1914 Christmas Truce Reconsidered





Jim Regan, Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA), 12/09/04

This Christmas will mark the 90th anniversary of one of the truly remarkable events in the history of modern warfare: when soldiers from the world's most powerful armies, locked in a conflict that would eventually cost millions of lives, decided that they wanted to take a few days off from killing each other in honor of the season. Surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a single all-encompassing site dedicated to the Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Web - but with a bit of poking around, many of the details can still be found online.

One of the most common misconceptions about the truce concerns its very existence. Some believe it was an isolated incident made larger in the telling, or even a fantasy created out of whole cloth and preserved by romantics and pacifists. The first stop in this modest collection (a 1998 article by Historian Malcolm Brown for the BBC) puts that fallacy to rest, and then goes on to correct a few related errors. Said errors include the assumptions that the truce was unprecedented ("In the American Civil War Yankees and Rebels traded tobacco, coffee and newspapers, fished peacefully on opposite sides of the same stream and even collected wild blackberries together"), that only the lowest ranks took part in the cease fire, and that the event was 'hushed up' for the sake of public morale on the home front. (Additional proof against the last point can be found in this image and write-up from the Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915.)

While the BBC site's link to an audio interview with a veteran of the truce is no longer active, those interested in getting a glimpse of the more personal side of the phenomenon can peruse the Hellfire Corner page dedicated to the armistice. After a basic summary of events, the Hellfire site offers a half-dozen individual accounts, including one by a German lieutenant which describes a famous soccer match between soldiers of the two armies.

There were, of course, incidents of the truce being broken, and some participants saw more pragmatic reasons for observing the cease-fire. In one location it began as a simple agreement not to interfere with the recovery of the dead from No Man's Land, while others saw it as an opportunity to repair trench works and do a bit of reconnaissance on enemy positions if the opportunity arose. (Though even in the context of trench repair, there was at least one case of a British soldier borrowing a tool from some willing Saxons in order to reinforce his own barbed wire.) In addition to a handful of"front line" greeting cards, the 1914 Truce page at Kinnethmont.co.uk recounts a joint Christmas service (with a British chaplain and German divinity student doing the honors), and an extra element whereby both sides agreed to warn the others if any high-ranking officers (who would naturally insist on immediately resuming the war) were known to be approaching the front lines.

In different sectors of the front, the truce lasted from a single day, to well into January. But perhaps as bizarre as the truce itself, was the matter-of-fact manner in which the fraternization ended along one section of the line. First World War.com recounts the story of a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers:"At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with 'Merry Christmas' on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He 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." (First World War.com gives the most comprehensive treatment of the event from the historical standpoint - with background information on conditions and events leading up to the truce, such additional details as the Germans lining the parapets of their trenches with miniature Christmas trees, and a map of the trenches that observed the temporary peace.)

There is some overlap amongst these sites, little in the way of online extras, and, as mentioned above, none of these URLs will take you to a truly encyclopedic treatment of the topic. (In fact there isn't one that offers more than a single page on the truce.) But some materials are worth a little digging - and the spontaneous suspension of one of the 20th Century's greatest conflicts is a subject that deserves that extra bit of investigatory perseverance.


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