The Christmas Truce

In our latest blogpost Gateways’ Dr Emma Hanna reflects on the myths and realities of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

© Harold Robson/IWM (Q 50719). British and German troops meeting in No-Man's Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector).

© Harold Robson/IWM (Q 50719). British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector).

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce, there has been a lot of interest in the story of that particular wartime event. But for me, planning for the commemoration of the Truce started a year ago. I was approached by the British Council to advise on their education pack ‘Football Remembers’, a resource for schools that was sponsored by the Premier League and the Football Association, which also ran a competition for children aged 8-14 to design a memorial to the Truce at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire. Clearly the idea of a football match being played in no-man’s land remains strong in our collective memory of the Christmas Truce, and it was a key feature in an event run by the National Children’s Football Alliance in April when British school children from schools in Kent played sport with students from a school in Germany at Maidstone Football Club. The students had a lot of questions about the Truce and the football match, and I felt rather like a party-pooper in telling them that the Christmas Truce is really a myth – there was no one all-encompassing Truce and neither was there one single England v. Germany fixture in Plugstreet Wood. It is something I have to explain many times over – that there was no one wholesale truce but a series of lots of little events of fraternisation at Christmas 1914, some of which we know included football matches and other rather unexpected events. In Britain the ‘two world wars and one world cup’ mentality remains strong, and Andrew Murrison, a member of the government’s centenary committee, has underlined that perhaps football is the best way to get people interested in not only the Truce but the history of the war more generally. This has upset quite a few military historians, but I see this as the best time to get in there and explain the real history behind the Christmas Truce myth.

Last week I gave a talk about it to the British Legion, and yesterday I was interviewed for a BBC radio programme on the subject where I was asked many questions about ‘what really happened’.  Yes, the beleaguered Pope, Benedict XV, called for a Truce of God in the first week of December 1914, but Britain was incredulous about it, even before two German battleships had shelled the coastal towns of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough causing the deaths of 122 and injuring over 450 residents. What I find really fascinating is that General Sir Horace Smith Dorrien, commander of II Corps of the BEF in the Ypres Salient, issued orders in the first week of December that he was concerned about the lack of ‘offensive spirit’. He was an experienced soldier and he realised that as weather conditions worsened the men might  be tempted to permit unofficial ceasefires in the run up to Christmas. He was adamant that under no circumstances any ‘intercourse with the enemy’ should be allowed. However, the day after a particularly costly offensive at Ploegsteert Wood on 18th December 1914 British and German troops agreed to permit one another to rise out of their trenches in order to bury their respective dead and collect the wounded. This was not particularly unusual, it had happened before, but further events would follow during that first Christmas of the war – a war that was supposed to be over by then, as the British newspapers claimed in the heady days of August 1914. Neither side was going anywhere. And as it happens, a number of British soldiers and their German counterparts did not follow their orders, much to Smith Dorrien’s frustration. Many of the German High Command found out about the truce after seeing some of the photos in The Times! However, no disciplinary action was ever taken on either side; they probably knew that any reprisals would have been extremely unpopular and that it was best to let the matter lie, which it did pretty much for over 60 years.

While some historians have tried to play down the Christmas Truce, or even deny that anything like it really happened, there is an enormous amount of evidence from soldier’s letters and diaries – including Belgian, French, German and Indian soldiers – that truces of various durations occurred, that they met to bury their dead, had joint burial and carol services, exchanged gifts including food and tobacco, played football, and chatted about their pre-war lives and the war in which they were currently fighting. Incredibly there is even evidence – as shown in the Sainsbury’s advert – that soldiers who had been barbers before the war even offered their services to other side. Even I didn’t believe that until I found the evidence. It is rather bizarre, until you remember that there were hundreds of thousands of German businessmen in London when war broke out, many of whom were barbers, and that their skills would have been put to good use in their wartime lives, too. I also thought the old story about British officers bumping into the German chef of the Trocadero, a high society London nightclub, was a fallacy until I saw the evidence. But not all soldiers approved or took part. The Belgians and the French thought that the British soldiers who did fraternise were at best mad and at worst traitors, and there were many British soldiers, particularly those who had been at the Battle of the Aisne, who refused to fraternise because they did not trust the Germans.

This shows that historians shouldn’t be afraid of the sometimes yawning gap between history and myth. Sometimes, bizarrely, the gap isn’t as wide as we might think, and as the Sainsbury’s advert is just short of 14 million views since it was launched 3 weeks ago, we as historians should engage with the conversation about what the history and memory of the truce means to us in the history of 1914-1918. As is often the case, history can tell us more about the times in which it is being written than the period it purports to recount. The Christmas Truce was an anomaly,  an event which received only a little attention in Britain in January 1915, and I certainly think it is no coincidence that the main representations of the truce – eg Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’ and the first history Peace in No Man’s Land by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton – date back to the early 1980s, a time when Britain was at war in the Falklands. We need to remember the more humane parts of the First World War because the conflict itself was so horrific, and that’s the appeal of the Truce – it makes the history of the war more palatable in some ways to see that at one point long-term foes became temporary friends. As with the sea of Poppies at the Tower of London, the Sainsbury’s advert has caught the popular imagination, and anything that increases the interest in the First World War gives us an ideal opportunity to engage in the conversation. Reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, and that is what makes History so interesting.

Emma Hanna is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Greenwich. She is one of the expert speakers at ‘Representations of the Christmas Truce’, a symposium organized by Gateways to the First World War on Friday 12 December 2014. For more information please visit our website.

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