At a certain moment, the thought of war meaninglessness and uselessness strikes heads of all the warring parties. World War I astonished the participants of the Entente and the Triple Alliance countries both with its unusual scale for the people of the 20th century beginning and its atrocities and totality. Here and there, soldiers stopped fighting in order to settle a brief peace resemblance on a very limited territory. The phenomenon of fraternisation and truce was known in connection with some significant celebrations on the Western and Eastern Fronts – first of all with Christmas and Easter. Such truces fit the trench rule “Live and let Live” widespread at the Western Front.
Live and let Live
Hundreds of thousands and later millions of men were mobilized, thrown at the front line and forced to take part in a slaughter the scale of which they even could not imagine before and very soon, they started to feel fatigue from fighting. Constant combat actions that were so unlike rapid marches and battles of the 19th century exhausted the stores of mental and physical strength of the combatants and imposed a definite logic of military confrontation on huge territories. Soldiers from both sides of the front (it was impossible to believe in the reality of its creation before the War) strove at least partially return to their ordinary living conditions.
Not only the desire to provide themselves with rudimentary life conditions but also the demand of psychological comfort pushed them to trench life arrangements. At the same time the constant contact with enemies (on the Western Front only several meters of dirt separated the Germans from the French, Brits or the Belgians) meant the constant danger to be killed or wounded and compelled them to seek the best strategy of interaction with them.
According to historian Tony Ashworth’s words, the problem solvation came in the form of arrangements of brief ceasefires. The researcher writes,
“the duration of a truce varied from a few minutes, as with small groups fraternising trench fighters to several days, weeks or even months in rare cases when large numbers of troops and areas were involved. Moreover, while the abstract principle “Live and let Live” (i.e. the exchange) was used many times and in many places during the trench warfare, truces assumed a multitude of concrete forms”.
“a few soldiers overtly fraternising face to face in a shell crater was a very different situation from one where a larger number were covertly involved in a truce and communicating with each other not directly in a face-to-face situation, but indirectly and over long distances. The former was a definite, explicit agreement between antagonists, whereas the latter was an explicit agreement, comprised of the mutually held assumption of seasoned trench fighters from both sides that the adversary was in the mood to exchange peace, given a chance. Nevertheless, despite their relatively indefinite form, the influence of large-scale tacit truces was real in the trench war.”
Adversaries could talk across “no man’s land”, exchange food, drinks, tobaсco or cigarettes. Quite often, truces were made in order to remove wounded or dead bodies from “no man’s land”. The front was split into small and large sectors with various troop activity from each side.
The initiative to demolish the “silence”, “truce” or “live and let live” system (the names could differ for both the soldiers of different armies and the later researchers of the phenomenon) might belong to both the soldiers themselves and to particularly zealous officers and of course everything was broken during large-scale offensives. Speaking of the British army, Tony Ashworth mentioned The Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Kent Rifles and battalions of other regiments who did not support the idea of “ceasefire” and continued to inflict damage to the enemy even during the lull between the offensive.
Christmas truce case in 1914
The so-called “Christmas truce” in 1914 was one of the most famous cases of fraternising and unofficial “truces” that became widely known already during the War in the countries of the Entente and the Triple Alliance and it was also widely used in pop culture after the War. That Christmas should have become an important milestone for all the armies, as the population of the warring countries was confident because of the propaganda and inability to imagine the war of that kind that one of the fighting parties would get the victory namely that time. Yet it did not happen.
On Christmas 1914, several truces were declared between armies that had been fighting a deadly war for several months along different parts of the front. Historian Alexandre Lafon emphasized that “soldiers — for the most part conscripts and volunteers – were (on that important occasion) far from their loved ones” and subjected to the harsh conditions of trench life. For soldiers Christmas was a celebration shared by both sides and recalled for both the comforts of home and a desire for peace.
From trench to trench, Lafon noted, men called out and threw each other newspapers, tobacco and food. “They challenged each other with rounds of songs and shared traditional Christmas carols.” German, French and British soldiers’ accounts mention actual encounters in no man’s land, including some impromptu football matches. These Christmas truces were particularly covered in the British and German press.
