Christmas carols sung between enemies, gifts exchanged, and a grand football match in no man’s land – it seems the 1914 Christmas Truce has become almost as well known as the First World War itself.
Various books and articles, a 2005 film (‘Joyeux Noel’) and, for audiences in the UK, the 2014 Sainsbury’s Christmas advert have all helped to popularise this event.
Did The Christmas Truce Really Happen?
But what exactly was the 1914 Christmas Truce? Did it really happen? If so, why and where did it happen? How did it start? And, most importantly, who won the grand football match?
The simple answer to these questions is that the truce certainly did occurr because there are numerous accounts about it on both sides. There are also photographs of soldiers meeting in no man’s land on the Western Front on Christmas Day, 1914.
But there the simplicity ends, because, like the war itself, there were multiple experiences of the truce – in fact, there were essentially multiple truces.
As far as we know, these truces began when German soldiers emerged from their trenches at multiple points along the Western Front. As the BBC/PBS series ‘The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century’ (or ‘1914-18’) tells it:
“On Christmas Eve, 1914, temperatures drop below freezing on the Western Front. In some places, it began snowing, obscuring the moon. Then all across the German lines, lights began to appear … (then) sounds of singing drifted across no man’s land.”
What the British heard was “Stille nacht! Heilige Nacht!” drifting across no man’s land, and they responded with their own carols, and food thrown over in some cases.
On Christmas Day, men began emerging from their trenches and meeting between the lines. One of those who emerged early on was Captain Charles Stockwell. He recalled later:
“I ran out into the trench and heard that the Saxons were shouting, ‘Don’t shoot! We don’t want to fight today. We will send you some beer’.”
Stockwell met his opposite number, another German officer, in the middle of no man’s land:
“We met, and formerly saluted. He introduced himself as Count something-or-other, and seemed a very decent fellow.”
What Really Happened During The 1914 Christmas Truce?
From there, more men followed, a process that was repeated at various points up and down the 440-mile Western Front. Essentially, this was a chance for men on both sides to bury the dead, and to take a break from the ongoing hostilities.
As Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton explain in ‘Christmas Truce’, the ceasefire took place over more than two-thirds of the British section of the Western Front, as well as being accompanied by similar truces in the French and Belgian areas.
In ‘Silent Night’, Stanley Weintraub explains that, as the spontaneous truce gradually unfolded, many of the greetings between participants were polite, even a bit formal.
Weintraub talks of a Saxon smoking a pipe in no man’s land that one British officer took to be an official gift from German 5 Army commander Crown Prince Wilhelm.
This is because it had an image of ‘Little Willie’, as the Brits called him, depicted on it. (The nickname was used in cartoons by the Daily Mirror throughout the war – ‘Little Willie’ was the son of Germany’s head of state, Kaiser Wilhelm II).
And indeed, he soon took the pipe from his mouth, waving it at the British officer, Phillip Maddison.
“Kronprinz! Prachtig[er] Kerl!” (or, ‘Crown Prince Wilhelm is a good chap’), he said approvingly.
“Cheer-ho!” and “Jolly fine”, Madison responded.
Lieutenant Church was less polite:
“Fancy thinking that [positively] about Little Willie! But I suppose they don’t realise what an absolute ass the fellow really is!”
Brown and Seaton also refer to the sense of absurdity felt by many soldiers – not simply because they didn’t agree with their enemies, but also because they’d gone so suddenly from trying to kill them to suddenly being civil:
“’Just you think’, wrote Oswald Tilley of the London Rifle Brigade to his father and mother, ‘that while you were eating your turkey etc., I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before!! It was astounding!’”
Which Side Started The 1914 Christmas Truce?
As noted above, it seems that the Germans began things by singing carols, at least in some places. From there, the truce seems to have unfolded spontaneously as men on both sides began to move into no man's land and talk to one another.
There’s little doubt these meetings, and exchanges of gifts (such as British bully beef or Maconochie’s stew for German cigars, sausages or sauerkraut), occurred at various points up and down the line. Tilley’s letter is one of a mountain of written correspondence, not to mention some photographs, that show the truces occurred.
