Two of my section came dashing into the billet during the morning and said, ‘What do you know, the Jerries are out on the top; they’re walking about, they’re dishing out drinks and cigarettes – there’s no fighting going on!’
Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.
At Christmas 1914, an event occurred that was not repeated again during the First World War. An unofficial, spontaneous truce took place along some parts of the Western Front. It often started with a ceasefire as Christmas Day approached. German Army officer Walther Stennes recalled how, initially, this caused some concern.
On Christmas Eve at noon, fire ceased completely – on both fronts. Of course it was unusual that the opposite side also ceased fire. Then my officer controlling the sentries came in and said ‘Do you expect a surprise attack? Because it’s very unusual the situation.’ I said, ‘No I don’t think so. But anyhow everyone is awake, no one is sleeping and the sentries are still on duty. So I think it’s alright.’
British private Marmaduke Walkinton explained how the close proximity of the enemy led to increased communication between the two sides.
We were in the front line; we were about 300 yards from the Germans. And we had, I think on Christmas Eve, we’d been singing carols and this that and the other, and the Germans had been doing the same. And we’d been shouting to each other, sometimes rude remarks more often just joking remarks. Anyway, eventually a German said, ‘Tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot.’ And the morning came and we didn’t shoot and they didn’t shoot. So then we began to pop our heads over the side and jump down quickly in case they shot but they didn’t shoot. And then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms and we didn’t shoot and so on, and so it gradually grew.
For Colin Wilson of the Grenadier Guards, the truce also started with carols. This was then followed by an invitation from the German troops opposite.
We heard a German singing Holy Night of course in German, naturally. Then after he’d finished singing there were all sorts of Christmas greetings being shouted across no man’s land at us. These Germans shouted out, ‘What about you singing Holy Night?’ Well we had a go but of course we weren’t very good at that. Anyway they said, ‘Meet us and come over in no man’s land.’ Well after a time we were allowed – a limited number of us – our officers allowed a limited number of us to go into no man’s land.
The attempts at fraternisation by German soldiers did not always meet with success. Clifford Lane remembered how he and his battalion, the 1st Hertfordshire Regiment, ignored such overtures.
Later on in the night there was a great deal of commotion going on in the German front line which was about 100, 150 yards away I suppose. And after a few moments there were lighted objects raised above the German parapet looking like Chinese lanterns to us.The Germans were shouting over to our trench, there’s no doubt about that at all, and before we could take any action or do anything we were ordered to open rapid fire you see. Which we did. The Germans did not reply to our rapid fire they simply carried on with their celebrations, ignored us completely and were having a very fine time indeed. We never did anything else but simply continue in our wet trenches trying to make the most of a bad job.
On Christmas Day, Allied and German troops met in no man’s land. German artillery officer Mr Rickner described celebrating with French soldiers.
I remember very well Christmas, I remember the Christmas Day when the German and the French soldiers left their trenches, went to the barbed wire between them with champagne and cigarettes in their hands and had feelings of fraternisation and shouted they wanted to finish the war and that lasted only 2 days 1 and a half really and then strict order came that no fraternisation was allowed and we had to stay back in our trenches.
The 6th Gordon Highlanders also took part in the truce, J Reid among them.
When we were on the line at Sailly, Christmas 1914, there was a bit of a truce there you know and the Germans stopped firing, we stopped firing. And we came out of the line and they came out of the line. And we were swapping tins of bully for their tins of meat and the padre was out having a talk with them, they were burying any dead that was there and we were burying any dead – this carried on for about a couple of days.
When the two sides met, they often exchanged gifts and souvenirs. George Jameson recalled what his men returned with.
Keith and Philip Ridley, two of my section, came dashing into the billet during the morning and said, ‘What do you know, the Jerries are out on the top; they’re walking about, they’re dishing out drinks and cigarettes – there’s no fighting going on!’ Well we’d noticed the place was very quiet. I said I don’t believe it. I said well I can’t go I’m duty bloke for the morning but hop off and see what you can find. So Keith and Philip and Lesley Wood went off and they arrived back around about lunchtime, Keith with one of the Landwehr hats on – the grey thing with the red band round the button – Philip had a water bottle. They’d had drinks, they’d had smokes and they’d been walking about. He said, ‘You just wouldn’t believe it!’
