THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE - DECEMBER 1914

Pope Benedict XV–Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1

Image:  Pope Benedict XV

 

World War 1 was a month old when a new pope - Benedict XV – took office.  Restoring peace became his key focus and on 7th December he begged the warring nations to ‘cease the clang of arms’ over the Christmas period.  There were positive noises from Germany, many of whose states were strongly Roman Catholic.  The British ignored the appeal and over the following two weeks they launched a series of futile offensives.

 
 

Pope Gets Involved in WW1

 

DECEMBER ACTIVITY

Princess Mary (aged 17) launched an appeal to provide all British service personnel with a Christmas gift from the nation.   Enough was raised to provide 2.5 million gift boxes which were filled with a variety of items tailored for the intended recipients.  A smoker might receive a pipe and tobacco while an Indian soldier would find sweets and spices in his.  Non-smokers received a pencil made from a bullet and nurses were given chocolate. Each box contained a message from the Princess and a greetings card.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 2nd December 1914

The Box of Delights

Christmas Box 1914–Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1

Pte. Metcalfe of the Royal West Kent Regiment had more reason than most to be grateful for his gift box.  It was in his tunic pocket when he was hit by an enemy bullet.  The bullet entered the box, deflected off his pipe and spun away from his body.  Unfortunately it killed the man next to him. 

 

There is a suggestion that the arrival of the Princess Mary boxes helped fuel the Christmas truce and it is interesting to speculate how much – if any – of their contents were consumed by German soldiers.

Christmas Box is a Life Saver!

Christmas Box is a Life Saver–Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 7th December 1914

THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE

Along much of the northern part of the Western Front, Christmas was celebrated with carol singing, fir trees, fairy lights and the popping of corks. After days of rain, Christmas Eve 1914 was crisp and still.  During the day, there had been informal truces - where the British had recently attacked - as the dead were buried.  As night fell, British soldiers were amazed to see small fir trees appear on the German barbed wire, sometimes illuminated by lanterns or even ‘fairy lights’. Sound carried easily across No-man’s land and soon the British could hear chinking bottles, singing and laughter.  In some places, the Germans shouted across, ‘No shoot tonight ’ and the sound of battle gave way to the sound of music.  A German rendition of ‘Stille Nacht’ was warmly received and the Tommies joined in with the English lyrics.  However, ‘Silent night’ it wasn’t, as a variety of carols, national anthems and British music hall favourites, drifted across No-man’s land.

Stille Nacht

Christmas Truce 1914–Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1

Within the letters and accounts of the Christmas Truce there were several mentions of football matches being played.  There were clearly different interpretations of what constituted either a ‘football’ or a ‘match’.  Caps made adequate goal posts and an empty tin or bundle of sandbags made a sort of ‘ball’.  The number of players varied and one match that featured the 6th Cheshire Regiment involved around 200 players.  Some scores were reported in the British press on Boxing Day with, for example ‘The Glasgow News’ reporting a 4-1 win for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 

Argylls Win 4-1!

Seaforth Highlanders Lose in Five Goal Thriller!

Christmas Truce Football –Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1

CHRISTMAS TRUCE AFTERMATH

 

Image:  Men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the 134th Saxons.

 

On Christmas Day the initial steps into No-man’s land were tentative - and for good reason.  During the night at least one German and one British ‘Happy Christmas’ banner, and several Christmas trees were shot down.  Not all units were equally imbued with the Christmas spirit and while the one directly opposite might be prepared to extend the hand of friendship, the units to their right or left may have different plans.  The Christmas truce was not  uniform,  as  Commonwealth  War  Graves Commission  records  show  that  72  British

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 26th December 1914

Christmas Truce Leaves 72 Dead!

Christmas Day Truce –Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1

Image:  This young Saxon soldier could have played football against the Seaforth Highlanders on Christmas Day 1914.

 

The truce was not simply an opportunity to bury the dead or to socialise. It offered both sides a rare opportunity to gather intelligence about the opposition. One British soldier noted that the Saxons he met were little more than boys, with several only 16 or 17 years old. These youngsters were warned that if any of them so much as pointed a rifle in the direction of the British trenches, one of the big lads opposite would run across No-man’s land and spank them.  The British also learned that food was not in plentiful supply on the German side as they were eager to get hold of tins of bully beef and jam. Although one British officer was invited to have Christmas dinner with his German counterparts, in general terms neither side liked the other getting too close to their trenches.  However one daring officer from the Queen’s Westminster Rifles slipped into the enemy front line wearing a German uniform.  He was keen to locate a troublesome machine gun and once he had found it, he made his way to the rear to inspect their billets before safely returning to his own line.

Not All Innocent Fun

Young Saxon Soldier –Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1

Image:  A British poster encouraging a strong response to Germany’s latest outrage.

