For a brief and poignant moment in December 1914, war itself took a holiday.
Confronting each other across the muddy, half-frozen trenches of Flanders as Christmas 1914 approached were the armies of Queen Victoria’s grandsons George and Wilhelm. No-man’s-land between the troops was littered with the dead, and hopes for a short, decisive war had died with them. Yet the deadlock of the trenches and the imminence of Christmas gave rise to one of the few humane episodes of the war. It has become almost mythic, but it happened.
Ironically, the initiatives came from the invaders. Most Germans, even leading intellectuals like Thomas Mann, viewed the war as a response to the alleged encirclement of Germany by the hostile forces of cultures less rich and technologies less advanced. To be called “Hun barbarians” when they avowedly represented the higher civilization, and one under threat at that, seemed absurd, a feeling shared by educated young officers at the front.
While the war itself might be justifiable, a Christmas tarnished by war seemed outrageous. Captain Rudolf Binding, a hussar officer, wrote to his father from Flanders on December 20, 1914, that if he were in authority, he would issue a proclamation banning the celebration of Christmas. “Enemy, Death, and a Christmas tree–they cannot exist so close together.”
Binding was not appeased by what he labeled as a “Christmas gift stunt organized by…snobbish busybodies in a glare of publicity [that] creates such an unsavory impression here that it fairly makes one sick.” The Liebesgabe, or love gift, had been promoted by German newspapers on behalf of commercial enterprises that packaged them out of profitable patriotism. Binding disparaged them as “packages of bad cigars, indifferent chocolate, and wool lies of problematical usefulness.” This did not make a Christmas.
The British took their cue from the propaganda success of Victoria’s box of chocolates for the Boer War troops in 1899, a prized gift even embossed on the lid with her royal profile. Shipped across the Channel in the name of George V’s daughter, Princess Mary, were gift boxes of cigarettes, pipe tobacco–in those days everyone smoked–and a greeting card reproduced in facsimile from the king’s handwriting, “May God protect you and bring you home safe.”
In some sectors of Flanders, firing began to slacken spontaneously on the afternoon leading up to Christmas Eve; in others it was war as usual–at least to begin with. “About half-past four on Christmas Eve,” a Private Mullard of the London Rifle Brigade wrote to his parents on the Isle of Wight, “we heard a band in the German trenches, but our artillery spoilt the effect by dropping a couple of shells right in the centre of them. You can guess what became of the band, for we have not heard it since.” Yet when darkness fell about an hour later, they “were surprised to see trees stuck on the top of the [German] trenches, lit up with candles, and all the men sitting on top of the trenches. So, of course, we got out of ours and passed a few remarks, inviting each other to come over and have a drink and a smoke, but we did not like to trust each other at first.”
To Allied troops, the German impulse not to forgo the rituals of Christmas came as a surprise after the propaganda about German bestiality. They did not expect the supposedly barbaric and pagan Germans to risk their lives in behalf of each prized Tannenbaum. Yet when unanticipated gunfire felled the first trees in the trenches, Fritz and his friends stubbornly climbed the parapets to set them upright.
At Fromelles, south of the border between France and Belgium, the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards was opposite the Saxon 15th, 37th, and 158th regiments. A German who spoke good English shouted across the lines, “Merry Christmas, Scottie Guardie. We not fire tomorrow; have holiday, game of football.” An 18-year-old second lieutenant, Alan Swinton, commander of a company only a 100 yards off, soon realized that the pause in enemy fire was lengthening, with his own men happily reciprocating. The Scots listened to the enemy singing into the night, and warily watched their fires and their lighted candles, which by their positions seemed to be on the branches of Christmas trees.
What broke through the suspicion at most places on the line was the singing, stolid and often religious on the German side, informal and often irreverent on the British. An infantryman in the London Rifles trenches reported that the Saxons opposite “sang and played to us several of their own tunes and some of ours, such as ‘Home Sweet Home,’ ‘Tipperary,’ etc. while we did the same for them. The regiment on our left all got out of their trenches, and every time a flare went up they simply stood there, cheered, and waved their hats, and not a shot was fired….The singing and playing continued all night.” (His description of the incident appeared in the Times, which relaxed its customary bellicosity to print such accounts, as did dozens of local newspapers.)