British soldiers who took part in the truce often remembered their conversations with the Germans. Archibald Stanley enjoyed speaking to them.
I tell you what happened on Christmas Day 1914, and people don’t believe it. We had this unofficial truce. We met in no man’s land on Christmas Day 1914. We shook hands – they were Saxons – and I heard one fellow talking English. I said to him, ‘You speak English?’ You know what he said? ‘Cor blimey mate,’ he said, ‘I was in a London hotel when the war broke out!’ I thought that topped it. He’d got the London accent…
Others had more serious exchanges, such as Henry Williamson of the London Regiment.
I talked to an officer the next day – because the truce went on for several days – and he said, ‘You know, we could not have gone on in the First Battle of Ypres because you had so many reserves in your woods and so many automatischer pistol.’ I said, ‘Were your machine guns gone, all knocked out?’ He said, ‘Oh no, automatischer pistol’ – it was our 15 rounds rapid. We also learned that many of the German mass attacks were made by boys, German students of 16/17, arm in arm with one rifle among three.
The high commands on both sides ordered an end to the truce when they heard of it. George Ashurst described how unpopular this made them.
We got orders come down the trench, ‘Get back in your trenches every man,’ by word of mouth down each trench; ‘Everybody back in your trenches,’ shouting. The generals behind must’ve seen it and got a bit suspicious so what they did, they gave orders for a battery of guns behind us to fire, and a machine gun to open out and officers to fire their revolvers at the Jerries. ‘Course that started the war again. Ooh we were cursing them to hell, cursing the generals and that, you want to get up here in this stuff never mind your giving orders, in your big chateaux and driving about in your big cars. We hated the sight of the bloody generals.
The legend that built up around the truce over the years made some sceptical about it, including Harold Lewis of the Royal Field Artillery, stationed in Britain at Christmas 1914.
Although it would be arrogant to say that the thing didn’t actually take place, I very much doubt whether anything of the nature or magnitude that have been claimed for it took place at all. And particularly because the two armies concerned, the German with that rigid discipline and our own with the finest discipline of a fighting force there was, are not likely to break that tradition. And if anybody tried, what were the NCOs doing? What were the officers doing? I think the whole thing borders on the fairytale and may be classed with the Russians with snow on their boots and the Angels of Mons.
Although the truce faded out after Boxing Day, on New Year’s Eve H. Williams of the London Regiment encountered one German soldier still unwilling to return to a state of war.
This runner came along when I was on this fatigue job and said, ‘You’re wanted again to interpret.’ I said, ‘What is it this time?’ He said, ‘There’s a drunk German in our trenches and he won’t go back!’ So I went up and saw our platoon officer there and he said, ‘Williams, there’s this chap here, he’s drunk. I don’t mind it’s all very well to meet them in no man’s land, but he’s actually in our trenches.’ Anyway this chap was standing there with a couple of bottles of beer wanting us to drink the health of the New Year and all the rest of it. He said, ‘Tell him he’s got to go back.’ So I told him. He wouldn’t take any notice he didn’t want to go back. And this officer said, ‘Well if he stops here, he’s got to be made prisoner, ask him if he wants to be made prisoner!’ So I did. ‘Oh, was, Gott nein!’ he said. He understood that, but he wouldn’t go back. Eventually, the officer detailed another chap and me to take him back, so he was escorted there – one on each side and this chap staggering about and singing at the top of his voice. Well we got up to the German wire and I thought, ‘Well I don’t think I’ll go right into their trenches, they might not be as lenient as we are.’ Anyway we found a gap in the wire, headed him in the right direction and left him to it!
Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there.
How did the Christmas truce happen?
In this video, Head of Documents and Sound Anthony Richards explains how the truce came about, its impact on the course of the First World War and why it never happened again after 1914.