But what of the grand football game, and of the way it is portrayed in the 2014 Sainsbury’s advert?
Weintraub says that Maddison saw a ball kicked up in the air at one point and heard that a soccer match and been suggested, to take place behind the German lines.
There is, though, no direct evidence one ever did.
But there are other stories that suggest games of football may have happened.
A Christmas Truce Football Match?
Weintraub mentions unit histories for those in Flanders that refer to football matches between British units within British lines, and some with the Germans in no man’s land.
One imagines these games couldn’t have been too elaborate, given the difficult terrain.
Yet apparently moving away the dead did provide some space, at one point is seems amongst turnip and cabbage fields.
Though in at least one case, a match between the lines reported in a letter in the Times on January 1, 1915 was later denied in the official history of that brigade.
If it did occur, perhaps it was covered up for obvious political reasons (fraternising with the enemy being taboo, and all that.) As the official history noted, “it would have been most unwise to allow the Germans to know how weakly the British trenches were held”.
Whatever games did occur, footballs were not, at that time, in plentiful supply. One unit had to shove straw into a cap-comforter to create a makeshift one – something the Saxons opposite apparently found amusing.
G A Farmer of the Queen’s Westminister Rifles reported that they couldn’t convince the Germans to participate in a football game – perhaps because their officers had forbidden it, or because the ground was not really suitable, given the rough terrain and freezing conditions.
But in at least one instance, it seems there was a match, of sorts:
“On 1 January, 1915, The Times published a letter from a major in the Medical Corps reporting that in his sector, after the Saxons sung ‘God Save the King’ to ‘our people’, one of his men ‘was given a bottle of wine to drink the King’s health’, following which his regiment ‘actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2!!!’”
This is backed up by the war diaries for the German unit, 133 Saxon Regiment.
Hugo Klemm, of the same unit, remembered:
“Everywhere you looked, the occupants of the trenches stood about talking to each other and even playing football.”
For Oberstleutnant Johannes Niemann, football wasn’t the most memorable aspect of the truce:
“At our soccer match our privates soon discovered that the Scots wore no underpants under their kilts … (as) their behinds became clearly visible any time their skirts moved in the wind.”
Yet, the whole affair doesn’t seem to have been the grand get-together of the Sainsbury’s advert though.
Instead, at least in one case, it was reputedly a “droll scene” that emerged after an impromptu joint chase of hares seen dashing out from amongst cabbages. (One assumes these men were hungry for more meat at this point).
A football was then furnished from something (presumably a cap or cap comforter, like the one described above, or possibly a sandbag) and caps themselves used as goalposts.
There is, though, no photographic evidence of this match.
Another account, from Sergeant Bob Lovell of 3 London Rifles, said that he could “scarcely credit what (he had) seen and done”, and that even if his side did lose, it was “indeed … a wonderful day”.
Although Weintraub notes that actual, as opposed to makeshift, footballs were rare at this time, there are some reports of them being used.
One came from Kurt Zehmisch of 134 Saxons:
“Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued.”
This, at least, seems to be a closer fit for the fictional rendition of the truces depicted in the Sainsbury’s ad.
And that seems to be the overall point: that the kind of truces, the level of friendliness between participants, or even that truces occurred at all, was a mixed picture up and down line.
Not Just A WW1 Football Match
One letter in Morning Post spoke of bikes found among ruined houses being used for bicycle races, and Lieutenant R St John Richards, a Welch Fusilier, wrote that:
“I must say that to a casual onlooker it would have appeared that we were friends, not foes.”
And Sergeant Major Frank Nadin of 6 Cheshire Regiment described one match as “a rare old jollification”.
Yet, Captain Thomas Frost of 1 Cheshires wrote home about a football match and visits to the German lines in which plum puddings were swapped for sausages, whilst, simultaneously:
“ … a desperate fight was going on during this (time) about 800 yards to our left between the French and the Germans.”
And some encounters fell somewhere between these two extremes.
Private Mullard said in his letter home that men of his unit, the Rifle Brigade, had agreed to play a game of football with the Germans on Christmas Day and got a ball ready. But the match was blocked by their commanding officer, and so the British played amongst themselves.
In this case, Weintraub says the Germans still managed to join the British for tea and cocoa and some singing, until they were ordered back to their line when night fell. Then, Mullard recalled:
“Just after midnight you could hear, away on the right, the plonk-plonk of the bullets as they hit the ground, and we knew the game (as in, the war) had started again.”
How The Christmas Truces Might Have Ended
Naturally, there were also those on both sides who wanted to shut the truces down. 1 Lancashire Fusiliers Lieutenant C E M Richards was ordered to fill in shell holes by his commander at battalion HQ, that way a football pitch could be established. But he refused.
And Obersleutnant* Gustav Riebensahm, a member of 2 Westphalians, said in his diary that he thought:
“The whole business is becoming ridiculous and must come to an end. I arranged with the 55th Regiment that the truce will end this evening.”
(*A rank similar to Lieutenant Colonial, or a battalion commander, in a British unit).
And Phillip Maddison, who had seen behind the German lines, summed things up thus:
“Both sides were misled by half-truths. Each side was more inefficient than the other assumed. Beneath the artificial hatred each respected the other. Victory, if it came at all, would be long delayed, costly and worthless. Perhaps a football match, after which both sides went home, might be a better solution.”
Yet Weintraub also points out that the credibility of some of these accounts should be questioned, as indeed do Brown and Seaton.
They likewise admit that there are some credible sounding accounts of at least one match with a proper football, such as that given by Ernie Williams of 6 Cheshires in a TV interview in 1983:
“The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side – it wasn’t from our side … They made up some goals and … it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were a couple of hundred taking part … Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no ill-will between us … There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all. It was a simple melee … “
And that is the point. As Brown and Sloan point out, given the terrain, the linguistic barriers, the spontaneous and haphazard nature of things – men milling about randomly etc – a formal game of eleven a side seems highly unlikely.
Rather, if games did occur, they too were spontaneous, haphazard affairs with make-shift, substitute balls.
But football game or not, it’s now been well established that the truce itself came out of a larger phenomenon known as ‘live and let live’.
For example, historian Thomas Weber of the University of Aberdeen and has uncovered evidence that festive meetings continued after 1914.
This runs counter to the official narrative that the truce of 24 to 25 December 1914 was a one-off unique phenomenon not repeated as the war became increasingly brutal. Professor Weber has said:
“In the course of research for a previous book, I came across a surprising number of references to Christmas truces well beyond 1914”.
He has been given access to a large collection of First World War family memories to research the topic. He discusses it in his book, ‘Hitler’s First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War’, as well as in another book he is currently working on.
One eye-witness account of a later truce he’s cited is of Ronald MacKinnon, a Canadian soldier at Vimy Ridge during Christmas, 1916:
“I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line… We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly.
"They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”.
Official regimental records, for the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, said that the Germans tried to interact but that no one on the Canadian side responded.
Professor Weber said that, in fact, a large number of truces occurred at Christmas in 1916, despite the slaughter on the Somme that year, and despite officers recording, both then and at other times, that no such meetings took place:
“What we see is that, despite the difficulties they endured, soldiers never tried to stop fraternising with their opponents, not just during Christmas but throughout the year”.
Indeed, it is entirely possible, and maybe likely, that in at least some instances, junior officers were involved in the truces.
They may have deliberately omitted from reports the fact that these meetings in no-man’s-land had ever occurred.
In fact, Weber is backed up by the work of another researcher.
Covert peace-making during the First World War was detailed back in a 1980 book entitled ‘Trench Warfare 1914-1918 The Live and Let Live System’ by Tony Ashworth.
Since then, Ashworth’s account of an elaborate system of checks and balances that evolved between both sides has been available to lend a more nuanced perspective to our understanding of the war.
Delving into materials from 98 per cent of the British divisions on the Western Front, Ashworth has shown how frontline soldiers “hated the sight of staff officers” (or “velvet arsed buggers”), held generals in contempt, and how this informed the truce system that developed.
