A Time to Remember: The Christmas Truces

holly-fisher-1BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff  Writer, UAS Whalesong

Few events of World War I are so iconic as the Christmas Truce of 1914. Countless books and articles detail it, songs were written to commemorate the events, and advertisement campaigns bring viewers to happy tears with its retelling. It is remembered as a symbol of mankind’s innate goodness and love for his fellow human, and is held up as a heartwarming moment of beauty amidst so much carnage and death. So many people know this legendary Christmas, but what happened afterwards? What did the brass think of this unprecedented event, and did it ever reoccur? The answers to those questions are sadly less heartening, even if they are marked with some rays of light.

The unexpected Truce of 1914 took place Christmas Eve on the Western Front between British, French, and German troops seeking holiday solace from the brutal war. What looked to be another ordinary night in the trenches changed when the German soldiers began to sing carols and put small candle-lit trees up along their trenches. British and French troops responded in many areas, and communication started on both sides between those who spoke the same languages. On Christmas Day both Allied and Central soldiers climb out of their trenches and met in no mans land to exchange greetings and gifts. Cigars, cigarettes, and candy were given back and forth, and carols were sung mainly in German and English. Some men exchanged collectables like buttons and hats, while a few others got haircuts from barber-trained soldiers somewhere in the mix. Football (American soccer) games were reported to have happened in one or more places, which equally involved men from both sides. Despite the general merriment, fighting continued in some areas, while other segments only agreed on a brief period of non-aggression so they could bury their dead. Even with the continued hostilities in these spots, about 100,000 troops were reported to have participated up and down the Western Front. Though some exchanges lasted only a few hours, reportedly certain areas kept up some semblance of truce until as late as New Years, firing upwards rather than across, and avoiding artillery attacks. There was even a little-known truce between Russian and Austro-Hungarian troops on the Eastern Front, one that was more positively welcomed by the officers and did not cause as much strife later on. While the public received the news of the Christmas incident as a good thing, it would cause far more trouble than expected.

The higher-ups, particularly those in the British armed forces, were not pleased with the truce. On both sides officers were reprimanded for allowing the “lamentable fraternization” with enemy troops to occur. Threats of court-martials were handed out to those who had been in charge, and to any men who were reluctant to return to fighting afterwards. The general staffs were concerned that the camaraderie would damage the men’s fighting spirit, and make them unwilling to fire on those in the opposite trench. If such an attitude were to surface, it would greatly damage moral when the soldiers were forced back into fighting as the holiday season waned. Military commanders considered it a break down in military protocol that was dangerously likely to produce sympathy for the enemy, a concern that was added to by growing resentment as the war stretched into its second year.

During the Christmas seasons of 1915 and 1916 some sporadic attempts were made at another holiday truce, but they never reached the same levels as the first year. Specific orders had been issued forbidding any kind of friendly interaction between troops. The British commanders were especially dead set against a repeat incident.

In December 1915, Iain Colquhoun and Miles Barne of the Scots Guard was arrested and put on trial for allowing a brief interaction with enemy troops. They agreed to less than an hour for each side to collect their dead, and while up in no mans land soldiers exchanged friendly greetings before returning to their trenches. This, combined with no firing for the rest of the night, almost got them both court-marshaled. Thankfully, Barne was acquitted, and Colquhoun was sentenced to an official reprimand (which he did not actually receive due to his excellent record on the battle field, and close relation to the Prime Minister), but the incident served to deter reporting  any future events.

Letters home from British, Canadian, German, and Italian soldiers told of small events with friendly encounters and gift-exchanges. Again, there was carol singing and solemn burying of the dead as small groups of men set aside their leader’s orders. These incidents were downplayed in records, or simply went unreported by the officers, leading to the general idea that truces no longer occurred at all after 1915.

However, many officers had no need to hide such events from their superiors. The occurrence truces slowly diminished as each subsequent year of the conflict dragged on. 1916 was particularly bleak with the massive battles of Verdun and the Somme creating greater feelings of animosity and mistrust. The level of friendliness from 1914 would not resurface again during the Great War.

Though the strains of war eventually wiped out the camaraderie and friendship seen between soldiers early on, the fact remains that the truces did happen. The blessed season brought the better nature out of many throughout the war, offering moments of solace and peace to the weary men trapped in the continual battles. Despite expectations that they should hate one another, most of the soldiers saw that the enemy was just another group of men stuck in the same unpleasant situation.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 exemplified the real strength of the season, and showed how people could truly live the values of peace and goodwill.

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