By David Flin
Everyone knows about the Christmas Truce. This was not an isolated incident, although it is the best known. At the start of the war, armies moved, and any entrenching was seen as a purely temporary measure. The soldiers didn’t spend long in close proximity to the enemy, other than when bullets were flying.
Things changed when the Western Front became deadlocked. The names of the big set-piece battles: Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, Cambrai, and many other are remembered, immortalised in war memorials across many countries.
From the perspective of the combatants, these events were not the norm. The norm was the day-to-day grind of life in the trenches. Inevitably, soldiers adapted to these circumstances, and they often made arrangements with those in the opposing trenches to make their lives a bit easier. “We only shoot at each other by prior arrangement,” was more common than the High Commands would have liked.
This article looks at some of these arrangements. Obviously, this will be massively over-simplified and abbreviated. It’s a subject worthy of much greater analysis than I can go into. Histories of the war tend to neglect the trenches, and focus almost entirely on the big battles. For example, in the two volumes of the official war history for the British Army in 1915, thirty-two chapters are devoted to the big set-piece battles, and just two chapters on trench war. For 1916, the respective number of chapters are thirty and four.
And yet the daily attrition meant as many lives were lost during the periods when nothing much was happening as during the set-piece battles. Inevitably, they tried to make their lives as comfortable as they could. In this, the normal hierarchy of military command was turned upside down. The cumulative decisions of thousands of ordinary soldiers affected a few generals.
The image most people have of trench war, if they consider it beyond the great battles, is of persistent, violent, and bloody exchanges, with life a constant lottery as they endured being within yards of the enemy.
Inevitably, many sought to modify the situation to make it more consistent with their own well-being.
In their accounts of the war, soldiers – British, French, and German – distinguish between quiet sectors of the front trenches, and active sectors. I’ll be concentrating on the quiet sectors, where the opposing troops had created an informal “live and let live” policy.
These policies varied; some units had nothing to do with them, and kept up a continual harassment of the enemy, which was inevitably reciprocated. Prussians, Canadians, and the Royal Welch Fusiliers were particularly notorious for being resistant to live and let live policies. This was appreciated by High Command, which constantly gave calls for front line troops to be more offensive minded, and was not appreciated by nearby friendly troops, where casualties rose sharply in response to enemy retaliations.
Captain Edmund Blunden, in his book Undertones of War, describes the day-to-day life of trench fighting. He explicitly refers to the “Live and Let Live” principle, which he describes as one of the soundest elements of the Trench War.
Put simply, Live and Let Live was an informal truce policy, which might have many different elements. They were informal, and how they arose was usually by an unspoken acceptance of custom. It might be a custom not to shoot at each other at certain times. A cease-fire during meal times was relatively common, for example.
There might be an agreement that certain areas were off-limits. One particular area that was commonly considered off-limits to sniping activities were toilet areas.
Time was sometimes the arrangement. There were agreements that daylight hours were ‘times of quiet’, while the dark hours were fair game for trench raiding and prisoner snatches.
Sometimes the agreement was that No-Man’s Land was a buffer zone; anything in the trenches was safe, anything in the space between the trenches was fair game.
On the other hand, the British 5th Division were noted for wanting to keep No Man’s Land quiet. They had their reasons. There are reports of rabbits and partridges being shot in No Man’s Land, and being used to supplement rations. During one trench tour in 1916, some units from the Division went fishing in a millpool at Moulin de Farguy.
“We fished at one end,” wrote Corporal Glenn Gray, “and the Hun fished at the other. We ignored each other, and concentrated on the fishing, as did they. But the fish avoided us both.”
One battalion had planted potatoes in No-Man’s Land, and one gunner reported seed cabbages and carrots “on our side of our barbed wire.”
These, however, were modest in comparison to five recorded cases of trench cows. Usually, each cow had its own dug-out, and was grazed at night in No-Man’s Land.
Inevitably, it sometimes happened that one side or the other would have an abundance of certain goods, such as cigarettes, and might arrange a trade with the other side. This was usually arranged by troops from one side leaving the goods in No-Man’s Land, which were collected by the other side. The next evening, the other side would return the favour.
It wasn’t friendship, or comradely behaviour in difficult circumstances. Although there was little actual hatred of the other side, it was almost entirely down to making life easier for themselves.
Sanctions Agreements, whether they were specified or just “understood” were enforced by the threat of retaliation. The typically accepted retaliation was three for one, like-for-like. An officer of the 48th Division wrote:
“We go out at night in front of the trenches … the German working parties are also out, so it is not considered etiquette to fire. The really nasty things are the rifle grenades … they can kill as many as eight or nine men if they do fall into a trench … But we never use ours unless the Germans get particularly noisy, as on their system of retaliation three for every one of ours come back.”
Again, one starts to come across different attitudes between Saxon and Prussian regiments. It was commonplace, to the point of almost being standard, for Saxons to tell their opponents when they were leaving the line, especially when being replaced by a Prussian unit.
“Save your ammunition for the Prussians, Tommy,” was a commonly mentioned refrain.
On the British side, similar attitudes towards artillery and those trench units who didn’t follow the Live and Let Live policy can be seen. From the British side, this disapproval tended to take the form of being reluctant to go to the assistance of fighting patrols (a common practise during the hours of darkness.)
“The Taffs got themselves into trouble, they can get themselves out of it.” That was the view of a Sergeant in the Sherwood Foresters.
However, the greatest hatred – and that’s not too strong a word – of the infantry in the Trench front was reserved for the trench mortars. One frequently comes across reports of raids and patrols which took prisoners, and the raiders asking what they did. The response of being an operator of a trench mortar, a ‘bomber’, usually resulted in that prisoner being shot out of hand. No-one liked the operators of trench mortars.
Abuses of the system The Live and Let Live system relied on mutual agreements, often informal and unspoken. They were just “understood”. This led to situations where advantage was taken of the understanding. I’ll describe two such events.
A British machine gunner of the 12th Division recorded that about three hundred Germans:
“Came across No-Man’s Land feigning surrender … their hands held high, but with pockets full of egg bombs. Just before reaching our wire, they flung themselves to the ground and hurled a rain of bombs into B Company’s trench, causing many casualties.”
This resulted in retaliation, and in this case, it took the form of executing any prisoners or soldiers attempting to surrender. The formal retaliation came a month later. The affected battalion returned to the line after a cycle into the reserve and rest areas, and a new unit faced them. An officer described how they had collected musical instruments, and one night played to entice musically inclined Germans into exposed positions.
“At six minutes to midnight, the band opened with ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’. It continued with ‘God Save the King’, and ‘Rule Britannia’, each tune being played for two minutes. Then, as the last note sounded, every bomber in the battalion, having been previously posted on the fire-step, and the grenade-throwing rifles, trench mortars, and bomb-throwing machine, all having registered during the day, let fly simultaneously into the German trench; and, as this happened, the enemy, who had swallowed the bait readily, were clapping their hands and loudly shouting encore.’”
No doubt some Germans swore vengeance on that occasion as well.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow