During the Great War, Christmas truces were the tip of a much larger iceberg of covert cooperation between opposing sides that went on for years.
The 1914 Christmas truce between combatants on the Western Front has become legendary, though it’s now been established by historian Thomas Weber that this was not, in fact, an isolated occurrence.
Professor Weber is based at 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 said:
“In the course of research for a previous book, I came across a surprising number of references to Christmas truces well beyond 1914”.
Now the professor has been given access to a large collection of First World War family memories to research his new book on the topic.
One example he’s cited is of Ronald MacKinnon, a Canadian soldier at Vimy Ridge on 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.
However, the story of First World War truces is not actually a new one.
This kind of subversive peace-making 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.
This involved punishment of trucebreakers, such as one belligerent mortar crew who had their mortar pit turned into a latrine by surrounding infantry angry that the former had broken their truce with the Germans.
Later, as it became harder to sustain this kind of open rebellion, combatants instead showed open compliance while secretly communicating with their opponents.
A perfunctory fire that sounded real but was obviously meant to miss was one method, as was firing the exact same number of rounds at the exact same spot in the enemy’s line at the exact same time every day.
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 more than 35 years on, Professor Weber is helping Ashworth to shed more light on this fascinating area of trench warfare.