Festive peace and a Royal present

Contents of Princess Mary's Chirstmas gift box for the troops on the frontline in 1914.
Contents of Princess Mary's Chirstmas gift box for the troops on the frontline in 1914.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

The initiative for a Christmas cease-fire came spontaneously from German front-line troops. If they were aware of them, they must have greatly resented accusations of barbarism daily pronounced by the British and French press. Indeed, when news of early fraternisation reached British army headquarters it was wholeheartedly condemned: “Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting ... are absolutely prohibited.” A similar note of disapproval also came from General Falkenhayn on the opposite side. He knew that undertrained and unenthusiastic Bavarian, Saxon and Westphalian reservists occupied much of the Western Front lines and that professional Prussian Guards in the East were far more trustworthy. On both sides, fraternisation with the enemy was a court-martial offence.

In Flanders, British regular troops had less reason than their Belgian and French allies to hate the Germans. They had not had their homelands invaded, occupied and pillaged. Also, before Christmas, they were beginning to receive gift parcels by way of the highly efficient postal service. Altogether more than two million boxes in the name of the King’s daughter, Princess Mary, containing cigarettes, tobacco, sweets, chocolate and a greeting card inscribed with the royal message, “May God protect you and bring you home safe”, were beginning to reach all servicemen. The Daily Mail sent plum puddings, Cadbury’s some of their chocolates, and newspapers urged their readers to buy a thousand Gold Flake for 15 shillings or the same number of Woodbines for ten shillings. Given their conditions, most Tommies would have preferred galoshes to Gold Flake and woollens to Woodbines.

The German equivalent to Princess Mary’s box was a large pipe with a profile of the Crown Prince Frederick William on the bowl and a box of cigars. German breweries and sweet factories also sent their products to the front.

Even a week before Christmas there were already isolated instances of impromptu friendliness across no man’s land. On both sides, morale rose when frosty nights began to dry and harden the greasy mud of the Ypres salient and freeze the pools of flood water further north.

The first demonstration or celebration of Christmas came from the Saxons near Messines. On a frosty, clear Christmas Eve came the sounds of “Silent Night, Holy Night”. The Boches were singing carols in their trenches and had put up lighted Christmas trees on their parapets. (“Boche” derived from “caboche”, meaning blockhead, was a disparaging term for Germans used by the French and British officers: British Tommies normally used “Fritz” or “Gerry”.)

From then on, up and down the lines of front trenches, an unofficial truce gradually broke out. To the north, the Belgians suspended their animosity for a few hours; to the south, in the Aisne valley, the French traded bread, cognac and postcards with Bavarians.

Further south still, in the area of Belfort and Mullhouse, an informal cease-fire was already weeks old. Only Algerian Muslims on the British right seemed unaware of a truce, though Indian Sikhs and Garhwals at least knew what was happening.

As Christmas Day dawned both sides became conscious of their dead comrades lying out in no man’s land beyond their barbed wire. Some of them had been unburied since October and their corpses were decomposing and bloated. Even though the ground was now unyielding they had to be buried where they had been killed. In at least one case officers on both sides conducted joint services and prayers: in others the truce lasted only long enough for each party to dig their own graves. There is only one reported event of the French exploiting the cease-fire to lay explosives close to the forward German trench. But even the most belligerent, the French Foreign Legion, observed the Christmas Day truce.

One German soldier, Corporal Adolf Hitler, sheltering in a cellar behind the line, refused to take part in any religious ceremony that day. He had recently received the Iron Cross, Second Class, from the Kaiser in person, but he was a complete loner who never had mail or parcels from home, did not drink or smoke, and rarely spoke to anyone except to condemn the cease-fire as unpatriotic.

After all the dead were interred, the soldiers treated themselves to a Christmas dinner. While Field Marshal French and his HQ staff at St Omer and the Kaiser with his senior officers at the Grand Hotel Britannique at Spa sat down to a series of sumptuous courses, their troops exchanged beer, wine, rum, brandy and schnapps to irrigate their puddings and cakes.

But did they play football afterwards? A century later it is still difficult to distinguish authentic, evidential reports from rumour, exaggerated claim and press invention. Though by the end of 1917 virtually every British infantry platoon had acquired a leather football, at Christmas 1914 there were very few, if any, genuine ones. As substitutes, the troops used sandbags, tin cans and forage caps filled with straw.

On January 1, 1915, the Times reported that a Scottish “team” had beaten a Saxon regiment three goals to two. Much later, a Saxon officer confirmed the score and that, much to his amused amazement, the Scottish players had worn nothing under their kilts. Suspiciously, if the score is mentioned by an alleged eyewitness it is nearly always three to two, either for or against. On the other hand, not just the Argyle and Sutherlanders, but many English regiments were claimed to have played some kind of football, notably the Sherwood Foresters, London Rifles, Warwickshires, Westminsters, Lancashires and Cheshires, whereas their opponents were invariably Saxons or Bavarians.

Much later, football matches in no man’s land appeared in many fictional accounts, for instance in a Blackadder TV episode in 1989 and simultaneously in William Douglas Home’s play A Christmas Truce. Yet how a proper game could have been played amongst forests of barbed wire, over shell holes, in ploughed fields or across drainage ditches is never explained. Also, there is plenty of contemporary evidence that whatever the play it was soon prevented or abruptly ended by commanders on one side or the other.

By Boxing Day it was nearly all over. The truce petered out. Fraternising battalions were removed from the front line. Unwillingly, hostilities were resumed in a half-hearted way. At New Year there was no repeat of a cease-fire. Tickler’s tins of jam that had been offered as gifts to the Germans were now filled with explosives and nails and fired out of an improvised trench mortar.