At Christmas, 1914, there occurred several informal truces at various points along the trench-lines of Northern France and Belgium. It may well be that there were other places where truces took place, but our precise knowledge of events is limited by the amount of direct, eyewitness testimony which has so far been discovered. Nevertheless, there are enough trustworthy reports (and even a few photographs) to convince us that something extraordinary happened that first Christmas of the war, and that it was not entirely an isolated happening.
The image of opposing soldiers, shaking hands with each other on one day and then deliberately trying to kill each other the next, is a powerful one, and one which is part and parcel of remembrance of the Great War. It was, perhaps, a last example of open-handed chivalry before the squalor and horror of the next three years changed the old world for ever.
This page gives a very general summary of the main events of some of the truces which I know about. My sources are quoted in full at the end for those who would like to read them.
"It is thought possible that the enemy may
From General Headquarters at St. Omer
This message came from the Headquarters of Sir John French and was sent to all British Units in France and Flanders on Christmas Eve, 1914. It may be that Sir John ought to be taken at his word, and that there really was a considered possibility of some kind of German attack coming over the Christmas period. But there may have been a hidden message - that Sir John had considered the possibility of some show of friendliness at Christmas and had taken steps to give advance notice of HQ's disapproval of any such thing.
"Gorblimey" service-caps, goatskin coats -
and Father Christmas in the trenches - 1914.
Far from wishing to attack, some Germans seemed inclined to make Christmas a quiet period, in which they could enjoy memories of home. The Germans had originated the tradition of bringing Christmas trees into their houses and decorating them, a practice which was introduced into England by Queen Victoria's Consort, Prince Albert. In 1914 the practice was still not as widespread in the UK as it was in Germany. The Germans had brought Christmas trees into their trenches and dugouts in various places, and had decorated some parts of their parapet. Leutnant Johannes Niemann, 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment refers to having a Christmas tree in his dugout, and mentions also that the soldiers had hung little Christmas trees above their trenches, complete with candles. The Scottish troops opposite him, seeing the lights and being mindful of the general order issued the day before, suspected an imminent attack and began firing. No attack came, of course, and things settled down soon afterwards.
Gunner Herbert Smith, 5th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, also saw at least one Christmas tree and coloured Chinese lanterns strung along their parapet on Christmas Eve.
It appears that the Germans usually took the lead in making informal contact with their enemies, usually by calling across No-Man's Land to attract their attention after which one or two particularly brave men took the courageous step of standing upright on their parapets.
Sometimes, the first contacts were made on Christmas Eve, but it was on Christmas Day itself that most of the fraternisation took place, following a particularly cold and misty dawn. There had been a heavy overnight frost in Northern France and Belgium, and the surface of the ground was frozen.
The actual organisation - the setting up of "rules"- of the truce fell to local officers on the spot, and arrangements varied. Captain Sir Edward Hulse, of the 2nd Scots Guards, made an early contact himself, at about 8 a.m. and then went off to report to his HQ. When he arrived back in the front line, he found that there were several large crowds out in No-Man's Land, and that his trenches were completely empty, contrary to the orders he had left.
|Some officers allowed their men to go out into No-Man's Land in
small groups of three or four, so that the trenches were always manned.
The Royal Welsh Fusiliers near Ploegsteert Wood appear to have hardly left their trenches at all. Some of their officers met their German counterparts for a polite conversation out in the open and brought back a barrel of beer, courtesy of the Germans, who said that they had plenty to spare.
Photo: British soldiers with Christmas trees - but later in the war
But by and large, the truce was taken as an opportunity to meet, to shake hands, to show family photographs and to exchange small items of food and tobacco. Even the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, ordered to stay in their trenches, joined in the spirit of things, flinging tins of bully beef and jam towards the Germans, with seasonal greetings like, "Here you are, you hungry bastards!" For the most part of the day, the opposing armies took advantage of the opportunity to repair and drain their trenches, and to bury their dead.
|The Football Match - One
oft-repeated part of the Christmas Truce legend is the story of a football
match played out in No-Man's Land. There are several conflicting stories
about such a match (and if all the stories are true there must have been
more than one), with varying versions of the final score. The German officer,
Leutnant Niemann, describes a match which took place in the No-Man's Land
of the Frelinghein-Houplines sector, just outside Armentieres, and appears
to have taken part himself. His account (see below) gives a final score of
3 - 2 to the Germans.
The duration of the truce seems to have varied according to location - a few hours in some places and some days in others. I recall reading somewhere that the truce extended into the New Year in one place, but I can't find the reference to confirm this.
The truce often ended just as it had begun, by mutual agreement. Captain C. I. Stockwell, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers recalled how, after a truly "Silent Night," he fired three shots into the air at 8.30 a.m. on December 26th and then climbed onto his parapet. The officer who had given him the beer the previous day also appeared on the German parapet. They bowed, saluted and climbed back into their trenches. A few moments afterwards, Stockwell heard the German fire two shots into the air and, as he said, " The War was on again."
