The Christmas Truce of 1914 and the Remembrance of War

C.A.F. Drummond (Lt), Royal Field Artillery, The Christmas Truce 1914: German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment photographed with men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers in No Man's Land on the Western Front. Imperial War Museums, photograph HU 35801.
C.A.F. Drummond (Lt), Royal Field Artillery, The Christmas Truce 1914: German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment photographed with men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers in No Man’s Land on the Western Front. Imperial War Museums, photograph HU 35801.

100 years ago, the guns stopped. After months of bloodshed, soldiers on the Western Front had a moment of peace. They opened packages sent from home. Letters and sweets were passed back and forth.

Not only did hostilities cease, but along sections of the front lines, opposing forces emerged from the trenches to meet each other in no man’s land.  Some groups sang carols and decorated trees. Others held religious services. Still others played football together. This was the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, the culmination of many weeks of unofficial ceasefires between opposing camps.

For a century, reporters and historians and archivists have told and retold these stories, which have become a part of our Christmas histories — as central to annual storytelling rituals as gift-wielding wise men and the good king Wenceslaus.

New documents about the truce seem to emerge on an annual basis. This year, the Royal Mail has given us a scan of the original letter that Second Lt. Alfred Dougan Chater of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders sent to his mother in December 1914:[1]

Christmas Truce Letter page 1
Credit: Royal Mail and Simon Chater

[page 1]


Christmas Day
.

 

Dearest Mother,

 

I am writing this in the trenches in my “dugout” — with a wood fire going and plenty of straw it is rather cosy although it is freezing hard and real Christmas weather.

 

I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen. About 10 oclock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German waving his arms and presently two of them got our of their trenches and came towards ours. We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles so one of our men went out to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas. This continued for about half an hour when most of the men were ordered back to the trenches

Christmas Truce Letter page 2
Credit: Royal Mail and Simon Chater

 

[page 2]

 

For the rest of the day nobody has fired a shot and the men have been wandering about at will on the top of the parapet and carrying straw and fire wood about in the open. We have also had joint burial parties with a service for some dead — some German and some ours — who were lying our between the lines. Some of our officers were taking groups of English and German soldiers. This extraordinary truce has been quite impromptu — there was no previous arrangement and of course it had been decided that there was not to be any cessation of hostilities.

 

I went out myself and shook hands with several of their officers and men. from what I gathered most of them would be as glad to get home again as we should — we have had our pipes playing all day and everyone

Christmas Truce Letter page 3
Credit: Royal Mail and Simon Chater

 

[page 3]

has been wandering about in the open unmolested but not of course as far as the enemies[‘] lines. The truce will probably go on until someone is foolish Enough to let off his rifle — we nearly messed it up this afternoon, by one of our fellows letting off his rifle skywards by mistake but they did not seem to notice it so it did not matter. I have been taking advantage of the truce to improve my “dug-out” which I share with D.M. Bain the Scotch rugger international an excellent fellow — we put on a proper roof this morning and now we have got a tiled fire place and brushwood and straw on the floor. We leave the trenches tomorrow and I shant be sorry as it is much too cold to be pleasant at nights.

 

27th I am writing this back in billets — the same business continues

Christmas Truce Letter page 4
Credit: Royal Mail and Simon Chater

 

[page 4]

yesterday and we had another parley with the Germans in the middle. We exchanged cigarettes and autographs and some more people took photos. I don[‘]t know how long it will go on for — I believe it was supposed to stop yesterday but we can hear no firing going on along the front today except a little distant shelling. We are, at any rate having another truce for New Years Day as the Germans want to see how the photos come out! Yesterday was lovely in the morning and I went for several quite long walks about the lines. It is difficult to realise what that means but of course in the ordinary way there is not a sign of life above ground and everyone who put his head up gets shot at.

There is something compelling about the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce — soldiers laying down their weapons, emerging from their foxholes, finding common ground with their enemies. It suggests to us that despite the violence that we can rain down on each other, we are not monsters — that we can still have dignity in the face of meaningless slaughter — that our enemies are no different from us and that we are not immune to this fact — that we are defined more by our common humanity than we are divided by our nationalities.

It is also a Christmas tale of resistance to the arbitrary commands of imperial machines that saw soldiers and citizens as pawns to be sacrificed in what Rosa Luxembourg later called  “fratricidal war.” [2]  It suggests that, like the German soldiers who risked their lives to step unarmed out of their trenches, each of us has the capacity to defy the commands and expectations of an irrational and power-hungry authority.

In many ways, “the Christmas Truce” is a tale of comfort, a reminder that all of us can, if we wish, transcend fear, hatred, and the desire for conquest. Telling and retelling it helps us imagine ourselves as we wish to be. This is particularly important, it seems, in times of conflict.  If we look at google n-gram for example, we well see that references to the Christmas Truce become prevalent during times of greatest warfare and conflict.

But, in the story’s power to inspire us and to express our hopes, we should be careful not to lose perspective. These soldiers were not simply sharing tobacco, taking photos, and kicking footballs. They were also gathering up their fallen comrades who had been left to putrefy in the frozen, muddy wasteland that separated the camps. They were looking back on the destruction that months of war had wrought, looking to the future and seeing no end in sight to the devastation. The only hope for peace: a common spirit of camaraderie — German, French, and British soldiers who only wished for an end to the war, to go home, to see their families and friends.

Official British Military photograph. Lieutenant General W.N. Congreve circa 1915. First published H.W. Wilson, The Great War (1917).
Official British Military photograph. Lieutenant General W.N. Congreve circa 1915. First published H.W. Wilson, The Great War (1917).

But, even as many of the soldiers took a collective deep breath, their commanders were planning destruction. In a letter to his wife about the truce, General Walter Congreve told her that one of his men

said he had had a fine day of it & had smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army, then not more than 18. They say he’s killed more of our men than any other 12 together but I know now where he shoots from & I hope we down him tomorrow.

Congreve’s statement stands apart as particularly cold and calculating. While his troops celebrated Christmas, he removed himself to plot kills for Boxing Day.

This is the logic of warfare, and within the week snipers were attempting to kill those with whom they had traded gifts just a few days before. Congreve, a well seasoned veteran who had fought in the Boer War, was, no doubt, among the military commanders who, after Christmas 1914, endeavored to prevent their troops from fraternizing with the enemy ever again.

Retelling the stories of the Christmas Truce helps us reflect on the value of our common humanity and the characteristics that we hold most dear.  But, it also reveals how quickly we betray those values.  After all, the reason that those soldiers were in the trenches in the first place was because of the mass embrace of irrational ideologies and the accompanying desire to destroy other people. So, perhaps the Christmas Truce should also remind us of our collective responsibility (and sometimes guilt) for forgetting  our common humanity — that moments of peace and goodwill should not simply be exceptional moments, but the standards by which we hold our governments and ourselves accountable.

[1]  Much of this letter was transcribed in Andrew Roberts, Love, Tommy: Letters Home, from the Great War to the Present Day (2012), 27-28

[2] Rosa Luxembourg, “The Junius Pamphlet” in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, ed. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 332.

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