Declaration of war in 1914 saw thousands of young men set off for war with carefree optimism, fuelled by nationalistic pride. Innocent promises were made to loved ones on parting that they would be ‘home for Christmas.’
By Christmas eve 1914, Seven hundred and fifty thousand men had been killed in the most bloody conflict imaginable. Troops on the front line, of the Western front which stretched from the edge of the English Channel to Switzerland were suffering, both sides were poorly equipped for a bitter winter in hastily constructed trenches.
The opposing armies lines in some cases were as little as forty metres apart and the ‘no man’s land ‘ in between was littered with decaying corpses.
In an attempt to raise the morale of the despairing troops, Princess Mary arranged a fund to send brass embossed tinder boxes to the British troops with a present inside. The contents varied for smoking and non -smoking soldiers and also according to the religious persuasion of the recipient. Some boxes contained tobacco, a tinder lighter, chocolate and cigarettes, others chocolate, writing pen and notepad, others spices and sweets. The boxes contained a Christmas card from Princess Mary and a message from King George ‘May God protect you and bring you safely home.’ The soldiers were also sent plum pudding.
Kaiser Wilhelm sent miniature Christmas trees decorated with candles, and beer to the front line. Soldiers were sent a meerschaum pipe and officers and NCO’s cigars.
French and Belgium troops were also sent presents but as these countries were occupied, it was more difficult.
The ‘Christmas Truce’ was not a uniform event. In some parts of the trenches the fighting and killing continued. In other parts peace broke out for three days.
The soldiers who made the first move and bravely stuck their head above the parapet of their trench risked their lives. The soldiers on the opposing sides who did not shoot their enemy risked being shot themselves for treason. This was an extraordinary event.
Superior officers on both sides of the trenches were critical of the event.
Corporal Adolf Hitler, 16th Bavarian Regimentwho had spent the day in the cellar of an Abbey near Ypres is reported to have said, on discovering that had truce of sorts had taken place “Some-thing like that should not happen in wartime. Have you no German honour.”
The London Rifle Brigade's War Diary for 2 January 1915 recorded that “informal truces with the enemy were to cease and any officer or [non-commissioned officer] found to having initiated one would be tried by Court Martial.”
It is impossible to imagine the circumstances these soldiers found themselves in. Whilst much has been written about ‘the Christmas Truce,’ for me, nothing can be more eloquent than the words of those who were there, taking a moment from the horror around them to describe the extraordinary events.
The messages from these voices from 1914 must surely be
‘Peace’- not just for Christmas.
You will hardly credit what I am going to tell you. Listen. Last night as I sat in my little dug-out, writing, my chum came bursting in upon me with: ‘Bob! hark at ’em!’ And I listened.
From the German trenches came the sound of music and singing. My chum continued.
‘They’ve got Christmas trees all along the top of their trenches — I never saw such a sight!’
Climbing the parapet, I saw a sight which I shall remember to my dying day. Right along the whole of their line were hung paper lanterns and illuminations of every description, many of them in such positions as to suggest that they were hung upon Christmas trees.
Sergeant A. Lovell, 3rd Rifle Brigade.
What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes. One Englishman, who was joined soon by another, came towards us until he was more than halfway towards our trenches — by which point some of our people had already approached them. And so Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items.
A single star stood still in the sky directly above them, and was interpreted by many as a special sign. More and more joined, and the entire line greeted each other.
Josef Wenzl, German soldier.
At daylight on Christmas Day we went halfway and met the Germans and exchanged cigars and cigarettes with one another. They seemed a poor lot of boys and men of forty with beards. One fellow had been employed as a waiter at the Grand Hotel Eastbourne for ten years and said he wished he was back again.
Private H. Dixon, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. That thanks to soccer and Christmas, the feast of Love, deadly enemies briefly came together as friends... I told them we didn’t want to shoot on the Second Day of Christmas either. They agreed.
Kurt Zehmisch, 134 Saxons.
They said they were going to keep up the truce for three days and they were as good as their word; there was not a single shot exchanged. We could knock about just the same as if peace was declared; in fact, some of our fellows were playing football along the firing line — rather a curious affair after such revengeful attacks on one another.
Unnamed Private, Seaforth Highlanders.
Really you would hardly have thought we were at war. Here we were, enemy talking to enemy. They [are] like ourselves with mothers, with sweethearts, with wives waiting to welcome us home again. And to think within a few hours we shall be firing at each other again.
Gunner Masterton, Royal Artillery.
Author The Cypher Bureau- how the Poles solved Enigma