands, wished each other compliments of the season, and had a chat. A strange sight between two hostile lines.

*****

I was in the 2nd Battalion of the Westphalian Infantry Regiment 15. On Christmas Day, at about eleven o’clock, there was a continuous waving of a white flag from the English trench. Soon afterwards a number of Englishmen climbed out and came towards our front. My commander, Baron von Blomberg, ordered me to find out what the Englishmen wanted. I  went out of the trench and we heard that it was the wish of the Englishman to bury their dead and they asked us to cease enemy action for an adequate period. What were we to do? Time was short. Major von Blomberg therefore decided that there should be a local Armistice until one o’clock in the afternoon, telling the Englishman that their dead must be buried by that time.

*****

We then had a most wonderful joint burial service.  Our padre arranged the prayers and Psalms and an interpreter wrote them out in German. They were read first in English by our padre and then in German by a 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 officer standing in front, every head bare. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again. The ground between the two lines of trenches was soon swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a Happy Christmas.

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“No Man’s Land was full of parties of British and Germans laughing and talking together.
By breakfast time, nearly all our men were between the trenches, and were the greatest pals. In the middle of the war we had a Merry Christmas.”

*****

When morning came both sides shook hands and exchanged gifts. We were given corned beef, tea and cigarettes. They were mad about our cigars. I thought it would be a good idea to get rid of my uniform’s black metal shoulder titles, so I swapped them for very nice German belt with brass buttons and the words “God mitt Uns” on it, and I used that all through the rest of the wall to keep my trousers up.

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I spotted a German officer, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I’d taken a fancy to some of his buttons. We then agreed to do a swap. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons. I then gave him two of mine. One soldier swapped bully beef for a pointed German helmet.

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The helmet achieved fame as on the following day a voice called out “I want to speak to the officer.” He continued, “Yesterday I swapped my helmet for the bully beef. I have an important inspection tomorrow. You lend me my helmet, and I will bring it back afterwards.” The loan was made and the agreement kept, sealed with some extra bully beef. I had a drink of rum off one of the Saxons and then I drank his health. He nearly shook my hand off.

*****

All the morning we have been fraternising, singing songs. I have spoken to and exchanged greetings with a colonel, staff officers and several company officers. We have just knocked off a dinner, and have arranged a meeting afterwards.

*****

Captain Berryman came running up with the news that the Germans were out of their trenches  Sure enough I found a number sitting on the parapet of No. 2 Company’s trench, and also out in front of No. 1 Company. They were trying to converse with our men and giving them cigarettes, biscuits and boxes of cigars. As I could speak German I conversed with them. They all belonged to the 16th Regiment. They seemed very jolly as if they had just had a good dinner. One of them said to me that there must be “Friede auf der Erde”,  “Peace on Earth” on this day, being Christmas Day.

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In the middle of No Man’s Land I met two English, one Indian and one German officer of the neighbouring company; we shook hands, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and then we exchanged some small presents like plum pudding, cakes, whisky, brandy, and so did our men. For an hour both sides walked about between the two lines of trenches, talking and laughing, swapping tobacco and cigarettes, biscuits etc….You would never believe that we have been fighting for weeks.

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One of the Germans asked me if I would like to bury a few dead Indians that were lying about their trenches. My chum and I set to work and buried about a dozen of them. All the Germans looked very fit. They were also very well clothed and looked well fed. One of their officers, a captain, clasped his hands together and looked towards heaven and said, “My God, why cannot we have peace and let us all go home!”

*****

A couple of bright sparks from the Staffordshire Regiment appeared – one clad in a tail coat, black trousers, and an old battered silk hat , the other decked out in blouse and skirt, an old bonnet and a broken umbrella. They paraded up and down and were joined by another joker who had found a broken bicycle with almost square wheels, which he trundled up and down. Many of the Germans had costumes on which had been taken from the houses nearby, and one fellow had a blouse, skirt, top hat and umbrella. My own platoon sergeant added a good deal to the Christmas party by going out to meet the Germans wearing a large skirt; this led to some earthy Teutonic byplay and caused plenty of laughs.

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We heard them singing and shouting in their trenches, and about midday they began lifting up hats on sticks and then they showed their heads, and then their bodies and finally they climbed out of their trenches into the open! Of course we could not shoot them in cold blood like that. We could hardly believe our eyes; we were just about to open fire when one of our officers gave us the order to unload our rifles. Seeing the Germans without any rifles, we stood up and answered them. Then they started to cheer. One of their men shouted out, “Here’s some cigars for you. Come and fetch them.” They shouted, “Come on, we will not fire on you.” The fellow who threw the cigars then came down off the top of his trench and picked up the box again, and started to walk over towards our trenches. Seeing this I climbed over the parapet of our trench to meet him. When we met in the middle he handed me the cigars and said, “A Happy Christmas to you”. I hardly knew what to do at first, but I shook hands with him and wished him the compliments of the season.
As soon as the Germans saw us shake hands they cheered like mad. They then started to come towards our trench.

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Our boys, all Indians by the way, started out to meet them as well. The scene that followed can hardly be described. To see our greatest enemy shaking hands with our Indian troops and giving them cigars and cigarettes was a sight I shall never forget.

Captain, come out, the British have started waving. There is no shooting, and our men are doing the same”. I rushed out and saw a strange unforgettable picture. The soldiers who were standing upright on top of their trenches without their weapons, shouting “Merry Christmas”. Some soldiers had advanced into No Man’s Land. They met in the middle, shook hands, talked and strolled about.…… They were trying to talk to our men and they were giving them biscuits and boxes of cigars.

