John Gittings

Christmas Truth
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The Black Hole of Bali

The Christmas Truce, 1914, was a widespread event which should not be knocked down by the Michael Gove school of history. And there is a longer narrative of "live-and-live" arrangements between the opposing sides on the Western Front which needs to be explored further.
[WorldWarOneWatch No. 6]

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The Christmas Truce on the Western Front in 1914 was not such a big deal, according to the Michael Gove school of history, which holds that we have all been deluded by left-wing “myths” peddled by Blackadder and Oh What a Lovely War. And it is claimed that there is little hard evidence for the famous Christmas Truce football match. Yet even the BBC’s self-appointed WW1 myth-buster, Dan Snow, acknowledges that there were “multiple impromptu kick-abouts” in No Man’s Land, and in a radio programme, presented by him, of “Voices of the First World War”,  one veteran recalls taking part (the broadcast is available online). Sometimes the story was magnified in the telling, or plans were discussed for a match which did not come off. The ground might be too hard, or they could not find a football, or the truce on that section of the front broke down. Bur the best book on the subject, by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton (Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914, Pan Books and Kindle), has assembled plenty of reports of intended or actual games, from which they conclude that it is “difficult to believe” that some matches – probably rather rough and ready --  did not occur.

    In any case, the football match is only a small part of the whole story of cooperation, open or tacit, between soldiers on opposing sides, which was most dramatic around Christmas Day 1914 but which occurred at other times too. Some soldiers recall hostilities being suspended so that both sides could have their breakfasts in peace.* Such understandings became less frequent as the war went on and soldiers became embittered by hardship and the death of comrades. (There is plenty of evidence, for instance, of prisoners being shot or bayoneted on both sides). But on the ground, in the frontline, there was often an informal understanding not to push the conflict too far. The historian Gary Sheffield (who was cited with approval by Michael Gove and has defended General Haig) writes that “the Somme… was a reasonably quiet area before July 1916. Trench life was made more bearable by informal truces and tacit agreements that developed between opposing sides.”

    Edmund Blunden, in his war memoir Undertones of War,  observes that “Our future, in short, depended on the observance of the ‘Live and Let Live’ principle, one of the soundest elements in trench war. Unfortunately it was not invariably observed.”  Indeed the principle was most likely to break down when senior staff ordered a bombardment of the enemy – at which the soldiers in the front line cursed their generals, knowing that the Germans would retaliate in kind.

    A number of officers – especially junior ones  – did join in the Christmas Truce willingly and at other times turned a blind eye to informal live-and=let-live arrangements.  There were also practical incentives: the basis for the truce was often a shared desire to retrieve the bodies of fallen comrades which lay frozen on the field. These might even be buried properly in a joint ceremony. British soldiers, whose country had not been invaded, were more likely to fraternise with German soldiers than the French or Belgians (though a few cases occurred among them too).  Quite a few veterans recall coming to the conclusion, shared with the Germans whom they met, that the others were just ordinary blokes carrying out orders. “We tried to explain”, said one participant, “that we bore no malice”.

    It is not surprising then that senior officers (though not all of them) should have taken a dim view. Orders were issued against fraternisation, so that local agreements to continue on Boxing Day or even to New Year’s Day then fell through. And when Easter 1915 approached, all British troops were warned not to fraternise again.

    The Truce of 1914 may be served up today in a sugary version by Sainsburys for its Christmas advert, but it was a real event which moved people at the time. Just a year later Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called it  “an amazing spectacle”,  hailing it as ‘one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war”.


* For contemporary accounts of the Christmas Truce by soldiers at the front, see  www.christmastruce.co.uk 

Published by Oxford CND in their New Year newsletter