Speaking in 1963 for a BBC series on the Great War, the author Henry Williamson, whose best-known work probably remains Tarka the Otter, gave some fascinating details about what he witnessed in December, 1914, when he was serving as a private in the British Army on the Western Front.
He recalled that, starting late on Christmas Eve, the guns fell silent and a strange calm fell over the battlefield. Williamson was also surprised to see a Christmas tree go up on the German trenches, and to then hear the enemy soldiers singing Christmas carols. British soldiers sang carols in return. Moreover, at first light the very next day, on a cold Christmas Day morning, soldiers from both sides emerged from their trenches and went out into the frozen areas of ‘No-Man’s Land’, which became, he said, ‘khaki and grey as far as the eye could see’.
According to Williamson, this Christmas truce actually lasted for four days, until strict orders to stop such ‘fraternisation’ were issued by the exasperated Generals on both sides.
The ‘Christmas Truce of 1914’, as it is now usually called, where British and German soldiers left their trenches and went into No-Man’s Land to meet, chat, exchange gifts, swop addresses and even play football, did receive some newspaper coverage at the time, but it has often been seen as a unique moment amid the terrible bloodshed of the First World War, never to be repeated. It has certainly become an iconic and startling image when used as an anti-war message in various war films, and has even featured in a pop ballad and also in a large retailer’s Christmas advert.
However, new research for a book by the historian Thomas Weber suggests that the truce may not have been as unique as we thought. The British media, including The Times and the Daily Telegraph, together with a number of news websites, yesterday (December 20th) gave extensive coverage to intriguing evidence uncovered by Professor Weber which indicates that smaller-scale truces of the same nature as the 1914 one in fact occurred at other points in the Great War, despite the growing brutality and enormous loss of life on both sides.
Professor Weber is a historian at the University of Aberdeen and is also the author of some ground-breaking work on the early military career of Hitler, which helped to puncture and de-mythologize the Nazi leader’s own highly-selective autobiographical version of his time in the trenches. Weber’s latest research retains its focus on the Western Front and raises some important points about the official records of the army regiments and also those of senior officers. Using a range of private correspondence and soldiers’ letters to their families, Weber’s careful investigation of the testimony of ordinary soldiers has found that ‘fraternisation’ between the rival sides did not just occur in 1914, but also during other key moments in the conflict, a pattern that was ‘purged’ from the official military records. He said that, as he worked through the large number of private letters, he came across ‘a surprising number’ of references to truces beyond 1914.
According to Prof. Weber: ‘When officers failed to prevent fraternisation from happening, they rarely reported those cases up the chain of command for fear of being court-marshalled. In the few cases that were officially reported, they tended to be written out of the story after the event. There is strong evidence that instances of fraternisation were purged from the official regimental war diaries before they were published in book form in the interwar years’.
Examples of further Christmas truces occurred in 1915, and also at Vimy Ridge and on the Somme in 1916. Weber said: ‘The general view is that after the first Christmas there was no repeat because of the circle of violence and its ensuing bitterness that then set in. In fact, what we see is that despite the difficulties they endured, soldiers never tried to stop fraternising’. Indeed, the top-brass in the British military became so determined to stamp such behaviour out that officers were instructed to start using snipers against any friendly German soldiers when men met between the lines of trenches during any locally-arranged truces. Soldiers in the lower ranks of the British Army, however, were not happy about this and sometimes recorded their disgust at such ‘un-British’ tactics.
Dan Snow, the BBC broadcaster and historian, who has himself become something of an expert on the First World War, commented to the UK’s media that he thought this topic was clearly one of the big ‘untold stories’ of the Great War.
Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University