Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Christmas Day Truce

“But, however, looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.” -  Bruce Bairnsfather looking  back on an event in which he had taken part.

Experience of this and of every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a "live and let live" theory of life. The soldier at the front could not help but have a degree of sympathy for his opponents who were having just as miserable a time as they were. And in 1914, five months into the war,  there was the desire, on all sides, to see the enemy up close - was he really as bad as the politicians, papers and priests were saying? Along the front the enemy was sometimes no more than 70, 50 or even 30 yards away. the British high command - comfortably 'entrenched' in a luxurious châteaux 27 miles behind the front.

Andrew Todd, a telegraphist of the Royal Engineers, wrote of an example in a letter:
“Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the soldiers in both lines of trenches have become very 'pally' with each other. The trenches are only 60 yards apart at one place, and every morning about breakfast time one of the soldiers sticks a board in the air. As soon as this board goes up all firing ceases, and men from either side draw their water and rations. All through the breakfast hour, and so long as this board is up, silence reigns supreme, but whenever the board comes down the first unlucky devil who shows even so much as a hand gets a bullet through it.”

During the afternoon and early evening of Christmas Eve , British infantry are astonished to see many Christmas trees with candles and paper lanterns, on enemy parapets. There is much singing of carols, hymns and popular songs, and a gradual exchange of communication and even meetings in some areas. Many of these meetings are to arrange collection of bodies. In other places, firing continues. On Christmas Day in the front lines, the fraternisation of Christmas Eve is continued throughout the day; not all units know about it, and it is not universal but is widespread over at least half of the British front.

Many bodies that have been lying out in no man's land are buried, some in joint burials. The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy.  After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began. Many men record the strange and wonderful events; may men exchange tokens or addresses with German soldiers.

A British Daily Telegraph correspondent wrote that on one part of the line the Germans had managed to slip a chocolate cake into British trenches. It was accompanied with a message asking for a ceasefire later that evening so they could celebrate the festive season and their Captain's birthday.  They proposed a concert at 7.30pm when candles, the British were told, would be placed on the parapets of their trenches. The British accepted the invitation and offered some tobacco as a return present.  That evening, at the stated time, German heads suddenly popped up and started to sing.  Each number ended with a round of applause from both sides.

Mention appears in the war diary of the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment of a football game although these were really just 'kick-abouts' rather than a structured match. On January 1, 1915, the London Times published a letter from a major in the Medical Corps reporting that in his sector the British played a game against the Germans opposite and were beaten 3-2. Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons recorded in his diary: 'The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued.  How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was.  The English officers felt the same way about it.  Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.'
Leutnant Johannes Niemann, 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment wrote “The Scots [Seaforth highlanders] marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours.  It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee. Us Germans really roared when a gust of wind revealed that the Scots wore no drawers under their kilts - and hooted and whistled every time they caught an impudent glimpse of one posterior belonging to  one of "yesterday's enemies." But after an hour's play, when our Commanding Officer heard about it, he sent an order that we must put a stop to it. A little later we drifted back to our trenches and the fraternisation ended. The game finished with a score of three goals to two in favour of Fritz against Tommy.”

Stern orders were issued by the commander of the BEF, Sir John French against such behaviour.  Other high-ranking officers and generals, also made grave pronouncements on the dangers and consequences of parleying with the Germans. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, ordered:
“The Corps Commander, therefore, directs Divisional Commanders to impress on all subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging the offensive spirit of the troops, while on the defensive, by every means in their power. Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices (e.g. 'we won't fire if you don't' etc.) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.”

