The Christmas truce of 1914 has been revered for more than a century as an iconic moment of peace amid the horrors of World War I. Thanks to first-hand testimonies, we can learn what really happened when British and German troops played an impromptu game of football on the Front Line on Christmas Day.
Soldiers from both sides emerged into No Man’s Land from the trenches to exchange greetings and gifts, before playing the universal game of football together. It was a brief moment of tranquillity, before the football pitch became a battlefield again.
Interviews with veterans have enabled historians to piece together what really happened on that legendary Christmas Day, 105 years ago. Eye-witness reports, recorded by veterans during the 20th century, revealed the events weren’t pre-planned.
Not every section of the Western Front supported the truce, but those soldiers who joined in spoke of the amazing camaraderie that prevailed between the British and German forces. Football provided a universal language and became an activity that everyone enjoyed, despite the war and the language barriers.
Veterans later spoke of how the officers were unhappy about the gathering in No Man’s Land, as they feared the new-found camaraderie may deter the soldiers from going back into battle. The soldiers were angry at the officers’ attitude and felt it hadn’t done any harm to show some Christmas spirit.
Horrors of war
An interview with Henry Williamson, a former British soldier with the London Rifles, shed more light on the horrors of life on the Western Front and what happened during the Christmas truce.
Williamson was only 17 when he joined the British Territorial Army. He signed up because of the sports they offered, such as boxing and swimming. When he was called up for active duty, he felt a mixture of apprehension and excitement, not knowing what to expect.
During the first weekend of the war, 3,000 British men signed up each day to join the armed forces. More than one million men had enrolled by the end of 1914, but they believed they would be home in time for Christmas. Williamson and his comrades felt like this was an adventure and he admitted to not even feeling afraid at first.
However, the infantry soldiers found themselves spending the festive season in the damp trenches of the Western Front. It seemed to rain all the time and the trenches were flooded. Williamson recalled walking around “very slowly in watery clay”.
He said a lot of men were killed by snipers, including his friend, as they tried to fix a broken pump. Describing a sudden “tremendous crack”, he was horrified when a bullet struck his friend in the head, killing him instantly.
When he was tasked with knocking posts into the frozen soil of No Man’s Land on Christmas Eve, Williamson said it “put the wind up” him, as he and his comrades had to work only 50 yards away from the German trenches. They crept out on to the frozen ground, expecting to hear machine gun fire at any second.
After two hours, the job was almost done and there had been no gunfire from the German lines. The British were puzzled, but then, at around 11pm, a Christmas tree went up on the German trenches and a light shone out.
The British heard the German soldiers singing Heilige Nacht and recognised the melody of the carol, Silent Night. Then, the Germans shouted to Williamson and his comrades, “Come over Tommy, come over!”
They feared it may be a trap but cautiously went over to the German line. All that separated the opposing troops was a barbed wire fence. The German soldiers had small gifts for the British troops and Williamson said both sides began giving each other impromptu presents, such as chocolate bars and cigarettes.
He said it came as a “shock” to realise that the enemy forces consisted of young men just like the British, who believed they were doing the right thing fighting for their country. They decided not to discuss the politics of the war, with one of the young Germans telling him, “English comrade, do not let us quarrel on Christmas Day.”
All along the Front Line, late on Christmas Eve, small fir trees lit with lanterns were erected. Reports from both the Allies and the Germans gave both sides of the event.
Walther Stennes, a German Army officer, said neither side had fired a bullet since noon on Christmas Eve. This was unplanned, but “highly unusual”. The officer in command of the German sentries thought the British could be planning an attack.
Stennes said he wasn’t concerned and felt the situation was okay. Everyone was still awake and the sentries were on duty, so he thought a surprise attack on Christmas Eve was unlikely.
Marmaduke Walkinton, a British private, said only 300 yards separated the two lots of trenches. When he heard the Germans singing carols on Christmas Eve, the British began doing the same thing. They enjoyed some banter with each other. After a short time, one of the Germans called across, “Tomorrow, you no shoot, we no shoot.”
All along the Front Line, hundreds of troops from both sides observed the unofficial cease-fire and the Christmas truce began in earnest. Both armies began peering over the side of the trenches, but not all dared venture out at first.
No shots were fired and Walkinton saw the Germans climbing out of the trenches. He waved his arms at them in a friendly greeting and they waved back. He described how the movement “gradually grew”, until both armies ventured out into No Man’s Land and began exchanging Christmas greetings.
The 7th Division of the Northumberland Hussars also heard the Germans singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve at Bridoux-Rouge Banc. They called across to the Allied troops, “Why don’t you sing it too?”
The British and Allied forces spent Christmas Day with the Germans, celebrating together. German Artillery Officer Rickner said some of the soldiers had got hold of cigarettes and alcohol and there was a sense of “fraternisation”. He overheard soldiers on both sides agreeing they wanted to end the war.
For many soldiers, Christmas Day was a poignant time. Private J Reid, of the 6th Gordon Highlanders, recalled taking part in the truce at Sailly. The Germans and the Allies went out into No Man’s Land, where they swapped gifts, including tins of bully beef and other food.
The British padre blessed all of the troops and both sides were allowed to bury their comrades who had fallen in battle.
Along the length of the Front Line, the Christmas truce continued with friendly football matches. Those present said there were no organised matches as such. There were plenty of kickabouts, which were later described as being like a “friendly match” that pals would play back home in the local park.
Despite the language barrier, and the fact they were on opposing sides during the war, the universal language of football was something everyone could understand and it helped to break down the cultural barriers.
What happened afterwards?
The truce lasted for just Christmas Day in most places, although it continued throughout Boxing Day at Sailly. It may have continued for longer, had the British and German officers not put a stop to it. The troops received orders that no more fraternisation was allowed and they had to return to their respective trenches.
The officers felt it damaged morale when the soldiers got to know the enemy as individuals and developed camaraderie with them. Clifford Lane, of the 1st Hertfordshire Regiment, remembered how his commanding officer was against fraternising from the start.
Lane said he felt bitterly disappointed that they could hear the Germans celebrating on Christmas Day, having a “very fine time indeed”, but they weren’t permitted to join in. It was just another day and Lane had to “continue in the wet trenches”, while trying to “make the most of a bad job”.
All along the Front Line, after the football matches were over and Christmas drew to a close, it was business as usual. For many of the troops, by Boxing Day, they were back to firing at the men who had become their friends during the truce.
This was the first and the last time socialising of this kind took place on a large scale during World War I, as the High Command in Britain didn’t allow it to happen again. They were mortified when newspaper reports of the football matches appeared in Britain, as they felt it would make people question the war.
On 2nd January 1915, informal truces with the enemy were banned after an official order went out to the British troops. Anyone who initiated a truce was threatened with a Court Martial. Subsequently, the amazing Christmas truce of 1914 has become legendary over the years.
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