 

News of fraternisation between British and German troops caused consternation in Britain.  Only 9 days before Christmas, German warships had shelled Scarborough and other coastal towns killing or wounding 729 civilians.  A common question was, ‘How could our troops shake hands and play football with these murderers’?   When letters arrived from the front claiming that the German soldiers were basically decent fellows, the British public was doubly confused.  The people of France took an even more grave view of the truce and expressed their disgust with the treacherous Tommies through verbal abuse and spitting.  

The Backlash!!

Remember Scarborough Poster–Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 3rd December 1914

Armentieres was a convenient and busy centre for British soldiers at rest.  There were some security concerns arising from crowds of loose tongued soldiers mingling with locals, not all of whom were anti-German.  Wireless technology was in its infancy and there were few other methods spies could use to communicate sensitive information. However Armentieres was upstream of the German lines and on 8th December (and consecutive nights) sentries on the edge of town were detailed to shoot at any bottle floating down the river in case these carried messages to the enemy.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 8th December 1914

Message in a Bottle

Empty French Bottle of Beer–Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1

On 14th December 1914, German artillery guns pounded the centre of Armentieres.  Their main targets were the British troops who enjoyed the hospitality of this key French town. Although the Germans sent over 1,000 shells there were only 5 casualties – all of them locals.  Six days previously they had bombed the town from the air but again with little effect although one soldier recorded in his diary that this attack ‘surprised an officer in pursuit of an amour (a love)’.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 14th December 1914

Armentieres Bust Up

Armentieres Destroyed–Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 24th December 1914
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 25th December 1914

George:

 “I’d just arrived and we had that wonderful Christmas truce…do you remember, sir? We could hear ‘Silent Night’ drifting across the still clear air of No-man’s land…And then they came, the Germans…emerging out of the freezing night mist, calling us, and we clambered up over the top and went to meet them…”

 

Blackadder:

“Both sides advanced further during one Christmas piss-up than we’ve managed in the next two and half years.”

 

Baldrick:

“Sir, sir, do you remember the football match, sir?”

 

Blackadder:

“Remember it? How could I forget it. I was never off side, I could not believe that decision!”

Blackadder Goes Forth - Christmas Truce 1914

Blackadder Goes Forth –Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1

Near Messines, Belgium soldiers of the 6th Cheshire Regiment killed and roasted a pig which they then shared with Germans opposite.  A few miles south, German soldiers rolled a barrel of beer across to the British front line.  They had liberated this (and probably many others) from a brewery that lay conveniently close to their trenches.  Elsewhere British soldiers were amazed to encounter enemy soldiers who, until mobilisation, had their homes in Britain.  Some Royal Scots chatted to a couple of Germans who had been shop assistants in Edinburgh.  Also wearing field grey were a taxi driver from Birmingham, staff from London hotels and an artist from Brighton.  One Tommy was given a haircut by his usual barber from High Holborn in London – who happened to be serving in the German army.  Another Londoner chatted to the German barber whose business was next door to his uncle’s boot repair shop.

Bizarre Encounters

Re-enactment Christmas Day Truce –Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1

Image:  This German poster spread the reassuring message that Germany was winning the war.

 

On New Year’s Day 1915 the truce was still holding in some sectors.  Orders had been issued that fighting was to resume but some units had prearranged a meeting with the soldiers opposite so that they could see how their Christmas photos had turned out!  In their chats with the enemy in No-man’s land,  British soldiers were surprised to learn that

'German Troops Parade in London, Paris About to Fall'

German Cartoon of them Winning–Western Front Witness– The Christmas Truce 1914- Christmas Day Truce WW1
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 1st January 1915

On the same day, ‘The Times’ carried an account of a match in which the Seaforth Highlanders lost 3-2 to the 133rd Saxon Regiment.  One German account of this match states that their side was in high spirits and cheered every time a gust of wind lifted a kilt to reveal a bare backside.

soldiers died on the Western Front that day.  Among them was 15 year old Henry Dolphin from Bristol who was serving with the 2nd Welch Regiment.  Another Welshman, Sergeant Frank Collins (aged 36) of the Monmouthshire Regiment was killed by a sniper on Christmas Day while offering Woodbine cigarettes to the enemy.

the war was all but over and that the Kaiser’s troops were camped in Hyde Park, London.  Many German soldiers had no idea how the war was going or even where they were.  One unit, occupying trenches on the border between France and Belgium thought that they were just outside Paris – 200 km away!  In another exchange, men of the 2nd Border Regiment learned that France had been defeated and, once Britain surrendered, the war would be over.  Some Germans were unaware that they were also at war with Russia while others believed that some of their armies were at the gates of St. Petersburg.