The Christmas Truce: Myth and Memory | William Yarwood
In the Christmas of 1914, a spontaneous outburst occurred along the western front. Unlike the outbursts of shells, bullets and disease that had defined the first few months of the First World War – as one Northamptonshire Leftenant in a letter home to his mother described it – as “absolute hell”, this outburst was distinctly different.
Drawing on the memories of his great-grandfather William Wood, David Burgess tells the following story:
“On Christmas Eve of 1914, soldiers across both fronts slept in their trenches awaiting the end of the war. They were told it’d be over by Christmas. Some German soldiers decided to sing hymns…the most notable was ‘Silent Night’ or ‘Stille Nacht.’ As they did so, soldiers across the allied side began to listen, and some began to sing along with them.”
By Christmas morning, Captain Alfred Dougan Chater of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders described in a letter home what he called “one of the most extraordinary sights” he had 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 trench and came towards ours. We 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 event where two opposing sides came to exchange handshakes and gifts of chocolate and tobacco instead of bullets and blood came to be known as the Christmas truce of 1914, where the war that had been churning on within Europe came to an unplanned stand-still. Exchanges of food and drink, smoking and even haircuts are all said to have happened on that day with the now famous game of football that was played in No Man’s Land standing out amongst all the other events, mainly due to how well documented and publicised it has come to be; with Sainsbury’s Christmas advert ‘Christmas 1914’ which is an re-enactment of the truce and the football game being the starkest example of it in living memory. This event lives on in popular historical consciousness due to the fact that, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, it “remains one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war” hence why virtually every person, well versed in history or not, has heard of the Christmas truce.
The First World War is a hard event to grasp for many and for those who attempt to understand it often find themselves crushed by the sheer misery, bloodshed and apparent pointlessness of it all; especially if one consults the military historian John Keegan’s definitive work ‘The First World War’ which opens succinctly with him defining the war as “ a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” Thus, the Christmas truce opens a gateway into an understanding of the war when it was in its infancy as well as a wider look at the feelings, thoughts and motives of the soldiers on the ground during the period and, as Terri Blom Crocker in his fantastic and comprehensive work ‘The Christmas Truce’ points out, this understanding of said feelings, thoughts and motives is crucial to understanding the Christmas truce itself.
Contrary to much of the past historiography which states that soldiers did not reveal the true horror and misery of the war to those back home, the opposite is actually more true. For example, soldiers consistently wrote home about the dreadfulness of their trenches with one soldier, Tom Lucey of the 1st Loyal North Lancashires, describing to his mother in a letter home the nature of the conditions of his trench:
“I have been up to my knees and over them at times in this horrible cold mud—the awful part is having to stand there until the frost comes and binds all together into one congealed mass.”
In addition, soldiers also made their relatives well aware of the destructivity of modern weaponry and warfare as outlined by Captain Harry Dillon, who served in Flanders with the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who sent his sister the stark grim details of an attack on the Germans in the first months of the war:
“Though first taken by surprise, the enemy must have seen us as from then on it was absolute hell let loose, one could not move a finger and the opposite bank was plastered with shell and shrapnel. One high explosive burst right above where I was and the 2 poor devils on my right got a piece of it between them. It tore the flesh clean away from the bone of one of their legs, and there was a piece of bone 6 inches long with the flesh hanging over the heel.”
But while these experiences are horrifying both for the soldiers and readers alike, they actually helped to form somewhat of an understanding of their enemies due to the fact, as Crocker evidences, they recognised that the soldiers whose trenches they were facing, and whose daily activities not only mirrored their own but could also be observed, were enduring the same discomforts and fears as they were in their own trenches. Thus, this familiarity bred a degree of acceptance and even ambivalence towards their so called ‘enemies’. This eventually manifested itself in what historians now largely define as ‘live and let live’ behaviour, which existed towards the beginning of the war and describes how soldiers from both sides refrained, via explicit ceasefire pacts or tacit agreements, from using violence against another; leading to prolonged periods of peace which came in the vein of soldiers only firing their weapon in a symbolic manner towards the opposing trench and in some cases not using their weapons at all.
This shared experience of suffering, ambivalence towards the so called ‘enemy’ and the boredom that came with trench life is, as evidenced by new historical literature, the real reason the truce took place at all which dispels the popular idea that it ensued because of the resentments and rebellious feelings of the soldiers at the front. Thus, the truce was the natural reaction of two sides whose inquisitiveness about their ‘enemy’ led to them overriding their orders to fire upon them, instead meeting them face to face at a time of celebration.
Historical works are still being and will continue to be written about the First World War and the Christmas truce but, as Crocker points out, the myth of truce itself will likely never leave public consciousness nor will the myths surrounding it. Despite Crocker being somewhat a defender of the revisionist school of First World War historiography, which states that the war was not as futile and unessearcy as traditionalists such as Keegan, Clark and Taylor believe, he is not triumphalist about the war nor sneers at the romanticisation of the truce by the wider British public. Crocker is willing to concede that the spirit in which the Christmas truce was undertaken did genuinely reflect the attitudes of the soldiers who took part in it and that the conditions to which they found themselves within was a key motivator in acceptance of a temporary truce.
But nevertheless this truce was just that, temporary. It is true that this truce was not seen again on this scale during the rest of the war. The intensification of the conflict, continuing losses on both sides as well as a general clampdown on unplanned instances of peace by the military commanders on both sides, eventually led to that shared understanding and animosity between the two sides to dissipate as the war raged on. So maybe it is better to see the truce as Captain Bruce Bairnsfather of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and prominent British humorist and cartoonist viewed it, as “just like the interval between the rounds in a boxing match.”
The war itself slogged on for another four years with estimates concerning the scale of deaths ranging from 15 million to upwards of over 25 million, with over 700,000 British soldiers dying in the conflict overall. The truce, as aforementioned by Conan Doyle, is remembered and romanticised because it is a stain on the war itself where for just a few days in 1914 soldiers laid their weapons down and, despite all the shelling, shooting and screaming, met each other in No Man’s Land in the spirit of Christmas. Let’s hope that this memory and its spirit lives on forever more, no matter what circumstances we may find ourselves in.