The case of the second Christmas truce in 1915
Next year the success of truces 1914 melted away like smoke. The severe defeats of the Russian Army (fraternisations on the Eastern Front also took place and the longer the War went on the more intensive they were), bloody defeats on the Western Front, the Allied failure at Gallipoli – all these cases were not conductive to “truces” although the “live and let live” system was supported where it was possible. The idea of truces was not so resonating any more with the veterans who had been at the front since 1914 already and they did not feel sympathy to the enemy any more. The command of both sides issued orders that imposed severe punishments for any unauthorised talks with opponents.
An incident with one of the battalions of The Royal Welsh Fusiliers regiment vividly shows under what circumstances the rebirth of the ”Christmas truce” 1914 could occur. The 15th battalion of the Welsh arrived in France in November 1915 and yet had no experience of trench warfare. Only those who had lost relatives in the War could have any grounds for personal hatred to the adversary. However, the majority of soldiers did not see anything evil or frightening in the Germans. Historian Jonathon Riley analyzed the 15th Battalion case in details.
The Welsh were pacifist Protestants. They followed the doctrine so strictly that it cost a lot of efforts for a Welshman, a member of the Prime Minister Asquith’s government and an extraordinary popular politician Lloyd George to convince Welsh pastors call their fellow countrymen to join the Army. Nevertheless, on Christmas Eve 1915 the Welshmen were inclined to see in their adversaries fellow Christians (they were opposed by Catholic reservists from Bavaria) rather than enemies. One of the British recalled afterwards:
”The German breastworks were near enough for verbal exchange to be possible between the two sides…I recall someone shouting across ‘What have you got for dinner today Fritz?’ The reply sounded like ‘a fat goose’ (more Germans spoke English than our people spoke German). Fritz was invited to come over, but at this stage, there was no movement.”
Another witness to the exchanges on Christmas Eve was a 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers Private Bertie Felstead, but further up the line. Riley mentioned that Felstead died at the age of 106 in 2001, the oldest man alive in Britain and the last witness of these events. Felstead was in D Company, attached to the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards. In later life, Riley wrote, Felstead remembered how the German soldiers in trenches on the opposite side of no man’s land sang, in German, a hymn, which shared the same tune with the Welsh hymn ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’.
This was probably the German version of the hymn ‘Go my Children with my Blessing’ (‘Gehen meine Kinder mit meinem Segen’). Their choice – probably a lucky chance – was taken as a much- appreciated acknowledgment of the nationality of the opposing British company, and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers responded by singing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ – another detail used by a famous writer and a Great War vet Robert Graves in his autobiographical novel about World War One.
Another Welsh Fusilier described the further events:
”We saw hands and bottles being waved at us, with encouraging shouts that we could neither understand nor misunderstand. A drunken German stumbled over his parapet and advanced through the barbed wire, followed by several others, and in a few moments there was a rush of men from both sides, carrying tins of meat, biscuits and other odd commodities for barter… this was the first time I had seen No Man’s Land, and it was now Every Man’s Land, or nearly so. Some of our men would not go, and gave terse and bitter reasons for their refusal. The officers called our men back to the line, and in a few minutes, No Man’s Land was once more empty and desolate. There had been a feverish exchange of souvenirs, a suggestion for peace all day and a football match in the afternoon and a promise of no rifle fire at night. All this came to naught.”
Such evidences remained in 15th Battalion military men’s diaries and recollections. The diaries let us make some details more accurate as the recollections especially when decades passed away could draw a distorted picture. One of the officers left a record that the Germans asked for a day truce but received a waiver and then they were satisfied with a 45-minute break and removed their dead men in half an hour from the “no man’s land”. During the last 15 minutes, British and German soldiers managed to smoke a cigarette and exchange several remarks and when the time was up an officer’s whistle drove everyone back to trenches. On Christmas night, there were the sounds of carols heard from both sides above the no man’s land.
The very next day, the officers involved into the above-mentioned contacts with the Germans were made give explanations and two of them even appeared before the tribunal, but one was acquitted, and the other was reprimanded, that was not approved, however, by the commander. That was the end of the last attempt of the “Christmas truce” on the Western Front.
The list of the literature:
- Ashworth, Tony. Trench Warfare 1914–1918 : The Live and Let Live System — Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1980
- Lafon, Alexandre. Christmas Truce. International Encyclopedia of the First World War (https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net)
- Riley, Jonathon. Everyman’s Land: The Second Christmas Truce, 1915. The Welsh History Review / Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru — vol.28 — no.4 — Dec.2017