Almost everywhere opposite the British in Flanders, Germans placed lighted candles atop their parapets, and where they could obtain small trees, put them up too. A lieutenant in the London Rifles said “the Boches’ trenches” looked “like the Thames on Henley Regatta night.” The numbers of exposed and unarmed men on both sides grew. Where Saxon troops went out to meet the London Rifles, Private Mullard reported, the enemy officers approached “on the rays of a searchlight playing from the German lines, and it made a fine picture to see the six officers meet between the lines…. All the boys on both sides gave a tremendous cheer….Then it was the troops turn, and we swarmed out of our trenches.”
To the north of Ploegsteert Wood, the Seaforth Highlanders were fraternizing. The Germans sang Christmas songs; the Highlanders responded impudently with “Who Were You with Last Night?” as well as “Tipperary,” both “very badly,” a Seaforth officer wrote home. First “horrified at discovering some of our men had actually gone out,” he soon excused it as an effort to see what the enemy trenches were like. Halfway between the lines, he reported, they exchanged cigarettes for cigars “and they arranged (the private soldiers of one army and the private soldiers of the other) a 48 hours’ armistice. It was all most irregular, but the Peninsular and other wars will furnish many such examples.” Eventually, that first night, their officers intervened, and “both sides were induced to return to their respective trenches.” Yet not only did “the enemy” sing all night, “during my watch they played ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ and ‘God Save the King,’ at 2:30 A.M.!”
Near Armentieres, the Queen’s West minster Rifles assumed at first that the lights were a ruse and fired at them. When there was no return volley, it puzzled them more. “The first unusual thing happened,” Rifleman Percy H. Jones wrote a few days later in his diary, “when we noticed about three large fires behind enemy lines. This is a place where it is generally madness to strike a match.” Then lights began appearing on trench parapets, and Jones heard what he thought were “weird tunes on their peculiarly pitched bugles or horns,” as well as singing. Troops suspected the enemy soldiers were priming themselves up for a big attack….In fact we were about to loose off a few rounds at the biggest light when the following words were heard (probably through a megaphone): “Englishmen, Englishmen. Don’t shoot. You don’t shoot, we don’t shoot.”
How it all happened I don’t know, but shortly after this our boys had lights out, and the enemy troops were busy singing each other songs, punctuated with terrific salvos of applause.
The scene from my sentry post was hardly creditable. Straight ahead were three large lights, with figures perfectly visible round them. The German trenches, which bent sharply and turned to the rear of our advanced positions[,] were illuminated with hundreds of little lights. Far away to the left, where our lines bent, a few lights showed our A Co[mpan]y trenches, where the men were thundering out “My little Grey Home in the West.”…The music then quietened down and some time was spent yelling facetious remarks across the trenches. After this, some dare devils in E Co[mpany] actually went out, met and shook hands with some of the Germans and exchanged cake and biscuits. As the night went on things gradually grew quieter.
Such early contacts were tentative and timid, and in the darkness, troops returned to their own lines.
Early Christmas morning at Houplines, near Armentieres, Private Frank Richards and some chums in the Royal Welch Fusiliers “stuck up a board” on which they had printed “A MERRY CHRISTMAS,” then waited to see what would happen. When the placard was not shot at, two men jumped onto the parapet of their trench with their hands above their heads to show that they had no weapons. Two Germans opposite did the same, and began walking toward them. As they met and shook hands, the trenches emptied and men on both sides ran toward each other. “Buffalo Bill,” Richards’s company commander, rushed into the forward trench to stop them, but his men were already gone. His nickname had come from his habit of cocking his revolver and threatening to blow a man’s “ruddy brains out” for some trifling thing–and what he saw was no trifle. Yet he had to accept what had happened, “so company officers climbed out too,” Richards wrote. “Their officers were also now out….We mucked in all day with one another.” One English-speaking Saxon confessed that he was fed up with the war, and Richards and his friends agreed.
Discovering in the morning that his men had left their trenches to meet Saxons in no-man’s-land, Lieutenant Swinton sought advice from higher authority on how to handle the situation. At battalion headquarters he found his superior officer, Captain George Paynter, being admonished by the brigade commander. “George,” he warned, “you are not to fraternize with the Huns!” Waiting until Paynter was alone, Swinton reported what the captain obviously knew. Paynter replied, as if he had heard no order from above, “Come on, Alan, show me the Huns.” Hurrying forward, they met their Saxon counterparts and arranged for a day’s truce.
