A very Western Front Christmas
The fabled football match of Christmas 1914 might never have happened, but there were certainly truces between British troops and the German units they faced. Often they began with competitive carol-singing, followed by shouted greetings and festive wishes. In places, men even met in no-man’s land and swapped small gifts and souvenirs.
The diaries are full of references to that first Christmas of the war. The 39th Garhwal Rifles recorded in detail the moment they came face to face with the enemy:
About 3 o’clock the Germans, who had since the morning been shouting and singing in their trenches, made signs to our trenches that they wished to communicate with us, and eventually they began to climb out of their trenches. We did the same, as did also the regiments on our right and left. Both sides fraternised for about an hour, several Germans coming over to our trench and talking and conversing by signs with officers and men. They gave our men tobacco cigarettes and newspapers, and for about an hour both sides walked about freely outside their trenches and in the open space between the 2 lines.
This moment of peace was not without its reminders of the violence and bloodshed which had preceded it. The Garhwalis took the opportunity to search for the bodies of the officers and men missing after a night attack made the month before.
Captain Burton found Captain Robertson Glasgow’s body lying on the parapet of the enemy’s trench. The bodies of several men were also found near the trench, but the situation did not admit of a careful search sufficient to identify them.
You can read their full diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0002yt7
While truces of this nature were widespread in 1914, they did not happen everywhere. The Christmas day entry in the diary of the 2nd Grenadier Guards says simply:
Considerable sniping, and lit up by star shells during early morning.
You can read the original entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD00023p1
This is the situation commanders would have preferred and they were quick to communicate this to the troops. After their friendly encounter with the enemy, the 39th Garhwal Rifles recieved orders that such mutual armistices must not happen in the future. The 1st Royal Fusiliers were sent notice that any man associating with the enemy would be court martialled. You can see the order here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0000ryb
Despite this, some truces lasted well into the New Year. The 1st Somerset Light Infantry reported on the 11th of January, 1915 that their:
…truce came to an abrupt end, sniping resumed. “Presumption is that our “friendly” enemy of the last fortnight has been relieved.
Have a read of their diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0002fy4
By Christmas 1915 there were signs that the British attitude to the enemy had hardened. Perhaps the dire warnings from on high had had the desired effect, or maybe by then the men had suffered too much to be able to set it aside. Either way, the 1/16th London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) reported that there was no repeat of the previous year’s truce.
The Germans shouted across to our men this morning, but recieving no encouragement the conversation ceased. [A shell] hit the corner of [a] dug-out and knocked a bottle of whisky off the table on to the floor, but by the grace of God it did not break.
At least they still got their own little Christmas miracle! Read the full diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0000s9u
By 1916, there was even greater determination to avoid human contact with the Germans. On Christmas Eve, the 1st East Surrey Regiment recieved notice from their HQ that:
There are already signs that the enemy intends to fraternise during Christmas as he did in the winter of 1914 and 1915.
An artillery and trench mortar bombardment was ordered to prevent this. Commanders feared that it would be very difficult for young and inexperienced officers and NCOs to stop their men going out to meet the enemy if they were seen to leave their trenches in peaceable fashion.
Read the full account here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0000r2i
Sadly, the widespread coming together of opposing units during the winter of 1914 was an anomaly, a brief respite before the full, brutal horrors of trench warfare became the norm. Yet in that moment, we see the spark of humanity which binds us all together, the ability to find common ground in even the darkest of places. Who knows what friendships could have sprung from those handshakes made 100 years ago, how different things might have been if the two sides had not returned to their lines. Perhaps that would have been the greatest Christmas gift of all.