 Nor was it merely the senior officers who rebuffed any attempt at fraternalisation. A lieutenant from the German “Landwehr” wrote in a letter that:
“ Such a proposal in the past would have been accepted with pleasure, but at the present time, when we have clearly recognized England’s real character, we refuse to any such agreement. Also we do not doubt that you are men of honor, yet every feeling of ours revolts against any friendly intercourse towards the subjects of a nation which for years has, in underhand ways sought the friendship of all other nations, so that with their help annihilate us, a nation also which, while professing Christianity, is not ashamed to use dum-dum bullets; and whose greatest pleasure would be to see the political disappearance and social eclipse of Germany.[…] But all the same you are Englishmen, whose annihilate we consider as our most sacred duty. We therefore request you to take such action as will prevent your mercenaries, whom you call soldiers, from approaching our trenches in future.”

Captain Billy Congreve from the 3rd division noticed that the Germans did try to make a truce for Christmas:
“We have issued strict orders to the men not to on any account allow a truce, as we have heard rumours that they will probably try to. The Germans did. They came over towards us singing. So we opened rapid fire on them, which is the only truce they deserve.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards, in his famous account, also seemed to care about the fraternisation in itself - the need to be seen to follow orders was his concern.  Thus he sought out a German officer and arranged for both sides to return to their lines.  While this was going on he still managed to keep his ears and eyes open to the fantastic events that were unfolding.

'Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner.  Every sort of souvenir was exchanged addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc.  One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette; the German said, "Virginian?"  Our fellow said, "Aye, straight-cut", the German said "No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!"... It gave us all a good laugh.' Hulse's account was in part a letter to his mother, who in turn sent it on to the newspapers for publication, as was the custom at the time.

The Truce lasted all day; in places it ended that night, but on other sections of the line it held over Boxing Day and in some areas, a few days more.  In fact, there parts on the front where the absence of aggressive behaviour was conspicuous well into 1915.

Captain J C Dunn, the Medical Officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, whose unit had fraternised and received two barrels of beer from the Saxon troops opposite, recorded how hostilities re-started on his section of the front.Dunn wrote:
“At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with "Merry Christmas" on it, and I climbed on the parapet.  He [the Germans] put up a sheet with "Thank you" on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet.  We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.”

One of the factors that brought the fighting back on was the cycling of troops. It is general practice for men to be cycled out of combat to the rear or to a different sector in order to keep from developing shell shock  (we call it post traumatic stress disorder) as well as to keep the level of familiarity low. The lack of rapport with the opposing side kept them as less than human and therefore easier to kill. As for the remaining troops who had spent Christmas Day with their foes in No Man’s Land, when the order came to commence firing the reply from one German was: “we can’t, we just can’t…they are good fellows” and that they “spent much of the evening attempting to shoot the stars outof the sky” The replacement of the reserve troops with the professional Prussians would change that. Another reason was definitely the change in warfare. Poison gas was used in 1915 for the first time. The conventional warfare became crueler and the casualities on every side were much higher than in 1914.

For some participants in the Christmas truce it brought a deeper insight about the war.

The English officer R.J. Fairhead saw the evil, but not in the soldiers. They just had to fight. In his statement, he strongly attacked the political structure in Europe and looked above the taught national stereotypes.
“Politicians do not listen to those whom they claim to represent and the failure to take notice of the fragile peace declared for that brief period led to the anti-government revolution throughout Europe.”
His learned hatred for the Germans was converted to a general hate for the whole situation and the system which made a war like this possible.

 Lieutenant A.P. Sinkinson describes similar experiences:
“As I walked slowly back to our own trenches I thought of Mr. Asquish’s sentence about not sheathing the sword until the enemy be finally crushed. It is all very well for Englishmen living comfortable at home to talk in flowing periods, but when you are out here you begin to realize that sustained hatred impossible.”
Sinkinson saw that Germans were not worse people than himself. Only the people at home, far away from the cruelties, the brutalities, from death and from the war’s real grimace, could keep their hatred.

 That the opinion toward the enemies had changed after the truce is emphasized by Westminster Rifle Man Percy. The new experiences he had with the Germans whom he met made him rethink everything he had heard about them. He wrote that:
“They [Germans] where really magnificent in the whole thing [Christmas Truce] and jolly good sorts. I now have a different opinion of the German. Both sides have now started firing, and are deadly enemies again. Strange it all seems, doesn’t it?”

