DECEMBER 23, 2011 8:35PM

The Christmas Truce of 1914: An eyewitness writes home

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Truce cigarette 1914

A German and British soldier share a cigarette, Christmas 1914 

ON CHRISTMAS EVE, 1914, the guns of war fell silent along many sections of the Western Front. Over one long night – and even into early January in some places – the German, French, and British soldiers spontaneously halted the bloodletting and celebrated a Christmas truce. “Such a peace from below had never occurred before in the history of war,” historian Michael Jürgs wrote in his book Der kleine Friede im Großen Krieg (The Small Peace in the Big War), nor has it ever happened since in the same way and on the same scale. But as miraculous as the truce must have appeared, it could not last. “Today we have peace," a German soldier told his new English friend. "Tomorrow, you fight for your country, I fight for mine. Good luck.”

This is, I believe, one of the most touching but also one of the most horrific stories to emerge from that cruel war, which cost at least ten million soldiers’ lives for highly doubtful returns, killing millions more on the homefront and in such farflung places as Armenia and Mesopotamia, and laid the foundations for a vastly more deadly Second World War. It was all supposed to be over by Christmas, but it ended up lasting nearly four more years, and we're still picking up the pieces today in places like Iraq and Palestine.

It's enough to make you give up on Christmas altogether. What good is “peace on earth” for one night when we all go back to blowing each other’s brains out the next day or week? And yet, can we imagine the same thing happening today in our very own “Global War on Terror”? Will the armed drones rest in their hangars this Christmas Eve? Will the suicide bombers leave their vests at home? Is such a serendipitous truce even possible in a war where one’s enemies are by definition “subhuman”? Somehow I think a certain notion of shared humanity flared up one last time and then was lost forever that icy December night nearly a century ago.

In the personal account below, only rediscovered by chance earlier this year, British private Frederick W. Heath provides an eyewitness account. He sent his report home and it was published in the North Mail of Newcastle on Friday, January 9, 1915. It is not known whether Private Heath survived the war or not.


 

That Christmas Truce

Written in the trenches by Private Frederick W. Heath

The night closed in early - the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches two hundred yards away. Fires in the English lines had died down, and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers' Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.

Memory in her shrine kept us in a trance of saddened silence. Back somewhere in England, the fires were burning in cosy rooms; in fancy I heard laughter and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve. With overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost, I leaned against the side of the trench, and, looking through my loophole, fixed weary eyes on the German trenches. Thoughts surged madly in my mind; but they had no sequence, no cohesion. Mostly they were of home as I had known it through the years that had brought me to this. I asked myself why I was in the trenches in misery at all, when I might have been in England warm and prosperous. That involuntary question was quickly answered. For is there not a multitude of houses in England, and has not someone to keep them intact? I thought of a shattered cottage in -- , and felt glad that I was in the trenches. That cottage was once somebody's home.

Still looking and dreaming, my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. A light in the enemy's trenches was so rare at that hour that I passed a message down the line. I had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice. There was no mistaking that voice with its guttural ring. With ears strained, I listened, and then, 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!"

Christmas truce 1914 

 Friendly invitation

 Following that salute boomed the invitation from those harsh voices: "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, except for down on our right, where the French artillery were at work.

Came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink. Under the early light we saw our foes moving recklessly about on top of their trenches. Here, indeed, was courage; no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty. But did we shoot? Not likely! We stood up ourselves and called benisons {blessings} on the Germans. Then came the invitation to fall out of the trenches and meet half way.

Still cautious we hung back. Not so the others. They ran forward in little groups, with hands held up above their heads, asking us to do the same. Not for long could such an appeal be resisted - beside, was not the courage up to now all on one side? Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.

The Gift of Gifts

Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers (and no one is quite so simple as a soldier) that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans' eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends for ever. Given a sufficient quantity of Christmas puddings, every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered.

And so we stayed together for a while and talked, even though all the time there was a strained feeling of suspicion which rather spoilt this Christmas armistice. We could not help remembering that we were enemies, even though we had shaken hands. We dare not advance too near their trenches lest we saw too much, nor could the Germans come beyond the barbed wire which lay before ours. After we had chatted, we turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.

All through the day no shot was fired, and all we did was talk to each other and make confessions which, perhaps, were truer at that curious moment than in the normal times of war. How far this unofficial truce extended along the lines I do not know, but I do know that what I have written here applies to the -- on our side and the 158th German Brigade, composed of Westphalians.

As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely. Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery. So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.


I would like to thanks Ms. Marion Robson, who discovered and transcribed this text earlier this year. For more information, check out the website http://www.christmastruce.co.uk/index.html.

 Christmas card from the front, 1914

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As wistfully nostalgic as this event may be it merely solidifies the sad basic insanity of humanity. I was a member of the American army of occupation in Germany in 1946 and all I perceived was the misery of a country smashed by violence and a population struggling to stay alive. I helped as many of the people I could - they were just people.
Today our armies are still shooting, raping, torturing, imprisoning each other for what sensible reasons I find difficult to make out. And we are impoverishing ourselves to do this. Why most of us do not simply get rid of the maniacs in control of almost all nations is a deep puzzle to me.
A Midnight Clear is a powerful movie about such a thing. Of course, the leaderships of both sides discouraged that, since they didn't want to lose.
As to why we do this, part of it is the Security Dilemma, in which if I don't do some things, you would get a dangerous advantage, but, but, it's also the case that people who think that way are drawn to such institutions, and see themselves, correctly alas, in the mirror image of their own mentality. That combination isn't so easy to get rid of it would seem like, as it means there is a self-selected set of people everywhere who are drawn to certain kinds of institutions, where, it would be potentially very dangerous not to have you own institutions be like that, if that has its own risks too.
Regardless of the political backdrop I enjoyed this read tremendously. Thank you, Alan, excellent post. R
Thanks to all three of you for your kind comments and a Merry Christmas!
I'd heard of the truce many years ago but never had read an account of how it actually got started. Fascinating how the exchange of trust proceeded gradually even while some measure of distrust lingered. Thanks very much for the post Alan and Merry Christmas to you.
What a fascinating find. Thank you for sharing. As Boanerges said in his post today, what a shame the regulars in the front were unable or unwilling to maintain that truce against orders. I wonder what the world would look like if they had?