The British Expeditionary Force held a 30-mile line of trenches, from St Eloi just south of Ypres to the La Basse canal at Givenchy. The whole area was low lying and had ditches and watercourses for drainage. The dug trenches, combined with artillery fire and the wet winter weather had churned up the land and turned the whole area into a boggy landscape. The fighting had died down, whilst both armies tried to keep their respective trenches drained. Limited sniper fire was the only form harassment by both sides. On Christmas Eve, the weather changed bringing a sharp frost and a freezing, clear night with the stars shining brightly. The muddy ground very soon solidified.
In France and Flanders, Christmas Eve 1914 was very cold; as British and German soldiers struggled to keep warm, they sang carols. One in particular, Silent Night, was not as well known in Britain as it is today. However, the deep emotional voices of the enemy carried across no man’s land, and even in German, Stille Naccht, Heilige Nacht was unbearably moving to British ears after the roar of shell explosions and the screams of the wounded. The British answered the German hymns with some of their own. When the London Rifle Brigade launched into O Come All Ye Faithful, the Germans responded with the Latin version, Adeste Fideles.
The guns fell silent and as dawn broke on Christmas Day, the fog lingered. However, as it gave way to clear blue sky, one German unit raised a placard saying, “Happy Christmas”. At about 9am the first British and German soldiers scrambled from their trenches, began cautiously to mount the parapet and advance towards each other across no man’s land. The bitter enemies met in the middle, shook hands, exchanged presents and autographs and sang carols to each other Drink broke down uncertainties, and in some places, impromptu football matches began in the frozen mud of No Man’s Land
They took photographs of each other, and exchanged jam and tobacco. The Kaiser had given every German soldier five cigars, but he never intended them for British consumption. King George V had only sent a Christmas card to his soldiers, but they received packages from Princess Mary’s Fund whose cigarettes enabled them to reciprocate.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described the unofficial ceasefire as “the one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of war”.
Both nations were Christian. Indeed, both were overwhelmingly Protestant, even if their armies were fighting in lands which were Catholic. Much of the British ritual at Christmas was German. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, had introduced Christmas trees to Britain.
In August, the soldiers on both sides had left for the Front, hoping to be home for Christmas. Their generals knew better, but nobody was really prepared for the shock of combat between industrialised societies, their massive armies equipped with machine guns and quick-firing artillery. The French suffered their heaviest losses of the war in these opening weeks. They checked the German advance but at the price of more than a quarter of a million dead. In November, the Germans held on to what territory, they had gained, digging deep defensive positions. The truce, which developed spontaneously on Christmas Eve, took the soldiers home in mind, if not in body.
Many Germans had worked in Britain before the war. In the banter shouted across the thin strip of territory that separated the trenches, they established common links. German waiters or barbers, and emigrants to London or Glasgow, were able to translate the remarks of units facing them.
The Christmas truces of 1914 focussed around Ypres, the British-held cloth town in Flanders. To the North West, the Belgians held a line on the Yser canal, where floodwater created a physical barrier between the two sides. In any event, the quickest route home for them was not the sentimentality of Christmas but an attack to liberate Belgium from German occupation. The same applied to many of the Frenchmen holding the line further south.
However, one regiment wanted nothing to do with fraternising with an enemy, even during a brief spell of peace and goodwill. The 1st Bn. the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), formed primarily of men from the tough streets of Glasgow, made it clear there would be no festive spirit shared with a foe who had been trying to shoot them the day before. The shouted invitations from the opposing trenches a few yards away to join their German adversaries met with a typically blunt Scots reply. After a German soldier shouted, “Tommy, Tommy, why you not come across?” a gruff Glaswegian voice responded: “Cause we don’t trust you and ye hae been four months shooting at us.” Instead of emerging from trenches near the northern French town of Armentieres to shake hands with enemy, the Cameroonians dug in and did what they could to make Christmas Day 1914 as memorable as possible.
There were not any British officers court-martialled for permitting fraternisation with the enemy on Christmas Day 1914. French officers had their leave cancelled and one company commander was reduced to the ranks. That is not to say the British high command was prepared to tolerate such truces. In 1915, strenuous efforts to prevent a repetition were successful and two Scots Guards officers who did permit a truce were court-marshalled.
This was of course, one of most poignant incidents of the Great War – The Christmas Truce of 1914. Never to be repeated.
The Sunday Post, Prof. Hew Strachan, Sunday December 19th 2004
The Daily Mail, the Mail Reporter, Tuesday October 17th 2006
The Daily Telegraph, the Telegraph Reporter, Sunday December 22nd 2013
Wakefield, Alan. “Christmas in the Trenches”. Sutton Publishing Limited, Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire, GL5 2BU