Fraternising with the enemy

Soldiers from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment talking happily with men from the 134th Saxon Regiment on Boxing Day.
Soldiers from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment talking happily with men from the 134th Saxon Regiment on Boxing Day.

by Dr Jack Binns

Of all the many poignant episodes of the Great War which captured the imagination of contemporaries and has lodged in the minds of subsequent generations, the Christmas truce of 1914 remains outstanding. For those who detested the war from the beginning and the much greater number who came to believe that it had been futile and unnecessary, the truce seemed to justify their convictions. Though all the belligerent governments and military commanders condemned what had happened on December 25, 1914, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was celebrated spontaneously on all the Christian fronts except that of Serbia. In almost every case, the initiative had come from the German side.

Belgian and German troops exchanged gifts and greetings across the Yser canal near Dixmude; Austrian tobacco and schnapps were traded for Russian bread and meat in Galicia; opposing German and French front-line soldiers helped each other to retrieve and bury their dead left in no-man’s land; and near Ypres seasonal messages were exchanged and enemies met peacefully between the lines of barbed wire.

In fact, these spontaneous acts of fraternisation occurred much more often than is usually appreciated because political leaders and senior officers on both sides refused to acknowledge them. In some sections of the Western Front, especially the French, truces lasted for several days or even months after Christmas. Fraternisation with the enemy was officially forbidden and sometimes punished, but it happened often even though it was never general and rarely reported.

One example where the cessation of fighting lasted beyond Christmas day was recorded on film by a British artillery subaltern, Cyril Drummond. (Neither British nor German officers were permitted to carry cameras.) After he was told that there was a truce on the front-line, he went up there on Boxing day to see for himself. There he took snapshots of men of the 134th Saxon regiment mixing with men of the Warwickshire regiment between the forward trenches. It was evidently a very cold, frosty, clear day and both groups were inadequately dressed for such weather, yet the warmth of their pleasure was evident in Drummond’s pictures.

One detailed first-hand description of a Christmas truce was written down many years later by Frank Richards, the veteran Royal Welch Fusilier, in his autobiographical Old Soldiers Never Die. He too was then opposite a Saxon regiment with members who knew English. Gifts were exchanged: the Germans rolled out a couple of barrels of beer and in return they were presented with a plum pudding. The beer was French and so too weak for British tastes and the Christmas dinner was spoiled by tinned cans which contained only “a rotten piece of meat and some boiled rice”. Still, Boxing day passed peacefully and the Royal Welch were then relieved and retired on December 27 to have their “second hot bath” in two months.

It seems that whether there was a Christmas truce or not and how long it was allowed to last, depended often on what kind of Germans occupied the forward trenches. Saxons and Bavarians were willing to fraternise but not the Prussians.

Two privates in the London Rifle Brigade, Frank Sumpter and Henry Williamson, both gave very different, but not contradictory, accounts. They agreed that the Germans had made the first move by putting up Christmas trees on their parapets and singing carols on Christmas Eve and that they were the first to leave their trenches. Though the Londoners knew hardly a word of German, their opponents not only “spoke very good English” but several had lived and worked as butchers, waiters and hairdressers in London.

Private Clifford Lane of the Hertfordshire regiment remembered mostly the cold and the damp which penetrated his “long, thick underpants and vest”. Best of all, he also remembered receiving “Princess Mary’s gift box”. (Mary, the future Princess Royal, was the 17-year-old daughter of King George V, who later married Henry Lascelles, the Earl of Harewood.) Issued to 350,000 British troops, this tin box contained cigarettes, tobacco and a bar of chocolate or sweets “which was very much appreciated”. More appreciated, that is, than the “Christmas dinner” of “cold bully beef and a cold lump of Christmas pudding”.

For Sergeant George Ashurst of the Lancashire Fusiliers, his Christmas truce was brief and disappointing. “It was heaven”, he wrote, to get up out of the trench that imprisoned them between “two clay walls” and just walk and run about; but though “the Jerries” (not yet “Huns”) were also enjoying the freedom of movement, “the generals” disapproved of what was happening. Very soon the truce was suddenly ended by fire from a British gun battery, a British machine-gun and British officers all directed “at the Jerries”. “That started the war again”, he wrote. Ashurst seems to have preferred the Jerries to his own generals, who gave out orders from their big chateaux and drove around in their big cars. And he had no love for the English newspapers and clergymen who had condemned the Christmas truce.

There were to be no more armistices on the Western Front until the final one of November 11, 1918. After Christmas 1914 the war there became increasingly savage, revengeful and merciless. Both sides resorted to the atrocity of poison gas; both executed prisoners on the battlefield. Attempts made to revive the truce in 1915 were half-hearted and easily suppressed. As the carnage multiplied, the chance of a compromise settlement receded. Both sides believed that they were in the right and that they would therefore win outright victory.

By the end of 1914, the BEF had grown to 270,000, more than four times its original size in August. Since then 16,000 had been killed, nearly 50,000 wounded and more than 16,000 taken prisoner or reported missing. Though these losses were small by comparison with those of the French, the Russians, the Germans, the Austrians and the Serbs, effectively they had wiped out Britain’s professional, experienced army. And since August, to replace it, well over a million civilians had volunteered themselves to join the Colours. Not to disappoint so many of them, the army had lowered its minimum height requirement first to five feet five inches and then, in November, to five feet three inches.