The enemy was almost too friendly, and asked to visit the British trenches; but Paynter did not want them to see how badly off the Guards were. Casualties and sickness had left their companies woefully understrength. Forbidding his own troops to visit closer than the halfway point between the trenches, he ordered some of his men to move back and forth in their own breast works, to give an impression of greater numbers. Meanwhile, they also used the opportunity to repair dugouts and reinforce their barbed wire. “I honestly believe,” said another Guards officer of enemy friendliness, “that if we had called on the Saxons for fatigue parties to help with our barbed wire, they would have come over and done so.”
From the German side, Private Heinrich Knetschke–if we are to trust the humor magazine Der Brummer (The Grumbler)–sent a letter prefaced by a poem to his “Beloved Anna” from somewhere in Flanders:
The weather is cold in France.
Maybe therefore each soldier
That is on his post is longing For the room where his girl
Is just now lighting a Christmas tree.
“All rights preserved!” Knetschke joked, hoping, he added, that his verses might stir a tear as she thought of him. Many poems were just then being written by his company, he explained. “A postal van of love has arrived and in the same were lots of different packages with rhymed verses, which all of us are answering now.” He was also sending his poem, he confessed, to two other ladies whose names and addresses he had found in his Liebesgabe, which contained a gereimte Tabakspfeife–a pipe with a patriotic motto around the bowl–and a belt decorated with “very beautiful needlepoint and the exhortation, “A CALL IS SOUNDING LIKE A ROLL OF THUNDER!”
“Beloved Anna!” he went on, “I well believe that you are astonished that I am attempting poetry. However, war causes changes that in ordinary times one thinks would be impossible.” Their situation, he added, which was bad when he last wrote, was now excellent. His platoon had been ordered to an outpost that turned out to be “a very beautiful pavilion,” which must have belonged at one time to a marquis for it included a marquee. “And a hundred meters on is a little chateau; however, we did not move in because behind it is an outpost of the French.”
Once in their new quarters, his lieutenant had remarked, “Knetschke, we must secure a Christmas tree!” Knetschke knew exactly where to find one. Reconnoitering the chateau, he had observed a beautiful evergreen growing near the back entrance. Slipping back, in a daring foray into enemy territory, he cut down the tree and had begun “a strategic retreat ” with it when he heard loud voices. Just then, a few “Marseillaise”–singing drunks, precariously carrying bottles of red wine, emerged from the chateau. “They swayed like rocking horses,” Knetschke wrote. He rushed back, not forgetting the tree, and reported the discovery of Rottwein to his lieutenant, “who gathered up six men and with me in the lead marched to the chateau. Well, Anna, you might be joyously expecting that a decisive battle followed. But it’s not the case. We reached the rear entrance and entered the ground floor, and couldn’t risk a wrong move as we heard the ‘Marseillaise’ still coming from the cellar, which showed us the way to go. As we stood quietly in the dark vault, a French officer luckily opened the cellar.”
Avoiding detection, Knetschke confided, was impossible, but the officer already “had such a load on” that he could not tell friend from foe, and he ordered the Germans (in French) to “move out the champagne.” They had come exactly for this purpose, the Oberleutnant answered, “and we entered the wine cellar…Their insensibility was obvious. Half of the French outpost was inside, and they were as drunk as loons. After this, you will surely believe me that we thanked our maker that we hadn’t come any later because the Frogs would have guzzled up everything all by themselves.”
The enemy officer “extended his French paw to our Oberleutnant…A poilu wanted to embrace me. I rejected such fraternization but only, Beloved Anna, because he was belching so powerfully. But then we agreed to a truce for the rest of Christmas on the condition that the parleyvoozes would help us to carry fifty bottles into our pavilion.” Back in their own quarters, having left the French to slip fuzzily into un consciousness, the Germans put candles on their Tannenbaum and, inspired by champagne, sang “Stille Nacht” in “voices like oxen.”
Knetschke’s tale recognized that when the irregular line separating forces had been frozen in place, the opposing trenches often had cut through farms and estates; it also acknowledged that despite the Franco-German hatred ever since 1870, some impromptu truces during that Christmas involved even the unforgiving French.