*****

An officer amused us very much by clearing some soldiers away from his machine gun emplacement, but he finally had his photo taken arm in arm with one of our officers.

*****

Coming across from the German trenches was a solitary German, carrying a white flag high above his head. Having come about halfway he suddenly stopped and waited. Then one of our men went out to meet him, to bring him into our lines. Unfortunately the German had not been blindfolded, and he had to be made a prisoner of war. He protested and was awfully upset, but he had seen behind our lines. (The luckiest man I have heard of for a good while. The whole of 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918 in a British POW camp!)

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The Germans sent in a party with a white flag. Our bloody fool of a sentry brings one German in without blindfolding him and, of course, he had to be made a prisoner-of-war.

*****

The German officers were taking photographs of mixed groups. One German brought us copies to send to the English newspapers. We  had our photographs taken by a German who was the proud possessor of a small camera. There were Indians and Germans shaking hands when he pulled the shutter.

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He took a photograph of three of our officers and three of their officers; our officers were placed between theirs. Suddenly one of the Germans ran back to his trench and presently appeared with a large camera. I posed in a mixed group for several photographs. No doubt framed editions of this photograph are now on some German mantelpiece!.

*****

“Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”

*****

Suddenly a Tommie came with a football and then began a football match. We marked the goals with our caps. Teams were quickly established and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3-2.

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The regiment actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2.

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“A” company played against the enemy with an old tin for a ball: they won 3-2!

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Some of our boys tied up a sandbag and used it as a football, while a party of Germans enjoyed themselves sliding on a little frozen pond. Soon there were dozens kicking a made up football about in No Man’s Land.

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In the sector of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, “it was recorded that a game was played and according to a letter  published by the Glasgow News, the Scots won by  4–1.

*****

He toured Britain last year with the Leipzig team and beat Glasgow Celtic 1-0. All day we walked to and fro with newspapers and our little photographs and parted, regretting that it was our duty to fight each other.

*****

Men from the 1st Battalion came out from their trenches to play football. The Royal Welch Fusiliers played the German Battalion 371. The Germans won 2–1.

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As the fog lifted the Germans were playing football. We  climbed out of the trench armed with an entrenching tool handle and a jam tin and played rounders.

*****

We had a football out in front of the trenches and asked the Germans to send a team to play us but it had been freezing all night and it was a ploughed field so their officers stopped them doing it.

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A match against a German team (described as “Prussians and Hanovers”) was played near Ypres near the border of Belgium and France.

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The Lancashire Fusiliers, based near Le Touquet on the northern French coast, played a match against German soldiers using a ration tin as the “ball”.

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Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported “a sing-song which ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!

*****

The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side, it wasn’t from our side. 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 nineteen. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no ill will between us. There was no referee, and no score. It was simply a mêlée. We had a rare old jolly vacation, which included football, in which the Germans took part.

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On Christmas Day 1914 there was an Armistice between us and the enemy. A comrade of our company held up a sign with the inscription “Fröhliche Weinachten” (Merry Christmas). The English immediately responded in like manner. An English soldier shouted to us in imperfect German, asking if we wanted to remove the dead between the lines. We came to an agreement and our men climbed over the parapet, as did some of the English. Afterwards the Englishmen asked us to sing some Christmas songs. An English soldier came towards as and exchanged cigarettes and chocolate. The sight of opposing troops chatting to each other along a stretch of several hundred metres was a very strange one. As darkness fell both sides went back to their trenches. Such attempts at fraternisation have hardly been approved by the High Command; they remain, however, a wonderful testament to the human spirit.

*****

I gave them cigarettes and was given a box of tobacco which I will send home as a souvenir of  the most extraordinary event of the whole war – a soldiers’ truce without any higher sanction by officers and generals. We strolled up and down for about half an hour, shook hands, said goodbye, saluted and returned to our lines.

*****

And finally, the  very best one of all…

It was just the sort of day for peace to be declared. It would have made such a good finale. I should have liked to have suddenly heard an immense siren blowing. Everybody to stop and say “What was that? Siren blowing again: the appearance of a small figure running across the frozen mud and waving something. He gets closer – a telegram boy with a message! He hands it to me. With trembling fingers I open it: “War off, return home – George. King” Cheers! But no, it was a nice, fine day, that was all.

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For me the Christmas Truce has always been the most wonderful achievement ever by ordinary working-class men, many of whom would never have even seen a German or an Englishman before the Great War broke out. And despite all the appalling self-serving jingoism in the newspapers, after just four months of  slaughter, both armies of ordinary men were ready to recognise that they had far more in common with their so-called enemies than they might previously have been allowed to know. The warmth and humanity of these men shines through still, even a century after the event. “Merry Christmas” or should I say “Fröhliche Weinachten”?

SportTo commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the impromptu football matches played in No Man’s Land during the Christmas Truce of December 1914, both English and German football supporters have come together this year, 2014, in the spirit of Christmas friendship. The highlight of the weekend-long meeting was a seminar entitled “The Referee”.

English supporters were able to show their German friends how it is possible for the referee to award a goal even though a tiny and almost insignificant proportion of the ball may not have completely crossed the line.

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Our German friends were able to show how a referee, if he decides the ball is of the wrong colour or has been made by the wrong manufacturer, can refuse to award a goal, even though the ball may have crossed the line by several metres.

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At the end of a wonderful day of comparing beers and consuming Christmas food, a collection was taken to fund methods of helping the referees of England-Germany games during the next century.

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