When I was a little boy in the late 1950s and 1960s, my Grandad used to mention to me how there had been a Christmas truce with the Germans during his time with the Canadian Army. The most famous truce of all had already taken place at Christmas 1914 of course.
Having accessed my Grandad’s war records in later years, I knew that he hadn’t joined the Canadian Army until 1916, far too late for the famous Christmas Truce. I was also aware that he had fought at Vimy Ridge. How did I know that? Well, fifty or more years ago, he had told me so. Here are some Canadians at Vimy Ridge during the battle. Theoretically, my Grandad could be one of them, but I do know that he spent most of his time in the artillery. That was probably why he was so deaf when I knew him :
And so it all remained a bit of a mystery, until I read in the media that:
“Evidence of a Christmas truce in 1916, previously unknown to historians, has recently come to light. German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines near Vimy Ridge to share Christmas greetings and trade presents.”
In his book Hitler’s First War, Dr Thomas Weber, a historian at the University of Aberdeen had previously recorded various attempts at a Christmas Truce in 1916. None of them, however, were thought to have been successful, Dr Weber’s book explaining that that this wonderful goodwill gesture had been a complete failure. A war diary from Adolf Hitler’s own Brigade reported:
“Attempts at initiating fraternization by the enemy (calling out, raising of hands, etc.) were immediately quashed by the snipers and artillery men who had been ordered in and had stood ready to fire.”
On the Canadian side, the official version of events, which was reported in the diary of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry tells the other half of a very similar, and very pessimistic, story. The Germans had made efforts towards a ceasefire but nobody on the Canadian side had responded to it.
The entire situation changed radically, however, in November 2010, when the historian, Dr Weber, whose great-grandfather fought with the German army during the Great War, travelled to Canada. After a public lecture, he was approached afterwards by a member of the audience whose uncle, Ronald MacKinnon, had been deployed at Vimy Ridge at Christmas, 1916:
Having heard from Dr Weber during the lecture how there had been only an unsuccessful attempt at a truce in 1916, the man had in his possession a letter from Ronald MacKinnon, a 23-year-old soldier from Toronto which proved that both the Canadian and the German soldiers had put down their weapons on Christmas Day and obeyed the phrase from the Gospel, “on earth peace, good will toward men”. Christmas greetings were shouted across no man’s land and presents, just as in 1914, were exchanged between the two sides.
Dr Weber immediately announced, quite rightly, that this letter was a “fantastic find” and offered proof of a hitherto completely unknown Christmas Truce, an impromptu break in the hostilities by German and Canadian troops. The letter also clearly demonstrated that the top brass had made extensive and determined efforts to downplay any Christmas truces subsequent to the first one in 1914. Dr Weber explained that, as officers always had to report significant events to their higher chain of command, they always had a personal interest in downplaying what might be viewed as negative events when they wrote the official version in their war diaries.
Private MacKinnon’s letter home was to his sister who also lived in Toronto, and it certainly does not downplay the significance of what happened on that Christmas Day 99 years ago:
Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. I had long rubber boots or waders. We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was “tray bon” which means very good.
Do you ever write to Aunt Minnie in Cleveland? If you do, see if she can give you the address of any of our mother’s relations in England. Aunt Nellie was saying that some of them lived in Grangemouth, which is not far from Fauldhouse. If you could get me their address I would be very pleased to see them when I am in Blighty again.
I am at present in an army school 50 miles behind the line and am likely to be here for a month or so. My address will be the same, No. 3 Coy., PPCLI. I left the trenches on Xmas night. The trenches we are holding at present are very good and things are very quiet.
I have had no Xmas mail yet but I hope to get it all soon. How is Neil getting on in the city? I’ll write to him some of these days. Remember me to all my many friends at home.”
Ronald MacKinnon, like so many soldiers in the Canadian Army, had very strong connections with Great Britain. His father was a Scot from Levenseat, near Fauldhouse in West Lothian. Ronald was to meet his Scottish relatives for the first time while he was engaged in his basic training in Britain, before being sent to the Western Front.
Not long after he wrote his amazing letter back to his sister at home in Toronto, Private MacKinnon was killed at an unknown time between April 9th-10th 1917, during in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a bloody but successful attack up a strategic height of land in the northern French countryside, a great victory often remembered as Canada’s national coming of age. Here is the monument to the brave Canadians. It is at the top of the ridge:
Nowadays, you can drive up the ridge effortlessly in a tour bus. There are no Germans around. Nobody shoots at you. Everybody is friends:
Ronald is buried in Bois-Carré British Cemetery in Thelus, in the Pas-de-Calais in northern France:
For some reason, his parents’ details are not listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
One last postscript is that, according to Dr Weber, Adolf Hitler’s own unit actually faced Canadian troops on Vimy Ridge throughout the period that I have been describing. Ever the sour fanatic, Adolf Hitler, of course, would never have participated in any truce, although as many as half of his fellow soldiers are thought to have done so. The Führer’s views on the previous Truce of 1914 were recorded by one of his fellow soldiers, Heinrich Lugauer, and there is no reason to suppose that he would have changed his ideas in two short years, filled, every moment, with hatred and anger:
“When everyone was talking about the Christmas 1914 fraternization with the Englishmen, Hitler revealed himself to be its bitter opponent. He said, ‘Something like this should not even be up for discussion during wartime.”
What a bitter loner Hitler was. More extreme than his colleagues, who were only too happy to fraternise with the young Canadian lads for a day. What a pity my Grandad didn’t have the chance to shoot the bugger:
“The Christmas truce of 1914 involved 100,000 British and German troops on the Western Front in an exchange of gifts and food, to the horror of their commanders. But these displays of common humanity were much more frequent than suggested by official military histories, with evidence of similar festive get-togethers in 1915 and 1916, involving the Bavarian regiments. No doubt there were Christmas truces in 1917.
Soldiers never tried to stop fraternising with their opponents during Christmas.
This puts to rest the long dominant view that the majority of combatants during the Great War were driven by a brutalising and ever-faster spinning cycle of violence.”