Decades later, the novelist Henry Williamson wondered what might have been had a glum soldier in the Bavarian ranks across the line from him stepped forward. “Three weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I was talking to Germans with beards and khaki-covered Pickelhauben, and smoking new china gift-pipes glazed with the Crown Prince’s portrait in colour, in a turnip field amidst dead cows, English and German corpses frozen stiff. The new world, for me, was germinated from that fraternization. Adolf Hitler was one of those ‘opposite numbers’ in long field-grey coats.” Later, in the pacifist futility of the 1930s, Williamson would fantasize hopefully about Hitler’s experience of 1914-18: If the fuhrer was one of those who had been involved in that rapprochement across the lines, the memory of Bruderschaft (brotherhood) might contribute to staving off a new war. Yet Hitler had in fact rejected that opportunity in 1914. William son’s recollection–it was during the writer’s fascist phase–was only a convenient quarter-truth.
To escape Austrian conscription in 1913, Hitler had slipped into Bavaria, volunteering the next year from Munich on the day the Germans invaded France and Belgium. After eight weeks of training, he was a lance corporal and field messenger in Flanders with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. But he was out of the line on December 25, and when there was discussion about crossing into no-man’s land to share Christmas with the British, he contended, “Such a thing should not happen during wartime.” Besides, although he was a baptized Catholic, Hitler rejected every vestige of religious observance. He was not only opposite Williamson, but opposed Williamson’s alter ego, Phillip Maddison, in the novel A Fox under My Cloak (1955) is pedaling back toward a shattered chateau, from which he had liberated an ancient bicycle, when a Tommy shouts that “everyone” is out of the trenches and in no-man’s-land “talking to the Alleymans,” he explains. “There’s bloody hundreds of’m, Jock!” Maddison cycles toward “what at first sight looked like a crowd on a football field during the interval of a match.” What he sees seems like a dream, as is the reality of standing up safely in day light.” Leaning the bicycle against the British barricade, he…found himself face to face with living Germans, men in grey uniforms and leather knee boots….” Moving on, Maddison is surprised when he sees a football kicked into the air and several soldiers running after it. A soccer match has been proposed, to be played in a field behind the German lines.
Whether a game of “footer” actually occurred inside the German lines is unproven, but the references to football along the front are many. Unit histories include reports of matches, some played within earshot, often within artillery range, of the enemy. One lieutenant in a Highland regiment reported talking during the truce with a foot baller from Leipzig who arranged with him to have a two-hour “interval” for a match the next day–Boxing Day, the traditional English day for giving Christmas gifts to servants. “This, however, was prevented by our superiors at HQ.” Another soldier, Private William Tapp of the 1/Royal Warwickshires, wrote on Christmas Day from just above St. Yvas, “We are trying to arrange a football match with them for tomorrow, Boxing Day,” but artillery fire prevented it. There were other plans to play, right up until New Year’s, especially after the clearance of corpses from no-man’s-land furnished areas for competition at least as wide as a conventional soccer field.
Certainly something resembling football occurred on Christmas itself. A London Rifles officer whose letter about the truce was published in the Times described how “on Christmas Day a football match was played between them and us in front of the trench.” Rifles sergeant Bob Lovell recalled the preliminaries–that his company commander had sent a sack of tea across the line and received a letter of thanks from his counterpart, after which, later on Christmas morning, a German juggler who had appeared in London music halls “cleared a space” between the lines and gave an exhibition. One of the Saxon officers emerged with a camera–all personal cameras on both sides violated regulations–and took a photograph of a dozen men from both sides, posed with mistletoe from gift packages thrust jauntily into caps and helmets exchanged with the enemy for the picture.
The Times also published a letter from a major in the Medical Corps who claimed that in his sector his regiment “actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2!!!” The account is verified in the war history of the 133rd Regiment of the 9th Division, Royal Saxon Infantry, which spoke of the “droll scene” of “Tommy und Fritz” first chasing down wild hares between the lines, then kicking about a football furnished by a Scot. “This developed into a regulation foot ball match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Then we organized each side into teams, lining up in motley rows, with the football in the center. One of us took a photograph. Das Spiel endete 3:2 fur Fritz.”
