Going Over The Top: Whizz-bangs, Mills bombs, and artillery. It was a Silent Night

By David Flin

It’s perhaps the single best-known incident from the First World War. The unofficial Christmas Day truce of 1914 where soldiers of both sides temporarily stopped fighting and celebrated Christmas together in No-Man’s Land. It was a day when, according to the legend, men from both sides laid down their arms, emerged from their trenches, and joined together in No-Man’s Land to share food, sing carols, play games, and see the enemy troops as people like themselves.

Was that what happened? There are so many stories that it is difficult to piece together, for all that it is such a part of the First World War legend.

The truce was unofficial and illicit. The headquarters on both sides disapproved, and took steps to ensure that it could never happen again. It seems to have been a slowly-spreading spontaneous thing.

The first signs that something unusual was happening came in the evening of Christmas Eve. In the British trenches, an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles made a signal to Headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged, but am nevertheless taking all necessary precautions.”

Events seemed to spread from here. Further along the line, the two sides serenaded each other with carols; Silent Night from the German trenches, and the First Noel from the British. Reports suggest that scouts from each side met in No-Man’s Land.

According to the war diary of the Scots Guards, Private Murker “met a German patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if they didn’t fire at them, they wouldn’t fire at us.”

A cross, left in Comines-Warneton (Saint-Yvon, Warneton) in Belgium in 1999, to celebrate the site of the Christmas Truce during the First World War in 1914. The text reads: 1914 - The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce - 1999 - 85 Years - Lest We Forget. Image by "Redvers"

Similar events took place elsewhere along the line. Private Frederick Heath of the Sherwood Foresters wrote in a letter home that the truce began late on Christmas Eve, when: “All down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war. English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas.” He went on to say that they said:

“Come out, English soldier, come out here to us.” For some little time, we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So, we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity – war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn – a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos, and from our broad lines, laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”

It’s hard to say how widespread the truce was. It was not general. There are plenty of accounts of fighting continuing in some sectors, and there are plenty of accounts of men fraternising with the sounds of firing going on nearby.

One common factor seems to have been the presence of Saxon troops. They seem to have been the most likely to try and make contact with their British counterparts. “We are Saxons, you are Anglo-Saxons,” one shouted across No-Man’s Land. “What is there for us to fight about?”

Malcolm Brown of the Imperial War Museum has estimated that some form of truce took place along around one-half to two-thirds of the British line.

However, all of this is specific to the British/German lines. On the Eastern Front, the Russians observed the Julian calendar in 1914, and hence did not celebrate Christmas until 7 January. As for the French, while some incidents of a Christmas truce were recorded, this was very much an exception. French soldiers were very much aware that a large part of their country was occupied by the Germans, who were ruling French civilians with some harshness.

By and large, the Christmas truce was only between the British and Germans, and it was by no means a complete truce, being patchy.

At dawn, some British troops noticed that the Germans had decorated the parapets of their trenches with Christmas trees. Slowly, parties of men from both sides hesitantly began to venture towards the barbed wire that separated them. Rifleman Oswald Tilley wrote in a letter to his parents that: “soon, literally hundreds of each side were out in No-Man’s Land shaking hands.”

British and German troops meeting in No-Mans's Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector).

Captain Clifton Stockwell, an officer with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, recorded how he recognised a Saxon sergeant from the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment. It transpired that the sergeant had worked as head waiter at the Great Central Hotel in London. After comparing notes, as one does, it transpired that they both been courting the same lady at the same time from the Gaiety Music Hall. They agreed it was wisest not to inform their respective wives of this coincidence.

Private J Reid of the 6th Gordon Highlanders recalled his memories of the Truce. “When we were on the line at Sailly, Christmas 1914, there was a bit of a truce, and the Germans stopped firing. We came out of the line, and they came out of the line. Then we were swapping tins of bully for their tins of meat, and the padre was having a talk with them, they were burying any dead that were there, and we were burying any dead.”

Private Marmaduke Walkington explained how the close proximity of the front lines led to increased communication between British and German troops, where the language barriers could be overcome. “We were in the front line, about 300 yards from the Germans. On the Christmas Eve, we’d been signing carols, and the Germans had been doing the same. And we’d been shouting at each other, sometime rude remarks, more often just joking remarks. Eventually, a German said: ‘Tomorrow, you no shoot, we no shoot.’ Then we began to pop our heads over the side, and jump down quickly again in case they shot, but they didn’t shoot. Then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms, and we didn’t shoot, and gradually it grew into a truce for Christmas.”

Communication was something of a problem. Few of the English soldiers could speak German, and while several Germans could speak English, this was by no means universal. There was, however, one thing that the soldiers almost universally had in common, and that was a love of football. The Christmas Truce legend has the famous football match as the centre-piece of the story, the match between the British and German soldiers, with the German soldiers winning 3-2.

The story of the football match, or matches, because there were several such that took place, is worthy of an article to itself.

It’s generally assumed that Headquarters disapproved of the Truce, and that those in the trenches approved of it. That is almost overwhelmingly true, although there are examples of the reverse. For example, Lieutenant C. Richards of the East Lancashire Regiment was very disturbed by the fraternisation, and wrote that he “welcomed the return of good old sniping late on Christmas Day, just to make sure that the war was still on.” He then wrote that he had “received a signal from Battalion Headquarters telling me to make a football pitch in No-Man’s Land, by filling up shell holes etc, and to challenge the enemy to a football match on 1st January.” Lieutenant Richards recalled that: “I was furious and took no action at all.”

In most places, everyone accepted that the truce was purely temporary. Men returned to their trenches at dusk, sometimes summoned back by flares like naughty schoolchildren staying out later than they should. Most men were determined to preserve the truce until midnight. There was more singing, and in at least one spot, presents were exchanged. Rifleman George Eade of the London Rifles had become friends with a German artilleryman who spoke good English. As he left, this new acquaintance said to him: “Today we have peace. Tomorrow, you fight for your country, I fight for mine. Good luck.”

During the period of fraternisation on Christmas Day, alcohol had been consumed by many of the soldiers. On Boxing Day, H. Williams of the London Regiment found a German soldier in a state of inebriation in the British trenches. He called the platoon officer, and explained the situation. The platoon officer decided that meeting in No-Man’s Land was all very well, but the German had to return to his own trenches.

Unfortunately, the German was not able to return. The officer told him that if he stayed, he would have to be made prisoner, but he did not want this. He was not able to walk unaided, so the officer detailed Williams and another man to escort the German back to his lines. They supported him: “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.”

Fighting restarted the next day, although there were reports in a few sectors where the truce remained in force until the New Year.

The war was back on again. Later, there would be occasional agreements on a “Live and let live” basis, where typically each side agreed not to shoot at each other unless there was an attack on. However, for the soldiers who celebrated Christmas 1914 together and survived the next four years, there would be no more peace until November 1918.

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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