Whilst we are getting ready to enjoy or in some cases already enjoying our Christmas in 2014, it is worth remembering what was happening 100 years ago not so far from where I am writing today. In what is perhaps one of the most inhuman situations in history a series of events played out that perhaps epitomise Christmas better than anything in the last 2,000 years.
The first few months of WW1 had seen an initial German advance steam roller through Belgium and into France and for a while it really did seem like it would be over by Christmas. Paris was saved by a desperate though heroic British stand which allowed the French military breathing space and denied a Germany the quick victory they had hoped for and in realty needed. Unfortunately for all sides, this allowed for a stalemate to set in for hundreds of miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Trenches were dug and the slaughter began in ernest.
In the days leading up to Christmas both British and German soldiers had begun sneaking over the trenches to exchange pleasantries and later gifts. Burial squads were sent out with both sides burying their dead and often sharing a Christmas carol. Many German soldiers could speak some English having lived in or visited England and particularly London. There were several peace movements breaking out across Europe and the Pope appealed for a peaceful Christmas though this was rebuffed.
The Germans would decorate their trenches with candles and sing Christmas carols and the British joined in with their own. Soon there were localised requests for ceasefires which were officially declined at senior levels but on the ground were cautiously enacted.
Brigadier-General Walter Congreve, then commanding 18 Infantry Brigade, stationed near Neuve Chapelle, wrote a letter recalling the Germans initiated by calling a truce for the day. One of his brigade’s men bravely lifted his head above the parapet and others from both sides walked onto no man’s land. Officers and men shook hands and exchanged cigarettes and cigars, one of his Captains “smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army”, the latter no more than 18 years old. Congreve admitted he was reluctant to personally witness the scene of the truce for fear he would be a prime target for German snipers.
However a Silent Night and peaceful day were not enjoyed everywhere.
An extract from a journal belonging to Lieutenant Fredrick Brown recounts the death of a 39-year-old postman from Monmouthshire, Sergeant Frank Collins, as he tried to deliver cigarettes to a German trench.
“Presently a Sert. Collins of my Regiment stood waist high above the trench waving a box of woodbines above his head,” Lt Brown wrote.
“German soldiers beckoned him over, and Collins got out and walked half way towards them, in turn beckoning someone to come and take the gift.
“However, they called out “prisonier” (sic) and immediately Collins edged back the way he had come.
“Suddenly a shot rang out, and the poor Sergt. staggered back into the trench, shot through the chest. I can still hear his cries: ‘Oh my God, they have shot me’, and he died immediately.”
As tragic as it was Frank Collins wasn’t the only man killed on 25 December 1914.
According to records supplied by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 105 Commonwealth soldiers were killed in Belgium and France on Christmas Eve and 79 on Christmas Day. A similar number of German soldiers died.
The most famous event of the Christmas Truce is of course the football match between a group of Tommies and Jerries. It is likely that there were a number of informal kick-abouts but it seems most likely that the main match that we think about occurred near the village of Messiness. There are no photographs of any matches though several testimonies. It was probably not even possible to play a proper football match with barbed wires, craters, unexploded ordnance and dead bodies scattered around but in the tradition of school boys everywhere it was most likely a kick about, jumpers for goalposts sort of affair and a good excuse for a bit of seasonal friendly camaraderie.
All sorts of unthinkable events happened in Christmas 1914 including the swapping of personal details and contact information between enemy soldiers and one British Tommy was having been a barber in civilian life was kept busy cutting the hair of his German counterparts which is briefly depicted in the video below. It is a rather sanitised version of the days events but the Sainsburys advert below I think is completely wonderful.
In some places the truce lasted just a few hours and in others overnight or even until the New Year. The Generals of both sides hated it of course, they knew that the soldiers from both sides had much more in common than with their own leaders and certainly had no real reason to kill each other. Threats were frequently made at the point of death that fighting was to continue and that no cordial relations were to be struck up.
In 1915 the generals deliberately issued commands for battles just to ensure no repeat of 1914 though in places they were again foiled by the peaceful message of Christmas. Sadly by 1916 things had changed forever and the terrible almost massacre like situations on The Somme with 60,000 British casualties just on the 1st July alone and towards half a million by the end of the battle meant that there was no longer any good will left, especially on the British side.
There were other smaller truces between the French and German front lines and again on the eastern front but nothing quite like the British and German regions. Football was likely chosen as it is the popular sport of working people around much of the world and it was also a way for the two sides to spend time together when linguistic communications was likely very limited.
It should be remembered that in the U.K., men didn’t just volunteer or ‘join up’ as individuals but in entire neighbourhoods and professions. These included not just normal working class professions but also artists, writers and sportsmen. In London, the Footballer Battalion was formed with the entire team of Leyton Orient FC signing up. Many others signed up to their local units including the entire team of Edinburgh based Hearts which saw 7 of their number killed. Lyndon Sandoe of Cardiff City FC and a Welsh International player was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal whilst Northampton player Walter Tull was recommended for the Military Cross and became the first Black Officer to serve in the British Army. Like many others, the Footballers Battalion suffered high casualties with over 1,000 men losing their lives including the notorious Devilles wood which I visited in September.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 remains perhaps the most Christian and humane event of any Christmas ever. A time when the guns fell silent, and mortal enemies became friends and for a moment we truly did love our enemies like our friends. It remains in hearts of us all and reached almost mythical heights which is no doubt why UEFA has released this video below.
Last week a memorial match was held between the football teams of the British and German Armies which is just part of a long period of remembrance of the Christmas Truce and the 100th anniversary in general.
Recently Prince William oversaw the unveiling of a new WW1 memorial this time specifically recalling the Christmas Truce and a competition was held to design the memorial that was won by a child from Northumberland.
Spare a thought for all those 100 years ago who against all the odds lived out the Christmas message during the most horrible war in history as without them we would likely not be having much of a Christmas at all. Though the day raised hopes amongst the common soldiers that further more permanent truces might be quickly made, in reality they were only a few months into a war that had almost 5 more years to run and very few indeed of those who witnessed the Christmas Truce were still alive when the Armistice was declared.
For more on the Christmas Truce and all the other important aspects of WW1 why not grab a book worth reading rather than all those unwanted gifts with my Lest We Forget history book and In The Footsteps of Heroes Western Front photo-guide. Alternatively why not visit the WW1 sights yourself on one of my private tours with my tour company Ye Olde England Tours. Merry Christmas everyone.