In 2016 IWM was contacted by the family of one of the soldiers shown in this photograph. We now know that this is Arno Bohm, a German soldier, standing alongside British troops from the London Rifle Brigade. They're standing together in the middle of No Man's Land during the Christmas truce of 1914. This photograph captures a moment so unusual in the First World War that many people at the time, and to this day, believe it to be a myth. In the midst of a brutal total war, how did this momentary peace come about, what impact did it have in the course of the First World War and why did it never happen again?
Marmaduke Walkinton: "We were in the front line. We were about 300 yards from the Germans and we had, I think, on Christmas Eve we'd been singing carols and this that and the other, and the Germans had been doing the same, and we'd been shouting to each other, sometimes rude remarks, more often just joking remarks. Eventually a German said 'tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot'."
At the start of the war many believed it would all be over by Christmas. However by December that year it was obvious that this was not the case, and thousands of families and soldiers were facing a Christmas of separation grief and hardship.
Anthony Richards: "So for those soldiers who are in the trenches over winter 1914, the conditions would have got gradually worse and worse. You got a lot of rain, a lot of frost and the general living conditions would have been terrible."
But the British troops were not alone. In the trenches opposite theirs, sometimes only 30 yards away across the strip of no man's land, were German soldiers in the exact same situation.
AR: "There was lots of opportunity for each side to communicate with the other, and this was a regular thing which happened right from the start of trench warfare. But communication would often be in the form of soldiers from one side shouting over insults to those in the other trenches. But what was interesting at Christmas is that both sides actually started to communicate in more friendly terms. It really began with the Germans singing Christmas carols and setting up Christmas trees on top of their parapets. And so they came to very much empathize with one another."
Mr Rickner: "I remember very well Christmas. I remember the Christmas day when the German and the French soldiers left their trenches, went to the barbed wire between them with champagne and cigarettes in their hands and had feelings of fraternization and shouted they wanted to finish the war. And that lasted only two days - one and a half really - and then strict order came that no fraternization was allowed and we had to stay back in our trenches."
The Christmas truce varied in different parts of the front line. Ceasefires were hastily arranged, sometimes to enable the collection and burial of bodies or to allow the trenches to be repaired. In other cases the soldiers simply enjoyed fraternising with the other side.
Ernie Williams: "And we shared fags, goodies with the Germans, and then from somewhere, somehow this football appeared. Was it a proper football? It was a proper football. But we didn't form a team, it wasn't a team game in any sense of the word. You know it was a kickabout. Everybody was having a go. It came from their side, it wasn't from our side where the ball came from. How many people were taking part do you think? Well I should think there'd be at least a couple of hundred. Did you kick the ball? Oh yes I had to go at it, I was pretty good then, at 19."
But while some parts of the front line were playing football and swapping stories, others were confused by what they heard or felt no inclination to socialize with those they had so recently been fighting.
Clifford Lane: "After a few moments, there were lighted objects raised above the German parapets. The Germans were shouting over to our trench, there's no doubt about that at all, and before we could take any action or do anything, we were ordered to open rapid fire you see, which we did. The Germans did not reply to our rapid fire, they simply carried on with their celebrations and were having a a very fine time indeed. They certainly were not going to do it anymore; they thought that we were idiots I suppose, which we were. Not us but the command!"
AR: "The way that trench warfare was organized in the First World War, each sector was very distinctive and so you wouldn't necessarily know what was happening in the sector next door to you, and you do get stories of one area of the front where they're experiencing a truce but then suddenly they get fired on by the troops in the next sector who don't realise what's happening."
For those soldiers not involved, the truce must have seemed unbelievable, and even more so for those back home. For months the media and government propaganda had shaped the perception of German soldiers as bloodthirsty enemies, baby eaters, devils, ruthless killers. But news of the remarkable Christmas truce soon spread aboard. By the end of December, letters and photos arrived home and newspapers began to publish accounts of the truce.