Though Ashworth also cites soldiers who had more of a revisionist view of their commanders, such as one young officer who hid behind a trench dam and “let loose a ‘mass of slime’ and ‘stinking sewage’ upon an unsuspecting general and his staff walking up the trench”.
The man later recanted: “The simple rule blame the corps commander would pass when one was young and ignorant but won’t do as an historical verdict”.
Others, he notes, realised that it was the job of commanders to keep themselves alive.
None the less, the truces still developed despite the High Command’s edicts that they should not:
“It is no secret that the resentment of trench fighters towards high command was expressed in derisory and colourful language, but it is less well known that such resentment was also translated into subtle, collective action, which thwarted the high command trench war strategy”.
In his introduction, Ashworth explains this system thus:
“Live and let live was a truce where enemies stopped fighting by agreement for a period of time: the British let the Germans live provided the Germans let them live in return”.
The truces that developed were tacit and tit-for-tat in nature. As what he refers to as a bureaucracy of violence meted out from the top became more elaborate, so too did the truce systems as they evolved around official censure and measures to stop them.
Christmas Truce - The Tip Of The Iceberg?
At first, truces were more overt, and he explains that the 1914 Christmas Truce was a prominent example of this informal system coming out into the open.
In this sense, the 1914 Truce, he says, was like the tip of a much larger iceberg, and one that possibly emerged initially around tacit agreements not to shell each other during meal times.
At other times, verbal exchanges between those on opposing sides, such as this one between a German and British soldier, took place in no man’s land:
“Hallo Tommee… Are you soon going home on leave?”
…”Are you going to London?”…
“Then call at 224 Tottenham Court Road and give my love to Miss Sarah Jones”.
“I’ll go all right and I’ll jolly well . . . her”.
When this kind of thing became more difficult, perfunctory fire (aiming high) might take it’s place.
Or, more elaborate methods such as ritualised violence. This might involve firing the exact same number of shells at the exact same spot in the enemy line at the exact same time every day – thus enabling the enemy to avoid it.
Of course, not all units participated in all of this, and there was a contest between those who wanted to fight and those who didn’t. Ashworth says that approximately one-third of British units were aggressive more or less all of the time, one third avoided aggressing the enemy whenever they could, and the final third varied in their levels of aggression.
For those who wanted to deescalate the violence, they sometimes found ways to punish trucebreakers on their own side. This could prove very difficult for mortar crews, who were big instigators of violence between both sides:
“…mortar crews faced inconsistent demands: high command ordered aggression, while the infantry expected conformity… high command’s scrutiny was distant and intermittent, whereas… the infantry’s scrutiny was instant and continuous… consequently, more mortars complied with live and let live than would otherwise have been the case.”
The poor bloody infantry could be quite creative in how they discouraged mortar crews from fighting:
“Perhaps the most cutting affront endured by a mortar crew from an unsympathetic infantry occurred in the 41st division on whose front mortars had built new firing sites. A battalion history takes up the tale:
“’It so happened that on taking over one day our right front company found a beautifully sandbagged emplacement constructed just Old Kent Road. O.C. company, a keen opportunist… quickly transformed it into a new, palatial latrine, seeing that, as was no uncommon occurance, its predecessor had been put out of action by a minnie (a Minenwerfer, a type of German mortar.) Nothing could have cut poor Maconochie to the quick so effectively [the T. M. Officer]. Almost in tears he appeared [at battalion H.Q.] to obtain the colonel’s intervention.”
Later, as it became harder to sustain this kind of open rebellion, though Ashworth notes the in some cases the truces did continue until the end of the war.
Ashworth ends the opening of his book by saying that:
“Live and let live was endemic to trench warfare… it is an insufficiently researched aspect of the trench war; and… one can know neither how men endured the war nor the nature of the war experience, without also knowing how trench fighters controlled some conditions of their existence”.
It appears that almost years on, Professor Weber is helping Ashworth to shed more light on this fascinating area of trench warfare.