It wasn't quite "Goodwill to ALL men" at Christmas,
This is Pte. Ernest Palfrey, 2nd Battalion, the Monmouthshire Regiment,
who was killed on that Christmas Day, while returning from a burial party
on a front where a truce had been agreed and fraternization was in progress.
|The German View of Events - including
the Football Match
Leutnant Johannes Niemann, 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment
"We came up to take over the trenches on the front between Frelinghien and Houplines, where our Regiment and the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders were face to face. It was a cold, starry night and the Scots were a hundred or so metres in front of us in their trenches where, as we discovered, like us they were up to their knees in mud. My Company Commander and I, savouring the unaccustomed calm, sat with our orderlies round a Christmas tree we had put up in our dugout.
Suddenly, for no apparent reason, our enemies began to fire on our lines. Our soldiers had hung little Christmas trees covered with candles above the trenches and our enemies, seeing the lights, thought we were about to launch a surprise attack. But, by midnight it was calm once more.
Next morning the mist was slow to clear and suddenly my orderly threw himself into my dugout to say that both the German and Scottish soldiers had come out of their trenches and were fraternising along the front. I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway. The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours. It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee. A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm.
Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts - and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of one posterior belonging to one of "yesterday's enemies." But after an hour's play, when our Commanding Officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it. A little later we drifted back to our trenches and the fraternisation ended.
The game finished with a score of three goals to two in favour of Fritz against Tommy."
Gunner Herbert Smith, 5th Battery, Royal Field Artillery
"On Christmas Eve there was a lull in the fighting, no firing going on at all after 6 p.m. The Germans had a Christmas tree in the trenches and Chinese lanterns all along the top of a parapet.Eventually the Germans started shouting, "Come over, I want to speak to you."
Our chaps hardly knew how to take this, but one of the 'nuts' belonging to the Regiment got out of the trench and started to walk towards the German lines. One of the Germans met him about half-way across, and they shook hands and became quite friendly. In due time the 'nut' came back and told the others all about it. So more of them took it in turns to go and visit the Germans. The officer commanding would not allow more than three men at a time.
I went out myself on Christmas Day and exchanged some cigarettes for cigars, and this game had been going on from Christmas Eve till midnight on Boxing Day without a single round being fired. The German I met had been a waiter in London and could use our language a little. He says they didn't want to fight and I think he was telling the truth as we are not getting half so many bullets as usual. I know this statement will take a bit of believing but it is absolutely correct. Fancy a German shaking your flapper as though he were trying to smash your fingers, and then a few days later trying to plug you. I hardly knew what to think about it, but I fancy they are working up a big scheme so that they can give us a doing, but our chaps are prepared, and I am under the impression they will get more than they bargained for."
|The Royal Welsh get a Barrel of
Captain C. I. Stockwell, Royal Welsh Fusiliers
"I think I and my Company have just spent one of the most curious Christmas Days we are ever likely to see. It froze hard on Christmas Eve, and in the morning there was a thick ground-fog. I believe I told you the Saxons opposite had been shouting in English. Strict orders had been issued that there was to be no fraternizing on Christmas day. About 1.30 p.m., having seen our men get their Christmas dinners, we went into our shelter to get a meal. The sergeant on duty suddenly ran in and said the fog had lifted and that half-a-dozen Saxons were standing on their parapet without arms. I ran out into the trench and found that all the men were holding their rifles at the ready on the parapet, and that the Saxons were shouting, "Don't shoot. We don't want to fight today. We will send you some beer." A cask was hoisted onto the parapet and three men started to roll it into the middle of No-Man's Land. A lot more Saxons then appeared without arms. Things were getting a bit thick. My men were getting a bit excited, and the Saxons kept shouting to them to come out.
We did not like to fire as they were all unarmed, but we had strict orders and someone might have fired, so I climbed over the parapet and shouted, in my best German, for the opposing Captain to appear. Our men were all chattering and saying, "The Captain's going to speak to them."
A German officer appeared and walked out into the middle of No-Man's Land, so I moved out to meet him, amidst the cheers of both sides. We met and formally saluted. He introduced himself as Count Something-or-other and seemed a very decent fellow. He could not talk a word of English. He then called out to his subalterns and formally introduced them, with much clicking of heels and saluting. They were all very well turned out, while I was in a goatskin coat. One of the subalterns could talk a few words of English, but not enough to carry on a conversation.
I said to the German captain, "My orders are to keep my men in the trench and allow no armistice. Don't you think it's dangerous, all your men running about in the open like this? Someone may open fire." He called out an order and all his men went back to their parapet ,leaving me and the five German officers and the barrel of beer in the middle of No-Man's Land. He then said, "My orders are the same as yours, but could we not have a truce from shooting today? We don't want to shoot, do you?" I said, "No, we certainly don't want to shoot, but I have my orders to obey." So then we agreed not to shoot until the following morning, when I was to signal that we were going to begin.
He said, "You had better take the beer. We have lots." So I called up two men to take the barrel to our side. As we had lots of plum-puddings I sent for one and formally presented it to him in exchange for the beer.
