by Sir Martin Gilbert
Christmas Day, 1914. German and British troops have been fighting tirelessly for 5 months in one of the bloodiest wars in human history. Suddenly, an unfamiliar sound breaks the tension. A German song, followed by another. Read on for an excerpt from The First World War: A Complete History, covering the remarkable true story of the Christmas truce of 1914.
That Christmas, a spontaneous outburst of pacific feeling took place in the war zones, as the troops of every European army celebrated their Saviour’s birth. For nearly five months the war had been fought with mounting severity. Suddenly, as darkness fell on Christmas Eve, there was, in sections of the front line, a moment of peaceable behaviour. ‘We got into conversation with the Germans who were anxious to arrange an Armistice during Xmas,’ a 25-year-old lieutenant with the Scots Guards, Sir Edward Hulse, wrote in his battalion’s war diary. ‘A scout named E Murker went out and met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them they would not fire at us.’ That night, on a front where five days earlier there had been savage fighting, the guns were silent.
On the following morning, German soldiers walked across towards the British wire and British soldiers went out to meet them. ‘They appeared to be most amicable and exchanged Souvenirs, cap stars, Badges etc.,’ noted Hulse. The British gave the German soldiers plum puddings ‘which they much appreciated’. Then arrangements were made between the two sides to bury the British dead who had been killed during the disastrous raid on the night of December 18, and whose bodies were still lying between the lines, mostly at the edge of the German front-line wire where they had been shot down. ‘The Germans brought the bodies to a half way line and we buried them,’ Hulse wrote in the battalion diary. ‘Detachments of British and Germans formed a line and a German and English Chaplain read some prayers alternately. The whole of this was done in great solemnity and reverence.’
That Christmas Day, fraternisation between the Germans and their enemies took place almost everywhere in the British No-Man’s Land, and at places in the French and Belgian lines. It was almost always initiated by German troops, through either messages or song. Near Ploegsteert a German-speaking British officer, Captain R.J. Armes, having listened with his men to a German soldier’s serenade, called for another and was treated to Schumann’s ‘The Two Grenadiers’. Men from both sides then left their trenches and met in No-Man’s Land, when there was ‘some conviviality’, as Captain Armes called it, followed by two final songs, ‘Die Wacht Am Rhein’ from the Germans and ‘Christians Wake!’ from the British.
‘Most peculiar Christmas I’ve ever spent and ever likely to,’ Sapper J. Davey wrote in his diary. ‘One could hardly believe the happenings.’ Davey, also on the Western Front, exchanged souvenirs with the Germans in the trenches opposite his. Other British soldiers joined with their fellow German infantrymen in chasing hares. Some kicked a football about in No-Man’s Land. One British officer, 2nd Lieutenant R. D. Gillespie, was taken into the German lines and shown a board which had been put up to honour a British officer who, in an earlier attack, had reached that trench before being killed.
Bruce Bairnsfather, whose book of trench tales, Bullets & Billets, was among the most popular British wartime volumes, recalled going into No-Man’s Land on Christmas Day to join ‘the throng about half-way across to the German trenches. It all felt most curious: here were these sausage-eating wretches, who had elected to start this infernal European fracas, and in so doing had brought us all into the same muddy pickle as themselves.’ It was his first sight of German soldiers close up. ‘There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed.’ At one point Bairnsfather used his barbed-wire cutters to swap two coat buttons with a German officer. ‘The last I saw of this little affair’, Bairnsfather recalled two years later, ‘was a vision of one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground while the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.’
‘I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen,’ Second Lieutenant Dougan Chater wrote to his mother from his trench near Armentieres. ‘About 10 o’clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trenches and some came towards ours. We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles so one of our men went out to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.’
Chater told his mother that this fraternisation continued for about half an hour, until most of the men were ordered back to the trenches. But then it resumed. ‘For the rest of the day nobody has fired a shot and the men have been wandering about at will on the top of the parapet and carrying straw and firewood about in the open. We have also had joint burial parties for some dead – some German and some ours – who were lying out between the lines.
Sir Martin Gilbert was knighted in 1995 “for services to British history and international relations.” Among his many books are The Righteous (0-8050-6260-2), The Holocaust (0-8050-0348-7), The Day the War Ended (0-8050-4735-2), and Churchill: A Life (0-8050-2396-8). He lives in London, England.