John Wedderburn-Mitchell: "My father was delighted to have a letter giving such a description of events and he sent it or sent them up to the Daily Telegraph. I got into frightful rocket; it showed up that it must have been me who wrote it and he mostly got hold of me gave an awful dressing down for daring to write to the press, but of course I didn't, my old man wrote to the press!"
These photographs were taken on personal cameras that some soldiers had taken with them into the trenches. Photography in the trenches was discouraged for obvious reasons, but during the Christmas Truce of 1914, soldiers on both sides of the trenches could not resist the opportunity to document such a unique event.
AR: "At the beginning of January 1915 the newspapers suddenly start printing these letters and to begin with there was a certain amount of disbelief but then over time suddenly photographs started to appear as well, and by that time the evidence was clear that this did happen it wasn't a myth, and the media at the time absolutely loved it. There were lots of discussions in the newspapers about whether this was a good thing or a bad thing and you know in a way it's a wonderful snapshot of Christmas 1914, when attitudes were still slightly naïve because the war had only really just begun. You find that in 1915 and onwards the war becomes almost a much more serious endeavour."
The Christmas truce would come to be remembered as something of a blip in the regular conduct of the war. It conflicted with the patriotic aggression required by both sides. It also served to highlight the great contrast between war and religion: how can you fight a war
of aggression while also celebrating Christmas, the traditional time for peace and goodwill? For those reasons the Christmas truce was increasingly seen as unimportant and awkward to fit into the standard narrative of the First World War.
AR: "You never get anything like the Christmas truce happening again, and over time not only is it seen as an anomaly, but almost as a myth, and it gets to the point where people are actually doubting whether it happened in the first place, which continues right up to this day. So there's still a lot of confusion about whether there was a football match played and things like this."
Harold Lewis "We didn't cross to France until March of 1915, but although it would be arrogant to say that the thing didn't actually take place, I very much doubt whether anything of the nature or magnitude that has been claimed for it took place at all. Now the purpose of that barbed wire and the trenches was to keep each side in its own place, therefore why would anybody try to break that and if anybody tried what are the NCOs doing? What were the officers doing? I think the whole thing borders on the fairy tale, and may be classed with the Russians with snow on their boots and the Angels of Mons."
AR: "We know by looking at German newspapers that the Christmas truce was covered there in a very similar way to how it was in Britain. In the 1920s and the 1930s you see definite examples of how the Christmas truce changes in its depiction because there was a much greater emphasis then on the German soldier as a hero fighting a noble war, whereas the Christmas truce conflicts with that to a degree, so in Germany in particular the Christmas truce goes out of favour definitely in the 20s and 30s, whereas in Britain it continues to be a popular celebrated story as part of the First World War."
The letters and photographs that reached home in Britain confirmed that this remarkable event had indeed taken place, but it was one that was not to be repeated.
AR: "The Christmas truce was unique and nothing like it happened again to that scale, and the reasons for this are varied. Immediately after the truce, the high command of both sides stepped in to make sure that fraternization and ceasefires like this would not happen in the same way. But also in the long term the real reason the truth is like this didn't happen is that the war changed the way in which it was being fought. As the war progressed there's a more centralized method of command: those in the front line would have been forced into constant aggression, you would have had artillery and trench mortar units constantly going. And also of course as the war progressed it took a far nastier turn, so you get things like gas warfare introduced, an increasing number of civilian casualties. You also get incidents like sinking at the Lusitania. The temptation I suppose to empathize with the enemy and the desire to fraternize with them changed dramatically from 1915 onwards."
It can be argued that the Christmas truce made little difference to the course of the First World War, but it would be remembered as a crucial moment in history. The truce has featured in films, television programs, inspired songs, and even featured in adverts. It's become part of the symbolism used when discussing the First World War, as synonymous with that conflict as poppies, mud and war poets. This unique event has become legendary, in part because the idea of peace at Christmas in such an unlikely place is an irresistible story, but its enduring legacy is also due to these incredible photographs and the interviews from those who were there, documenting an event that so many still seems wholly unbelievable.