Merry Christmas Fritz! The 1914 Truce
By the end of 1914 it was apparent that the First World War would be a war fought differently to those before. It would be a war with no glamour or glory, but one of grit and determination. It was a war where the science of defence had grossly out-paced the science of attack; modern weapons such as the machine gun and heavy artillery meant there would be no more swash-buckling cavalry advances, instead it was dig, dig, dig, and keep your head down.
The trenches of 1914 were rudimentary at best. Neither side were expecting a long drawn out war and as a consequence no one really put too much time and effort into constructing habitable lines. The cold and wet weather didn’t help much either. Many soldiers were ill equipped for winter, with supplies of coats and woollen clothes slow to reach the front lines and as the winter rain continued to fall the soldiers got very cold, very damp, and very miserable. Their mood was not helped much by their surroundings turning from mud to slime; movement was difficult and supplies from the rear were either very delayed or didn’t make it at all. The enthusiasm of those early weeks of war was quickly evaporating.
It was in this environment that an attitude of improvisation and survival prevailed. In those early months of war, the men in the trenches established their own code of behaviour towards the enemy. An unwritten rule of ‘live and let live’ was followed by both sides, culminating in the widespread (but not complete) truce of Christmas 1914.
Inspired by this kindly attitude, as well as a natural longing to relax a little at this time of year, the truce was also definitely helped by the weather. The dull, wet and damp weather had been replaced on Christmas Eve with clear, sharp, crisp air and a strong frost, which definitely added to the festive feelings.
It all started on the 24th, the day that the Germans traditionally celebrated Christmas. They decorated their trenches with candles and sang hymns. In many places, where the opposing trench lines were only a matter of metres apart, the British could hear the singing and joined in with their own songs. The evening hours were passed as each side sang to the other and shouted out ‘Merry Christmas Tommy!’ and ‘Merry Christmas Fritz’ from the trenches.
The seasonal good will continued into the 25th. Eventually one or two soldiers tentatively shouted out to the other side to meet in No Man’s Land. This was obviously a risk, but as one, then two, soldiers climbed over the parapet without a shot being fired, more men followed. Soon, up and down the front there was a spontaneous meeting of soldiers in the morass of the battlefield sharing photos, badges, and buttons, swapping cigars for bully beef, and cigarettes for chocolates. It was all very friendly and not one single shot was fired in anger. In some places football matches were played, and although there is no real evidence available as to who won, it is most probable that the Germans won. On penalties!
As Christmas Day drew to a close, the rain started to fall on the Western Front once more as if it was a sign that that the truce was over and it was time to get back to the war. A British medical officer, who had received two barrels of beer from the opposing Saxon troops, wrote the following: “At 8:30pm I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with “Thank you” on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.”
This excerpt has been taken from my ‘World War One: A Layman’s Guide‘ – available in paperback and Kindle e-book formats.