Sergeant Major F. Naden of the 6th Cheshires, then east of Wulverghem, above the River Douve in Belgium, wrote home, “The Scotsmen…started the bagpipes, and we had a rare old jollification, which included football, in which the Germans took part.” Private Higgins of the same regiment failed to mention football in his letter home, but said the Cheshires invited the enemy, only sixty yards away, for Christmas dinner. “Today we were shaking hands with some of the Germans, and they have given some of our chaps four barrels of beer.” Decades later, Private Ernie Williams, a former Territorial in the 6th Cheshires, recalled,
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 for a 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 mell–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….
Few details of reported games or the conditions of play survive. Lieutenant Charles Brewer of the 2/Bedfordshires wrote home only that “higher up in the line–you would scarcely believe it they are playing a football match.” And a history of the Lancashire Fusiliers records that its A Company played a Christmas game against the enemy just north of Le Touquet, using an old ration tin for a ball, and lost, 3-2. Curiously, both recorded scores are the same, but the circumstances and locations are very different. Lance Corporal George Ashurst, who was somewhere on the line with the 2/Lancashires, mentions only that “some of our boys tied up a sandbag and used it as a football”–obviously not the same incident.
No-man’s-land in the sectors where the truce was holding had taken on the atmosphere of a panoramic, anecdotal, Victorian scene as painted by W.P. Frith–a Derby Day or a Ramsgate Sands. As on every square inch of Frith’s crowded canvases, people gathered and stories unfolded. In the former cabbage and turnip patches, cow pastures and orchards, fattened rabbits were skewered on makeshift spits and a pig caught by the 6/Cheshires was roasted and shared with the Boche. Both sides brought up loads of wood and straw to improve their dugouts, tasks laborious and even impossible under fire. An Englishman in the 3/Rifles had his hair cut by a Saxon who had been his barber in High Holborn, and Captain Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarians watched several of his soldiers, heads cranked up, being shaved by the enemy. The cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, a second lieutenant with the 1/ Royal Warwickshires, recalled “one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Saxon, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.” Few units were eager to return to a war of attrition that seemed endless. Some had agreed to stretch the cease fire into a further dawn; others held out for New Year’s Day. Headquarters on both sides responded with threats of punitive action; local commanders, realizing that their troops had to be weaned gradually from humane impulses, argued that the continued lull furnished time to drain flooded trenches, repair barbed-wire defenses, and move forward ammunition and supplies. Reluctantly, often perfunctorily, battalions on the line recommenced hostilities. In the 1/Royal Warwickshires, Private Tapp noted, an officer warned the Germans opposite at 8:40 a.m. on December 26 to get back into their trenches, as British artillery would begin shelling at 9:00. A German shouted back, ”We will get into your trenches as we shall be safer.”
“This will stop the football match,” Tapp mourned. “Shells are exchanged for a few hours but we all stand up at intervals, no fear of being shot with a bullet.”
In most instances, the return to hostilities was preceded by a signal to the other side. On the banks of the Lys, Captain Charles Stockwell of the 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers fired three shots in the air at 8:30 a.m., posted a sign read ing “Merry Christmas” above a forward trench, and climbed atop his parapet. The Germans opposite responded with a “Thank you” sheet, and their company’s captain stood up on his own parapet. The two officers bowed, saluted, then climbed down into their trenches, from which the German officer fired two shots in the air. The war was resumed. A Saxon unit threw a piece of dirty cardboard across to the British side apologizing for being forced to fight, and announcing, in English, “We shot in the air.” “But of course,” Captain F.D. Harris of the 1st North Staffordshires wrote to his family, “war is war, and I expect we shall be at it properly again in a short time.”
Little enthusiasm for hostile action was displayed in sectors where the truce had held. “During the whole of Boxing Day,” Frank Richards recalled, the 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers “never fired a shot, and they the same; each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball a-rolling.” In the XIX Saxon Corps, there was almost a mutiny in one of its regiments when it received orders to begin shooting again. When on leave in Leipzig, Vize-Feldwebel Lange told Australian expatriate Ethel Cooper about it. Although she could not mail letters to her sister back home because Australia was at war with Germany, she carefully hid the unsent correspondence in date sequence until peace came. According to Miss Cooper,
The difficulty began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck. Herr Lange says that…he had never heard such language as the officers indulged in, while they stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer, “We can’t they are good fellows, and we can’t.” Finally, the officers turned on the men with, “Fire, or we do–and not at the enemy!” Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. “We spent that day and the next,” said Herr Lange, “wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.”
