Inevitably there will be many more words written over Christmas about that unofficial truce during the first year of the First World War, when, to the dismay of their senior officers, British and German soldiers left their trenches swapped cigarettes and played football on Christmas Eve. It has entered the pantheon of sentimental mythology and now even spawned a UK supermarket’s pre-Christmas advertising blitzkrieg. It cannot be avoided in the next few weeks as the event is raked over by the hand-wringing classes.
The first thing to note that this was less of a spontaneous gesture than is nowadays portrayed. Pope Benedict XV, who had only been Pope since August 1914 and a cardinal for just three months before that had been sending out memos to the governments of protagonists since the start of December. All he was asking for was 12 hours of peace. The Germans and English supported the idea. Only the Russians and the French refused, or at least that was the line put about by the German press. Others in Protestant Germany were disgruntled that the initiative was a Catholic one. Such was the jingoistic feeling in England that there was much talk in the correspondence columns of the newspapers to the effect of how could they trust the Hun to abide by any treaty. “None of the allies on our side would dream of trusting to Germany’s sense of honour after the shameless way she has broken her word in the past”, wrote the Cheshire Observer on December 19. Nevertheless the idea stuck with the Tommies and Fritzes who were actually doing the dying.
Secondly, even before the talk of the Christmas truce, truces had been breaking out in the quieter sections of the trenches that now stretched from Switzerland to the sea. On December 8 The Times’ Paris correspondent, who had been touring the lines, reported that at a certain quiet area of the French sector it was customary that each morning neither side should fire at the opposition before 5:30am, simply to allow for mundane tasks such as bringing up supplies or doing the washing.
On one part of the line along the old road from Reims and Laon, the French and Germans were separated just by the width of that road. After shouted conversations, eventually French and Germans each trusted one another enough to stick their heads up from behind the sandbags.
As The Times man, who was seemingly an eye witness, wrote: “…first one and then another head rose timidly above the trench lines until there was a whole line of German faces peeping up on a level with the roadside. Then a German suggested the French should do the same and the French in their trench rose up also and for the first time in many weeks these men who had been fighting each other were able really to see what sort of foes they had. Suddenly one of the Germans, seized with suspicion, dropped his head, and immediately like frightened rabbits scuttling to their holes, the white line of faces disappeared and hostilities were resumed.”
The Christmas truces were eventually widely reported in British, French and German papers. It did not take long for the military high commands to see how fragile would be their hold on the levers of war if that sort of thing were allowed to continue. “War is no sport”, decried the Germans, so anyone else guilty of such acts would be guilty of treason.
And though the general staff of all the belligerents tried to prevent it happening ever again, by constant troop rotation and tricks such as artillery barrages and attacks scheduled for Christmas Eve, similar rashes of sanity on a smaller scale were reported at Christmas 1915 and 1916.