He then called out,"Waiter," and a German Private whipped out six glasses and two bottles of beer, and with much bowing and saluting we solemnly drank it amid cheers from both sides. We then all formally saluted and returned to our lines. Our men had sing-songs, ditto the enemy.
|How 2/Lieut. Drummond got his
2nd. Lieutenant Cyril Drummond, 135th Battery, Royal Field Artillery.
"On Boxing Day we walked up to the village of St. Yvon where the observation post was. I soon discovered that places where we were usually shot at were quite safe. There were the two sets of front trenches only a few yards apart, and yet there were soldiers, both British and German, standing on top of them, digging or repairing the trench in some way, without ever shooting at each other. It was an extraordinary situation.
|(Probably) the most well-known
Captain Sir Edward Hulse, Bart., 2nd Scots Guards
"At 8.30 a.m. I was looking out and saw four Germans leave their trenches and come towards us. I told two of my men to go and meet them, unarmed, as the Germans were unarmed, and to see that they did not pass the half-way line. We were 350 - 400 yards apart at this point. My fellows were not very keen, not knowing what was up, so I went out alone and met Barry, one of our ensigns, also coming out from another part of the line. By the time we got to them, they were three-quarters of the way over, and much too near our barbed wire, so I moved them back. They were three private soldiers and a stretcher-bearer, and their spokesman started off by saying that he thought it only right to come over and wish us a Happy Christmas, and trusted us implicitly to keep the truce.
He came from Suffolk, where he had left his best girl and a three-and-a-half horsepower motor-bike. He told me that he could not get a letter to the girl, and wanted to send one through me. I made him write out a post card, in English, in front of me, and I sent it off that night. I told him that she probably would not be a bit keen to see him again.
We then entered on a long discussion on every sort of thing. I was dressed in an old stocking-cap and a man's overcoat, and they took me for a corporal, a thing which I did not discourage, as I had an eye to going as near their lines as possible. I asked them what orders they had from their officers as to coming over to us, and they said none; they had just come over out of goodwill.
I kept it up for half-an-hour and then escorted them back as far as their barbed wire, having a jolly good look round all the time, and picking up various little bits of information which I had not had an opportunity of doing under fire.
I left instructions with them that if any of them came out later they must not come over the half-way line, and appointed a ditch as the meeting-place. We parted after an exchange of Albany cigarettes and German cigars, and I went straight to HQ to report.
On my return at 10.00 a.m. I was surprised to hear a hell of a din going on, and not a single man in my trenches; they were completely denuded (against my orders) and nothing lived. I head strains of "Tipperary" floating down the breeze, swiftly follwed by a tremendous burst of "Deutschland Uber Alles," and, as I got to my own Company HQ dugout, I saw, to my amazement, not only a crowd of about 150 British and Germans, at the halfway house which I had appointed opposite my lines, but six or seven such crowds, all the way down our lines, extending towards the 8th Division on our right.
I hustled out and asked if there were any German officers in my crowd, and the noise died down. (At this time I was myself in my own cap and badges of rank.)
I found two, but had to speak to them through an interpreter, as they could talk neither English nor French. I explained to them that strict orders must be maintained as to meeting half-way, and everyone unarmed; and we both agreed not to fire until the other did, thereby creating a complete deadlock and armistice (if strictly observed.)
Meanwhile, Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged, addresses given and received, photos of families shown etc. One of our fellow offered a German a cigarette; the German said, "Virginian?" Our fellow said, "Aye, straight-cut." The German said, "No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!" (Sort of 10 shillings a hundred man, me. It gave us all a good laugh.) The Border Regiment was occupying this section on Christmas Day and Giles Loder, our Adjutant, went down there with a party that morning on hearing of the friendly demonstrations in front of my Company, to see if he could come to an agreement about our dead, who were still lying out between the trenches. The trenches are so close at this point, that of course each side had to be far stricter. Well, he found an extremely pleasant and superior stamp of German officer who arranged to bring all our dead to the half-way line. We took them over there, and buried 29 exactly half-way between the two lines. Giles collected all personal effects, pay-books and identity discs, but was stopped by the Germans when he told some men to bring in the rifles; all rifles lying on their side they had kept carefully.
They apparently treated our prisoners well, and did all they could for our wounded. this officer kept on pointing to our dead and saying, "Les braves, c'est bien dommage."
When George heard of it he went down to that section and talked to the nice officer and gave him a scarf. That same evening a German orderly came to the half-way line, and brought a pair of warm, wooly gloves as a present in return for George."
|Christmas Day Out of the
Private Frank Hawkings, 1st Battalion, Queen Victoria's Rifles.
25th December (Christmas Day)
December 1999 - for details of the 85th Anniversary vigil, when 8 historians will spend Christmas in a trench near Ploegsteert for five days, living, as far as possible, just as the troops did in the same area over Christmas 1914, follow this link.
Copyright © Tom Morgan, December, 1997.
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