What had made the truce work was the shared feeling that the war would be decided at another place and time, and in another way–by some massive assault or by negotiations after a wearing down of the desire of governments to keep on fighting. As long as the troops in the trenches saw themselves as a sideshow that only put them at risk, they preferred to make life at least marginally bearable. Yet as units relieved each other on both sides of the line, the links briefly forged now eroded. Fewer companies in the forward trenches knew their counterparts by reputation or by name, and the events of Christmas seemed strange and even surreal to newcomers full of rear-area slogans and enmities.
As Bruce Bairnsfather put it, “It was too much to expect that a table would be suddenly wheeled out into No Man’s Land, accompanied by English and German Ministers with fountain pens and documents, ready to sign PEACE.” He found that the higher the official echelon, the more annoyed the superior was about what had happened, right up to divisional headquarters. The holiday having passed, “and the respective soldiers having been sorted out, and put back in their proper slots in the ground, the war went on again. Bullets whizzed around that one-time meeting place, and sundry participants in that social gathering were laid out stiff on parapets, awaiting burial….” In the sector where British-officered (but Indian) Garhwals had greeted Westphalians on Christmas Eve, the 2/Worcesters now were on the front, firing away with “Archibald,” an improvised trench mortar made from a large iron drain pipe. It looped into the enemy lines Tickler’s jam tins, once bartered for sausages but now stuffed with explosives and nails. It was symbolic of the return to a shooting war that, depending upon which troops were in the trenches, rekindled irregularly as the poor fighting weather in January improved and friendly relations deteriorated. Easter and other holidays came and went, with nothing more than sporadic, abortive war stoppages. On both sides there would be more dead than yards gained throughout 1915.
The German army had an even more intense tradition of discipline, and its High Command was just as concerned as the other side about a spontaneous stoppage of the war. Expressions of popular will, soldier or civilian, could endanger the state. Yet some soldiers’ letters home trickled through the censorship. Those that appeared in news paper accounts were mostly watered down to describe spotty truces to bury the dead. In Leipzig the Reclams Universum published three pictures from London papers showing artists’ renderings of warm fraternization and followed them with German solders’ accounts that “proved” the enemy depictions were falsehoods. In Germany, authorities kept photographs of the real thing out of the illustrated weeklies.
The fading of the 1914 truce had closed off the last practical opportunity for a short war. Soldiers in the trenches might not want to fight on, but their governments did. The Chinese novelist Lu Xun once observed wryly, “Whoever was in power wishes for a restoration. Whoever is now in power is in favor of the status quo.” A peace in place was impossible for the Western Allies. The British and Belgians and French could not concede the lost national territory; the Germans, having overrun it, could not return it without the collapse of their regime. It made no difference what the men doing the dying felt, as long as they also felt under military discipline.
Paradoxically, discipline would lead inevitably to its opposite as the war reheated. In a play by Hubert Griffith, Tunnel Trench, a Tommy tells a captured German long after, “When you woz comin’ through Belgium you woz swine–not as bad as they said you woz, but you woz bad….But ‘ave you ‘ated us when we woz fightin’ equal, all these years in trench warfare? ‘Ave we ‘ated you? Not when you palled up with us Christmas 1914.” But, the soldier believes, once the Germans were driven from their positions, as assuredly they would be, it was ” Gawd’s ‘oly bible truth'” that “as I’m alive, we’ll lose our ‘eads as well…. We’ll chuck bombs down yer dugouts an’ laugh….We’ll baynet yer wounded….We’ll get ter killin’ you fer the love of killin’….Gawd knows why it is, but so it will be. ‘Tain’t, and won’t be, our fault, but so it will be.”
However much the Christmas Truce of 1914 evidenced the desire of men to live in amity with one another, it was doomed from the start. A celebration of the human spirit rather than an abortive mutiny, it was at odds with a fact of war explained by Graham Greene about a very different kind of conflict in a different place and time. “An enemy,” Greene wrote in his novel The Human Factor (1978), “had to remain a caricature if he was to be kept at a safe distance: an enemy should never come alive. The generals were right–no Christmas cheer ought to be exchanged between the trenches.”
STANLEY WEINTRAUB is Evan Pugh Professor of Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He is currently working on a book about the Christmas Truce.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1993 issue (Vol. 5, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Christmas Truce
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