Last weekend was Remembrance Day. While the shops have decided we move straight on to Christmas, everyday folk aren’t there just yet. I’ve seen some still wearing poppies this week, walking past festive window displays. I’ve yet to see a poppy on a Christmas sweater, but it’s a matter of time before Christmas creep makes it so.
For my new Christmas history book, I pinpoint twelve dates when I thought the modern Christmas was forged. I wanted to include December 24th 1914 – the Christmas truce – but unfortunately little changed after that brief moment of peace; there’s been war somewhere in the world every Christmas since. Without trench warfare and a front line, it’s too easy to think of the enemy not as a neighbour, but as a stranger a world away.
So our Yule blog will briefly stop by that Christmas truce – not the first peaceful Christmas by a long shot. Up until the fifteenth century, the accepted rule meant no fighting on Christmas Day.
The Great War was meant to be “over by Christmas”. By November, this was clearly unlikely. Pope Benedict XV suggested a one-day truce: “The guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” High Command disagreed. Christmas should be as any other day, though no major offensives were planned, so that day could proceed hopefully easier than most. On the German side too, the order was to fight on.
Trench decoration was actively encouraged: a visual reminder of what they were fighting for. It backfired. Instead it reminded soldiers of home, and Christmas peace. Many pondered the pointlessness of killing strangers a few feet away, celebrating the same thing as they were. Christmas was a unifier.
For weeks there had been informal agreements of quiet time where no shots would be fired, if only to recover bodies. On December 1st, a German sergeant had swung by a British trench “to see how we were getting on”.
Christmas Eve 1914 saw the first aerial bomb drop on Britain, at Dover Castle. In the trenches though, the glow of candlelight could be seen across no man’s land. Some miniature German Christmas trees made their way from the tabletops below to ground level. The Germans starting singing carols at midnight, so the British joined in. Evening singing was not uncommon – only now of course it was a carol, and one known by both sides.
As “Stille Nacht” drifted over the trenches, the English joined in with “Silent Night”, exactly ninety-six years to the day after its composition in an Austrian church. Heads on both sides poked above the parapet, before trusting individuals stepped into no man’s land.
The next morning, shouts of “Merry Christmas, Tommy!” emanated from the German trenches. Now in daylight they ventured to greet their neighbours again, taking photos and showing pictures of loved ones back home. Some parts saw informal kickabouts, if not a fully-fledged football match.
In the book, we reprint Private Henry Williamson’s eyewitness account of the truce; Williamson went on to write books including Tarka the Otter. (I was delighted that when the publishers sought permission from his estate, they were the kindest and most well-wishing of all we contacted.)
Others were less supportive of the truce, including young corporal Adolf Hitler, who stayed in his trench and grumbled. Some areas saw bloody combat on Christmas Day; some unfortunate soldiers heard of the Christmas truce, put their heads above the parapet in greeting, and were shot and killed.
In more peaceful parts of the front line, the truce overran into the New Year. One English machine-gunner – a hairdresser back home – gave haircuts to German soldiers, his sworn enemies kneeling as he took clippers to their bare necks. They returned to their trenches, safe and coiffured.
Court-martials were threatened for future fraternisation. Easter 1915 saw further attempts at a truce, and again each December through the war. Each request seems to have come from the German side, with the British rebuffing each time for fear of High Command’s response. The “live and let live” attitude occasionally raised its head above the parapet, but never in the same way as on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914.