One day, there were crowds of troops mingling happily in no-man’s-land and, a few days later, after an enthusiastic chorus of Auld Lang Syne, the fighting had started again
There is a particular poignancy in the celebration of Christmas in wartime. The idea of killing at a time of “peace to all men” is the obvious reason, but just as important is the way the association of Christmas with home, united families, firesides and present-giving contrasts sharply with the situation of soldiers, away from home and family, living in often harsh conditions and exchanging bullet and shell instead of gifts.
The growing popularity of the Christmas festival during the 19th century led the Victorians to dwell on such contradictions. Until the 1850s, knowledge of the conditions experienced by armies fighting abroad was limited and subject to a considerable time lag, with the outcome of even major battles becoming known only days or sometimes weeks later. By the time of the Crimean War, however, the telegraphed reports of William Russell of The Times, together with an improved postal system, meant that society at home was well informed about how the troops were living. If one result was an outcry over the neglect of the army, bereft of proper supplies and losing thousands to a cholera epidemic, another was growing sympathy for officers and men doing their duty far from home. Such concern was felt most acutely at Christmas time, with the Manchester Guardian expressing its confidence in December 1855 that “Our soldiers will have their Christmas…What mountains of plum-pudding mixed by the fair hands of mothers, sisters, and wives are now on their way to the camp!”
Queen Victoria’s many “little wars” found British soldiers fighting in dangerous far-off places. Then, as today, Afghanistan was one of the most inhospitable. In December 1879, Graphic provided a light-hearted look at how the soldiers might be spending Christmas, depicting them dining on a scrawny fowl, dreaming of better fare, and guarded by an aggressive Father Christmas. The Gurkhas with their rum seemed to be having the best of it.
There was also the more fundamental question of whether warfare should continue at Christmas time at all. Should not the guns be silenced for at least a day or so? A long tradition of temporary truces to give time for the burial of the dead had usually involved friendly contact between opponents, as when Russian, French and British soldiers had occasionally met to drink and smoke together during the Crimean War.
The young Winston Churchill, a combination of soldier, war tourist and war correspondent, commented in his diary entry for 25 December 1900, during the Boer War: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace and goodwill towards men. So no great shells were fired into the Boer entrenchments at dawn and hostile camps remained tranquil throughout the day.” He went on to describe the way in which the Holy Day was spent in the British camp: athletic sports, a military tournament and a gymkhana, followed by a dinner of roast beef, plum pudding and a quart of beer for everyone. Another treat for the troops came in the form of ornate tin boxes of chocolates provided by Queen Victoria, a practice of royal Christmas boxes that would be repeated in the First World War.
The most famous Christmas truce took place in 1914. This came after the first few months of fighting, when the casualty rates were the highest of the entire conflict, before relatively mobile warfare had settled into stalemate. Public opinion on both sides had hardened into a conviction that this was a just war, and thousands of men had rushed to volunteer. Yet, in late December, news began filtering through to those at home that, at various sectors along 30 miles of front, British and German troops had held an unofficial Christmas truce, lasting in some places from Christmas Eve to the New Year.
The truce was a spontaneous phenomenon. A proposal from Pope Benedict XV for a general ceasefire at Christmas had come to nothing, partly because it would have been difficult to apply on all fronts, since the Russians celebrated Christmas on a different date and the Turks didn’t celebrate it at all, but, more important, because the governments of the combatant states were never likely to agree to it. A truce, after all, could weaken the will to fight. Nevertheless, unofficial truces did take place on most of the battlefronts. The one on the Western Front was by far the most extensive.
It was not just a matter of the artillery ceasing to fire or a lull in which the dead could be retrieved and buried. There was widespread fraternisation as German and British soldiers left their bunkers and trenches and exchanged gifts. The general picture is well known: the Germans lit candles on Christmas trees; carols and popular songs were sung; cigarettes, cigars and drinks were exchanged; and, famously, there were impromptu football matches. Even the Indian Empire troops of the Garhwal Rifles joined in, possibly reminded by the lights of Diwali.
A major explanation was the state of the war. After the great battles of October and November, the armies were digging in and waiting for reinforcements and no general offensive was immediately expected. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, in command of the Second Corps, noted in his diary that such circumstances presented “the greatest danger to the morale of the troops” and urged his subordinate senior officers to keep up the offensive spirit of the men. Such exhortations seem to have been largely obeyed by the Second Corps, only a few sections of which participated in the Christmas ceasefire. But most commanders, surprised by the spontaneous nature of the truce, reluctantly went along with it or turned blind eyes.
The extent of fraternisation varied along the front. The initiative seems usually to have come from the Germans and much seems to have depended on which regiments were manning the two sides of a sector. Saxon and Bavarian regiments seem to have been much more eager to fraternise than the Prussians, while some British regiments, like the Second Grenadier Guards, which had suffered heavy casualties recently, refused to join in. The sections of the front where troops mingled in a friendly way tended to be those where some sort of relationship had already been built up between opposing units, for the close proximity of the British and German trenches made for a strangely intimate form of warfare. Men were aware of the daily routines of their enemies and could shout as well as fire at each other, leading to tacit agreements such as not firing at breakfast time or giving the other side warnings that they would have to be very aggressive as a general was coming round.
The truce was not only spontaneous but short-lived. One day, there were crowds of British and German troops mingling happily in no-man’s-land and finding each other jolly good chaps and, a few days later, after a last enthusiastic chorus of Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Day, the fighting had started again.
What did the Christmas truce signify? Keir Hardy thought it demonstrated that working men on both sides had no quarrel with each other, but there is little evidence that class feeling played any part. Did it demonstrate a widespread desire for peace? The answer must be firmly in the negative, if by peace is meant compromise, since, as casualties mounted, opinion on both sides had hardened into a grim determination to pursue the war until victory was won. Although the long history of such truces reveals the capacity of soldiers to feel an affinity with and often an admiration for those they fought, they also remained quite capable of continuing to kill them.