Obviously Percy recognized how surreal the situation was. He started to rethink his attitude toward the Germans but he did not think about stopping fighting them.

After having met the enemy between the trenches, started thinking about all they had read and heard about them. For many, the former hatred was vanished. They now recognized the soldiers from the other side of the trenches as human as themselves. They were not mercenaries, no inhuman monsters eager for war, just humans. The stereotypes they know from the time before the war and before they met their enemies did not fit after meeting their enemies. Not all Germans acted like it was described in the newspaper and were not as arrogant as the German Kaiser. On the other hand not all the English soldiers were mercenaries fighting for material well-being. These soldiers started to reflect their own experiences and started to compare their experiences with what they knew before about their enemies. The conclusion they made was that their prefabricated picture and the experiences they gained did not fit together. It was hard for the soldiers, faced with the reality of the war, to maintain the black and white propaganda picture.

Alfred Anderson, the last known survivor of the 1914 "Christmas Truce" that saw British and German soldiers exchanging gifts and handshakes in no man's land, died in November 2005. He was 109 and died in his sleep at a nursing home in Newtyle, Scotland.  Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier in the Black Watch regiment when British and German troops cautiously emerged from their trenches on Dec. 25, 1914. The enemies swapped cigarettes and tunic buttons, sang carols and even played soccer amid the mud and shell-holes of no man's land. The informal truce spread along much of the Western Front, in some cases lasting for days.

"I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence," Anderson  related "But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted 'Merry Christmas,' even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again".

There has rarely been “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill towards men” and we shall have to go forward and not backward to realise that ideal. When shall peace come to Earth and goodwill prevail? Capitalism makes war inevitable. Capitalist nations not only exploit their workers but ruthlessly invade, plunder, and ravage one another. The profit system is responsible for it all. Abolish that, establish a social democracy, produce for use, and the incentive to war vanishes. Men and women may talk about  “Peace on Earth” but it will always be a Christmas myth.  The end of profit and plunder among nations will mean the end of war and the dawning of the era of “Peace on Earth and Good Will among Men.” Let us show the people the true cause of war. Let us arouse a sentiment against war. Let us teach the children to abhor war. In 1912, when the SPD gained 4¼ million votes in the general election in Germany, this was generally heralded as a gigantic victory for peace and socialism. Only the Socialist Standard refused to be carried away. In retrospect its grim words seem virtually prophetic:
“In that day of dire disaster, woe betide those who have counted heads in the ballot and put their faith in numbers. Only those who understand the principles of Socialism can give strength to the revolutionary army. Let ignorance march against us since our foes can turn it against us when they will.”

Just for the record, the Socialist Party of Great Britain made this declaration of peace in August of 1914;
“Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow-workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism."

And in November 1914 the Socialist Party gives a forecast the future;
“When the war is over, and you are tramping the country, as you will be in many cases; when you and those near and dear to you hunger and thirst; when you feel the whip of semi-starvation and the gaunt spectre of want is your daily companion, will your "King and Country" need you then? Does not your daily experience teach you that you have no country, that you are landless and propertyless? Does it not show you that here, as in Germany, the land and its fatness belong to the masters, your portion being a mean tenement in a mean street, with the bare means of existence, and then only if you are lucky enough to get work?”

Wars can be stopped not just for one day on Christmas Day but forever by simply removing the reasons for their existence. War is not an accidental interruption of the peaceful operations of capitalism but is inherent in the structure of the system itself. Socialism, and the end of all war, is not utopia or a lunatic's pipe dream, but a real solution to many problems. Are you ready take the first steps to take part in the genuine war that will end all wars - the class war - a war that the Socialist Party has no intention of offering the capitalist class any truce.


British units which took part in the truce
Brigade Unit
5th Division on Wulverghem - Messines road and in the River Douve valley
14th Brigade 1st Devonshire
1st East Surrey
2nd Manchester
15th Brigade 1/6th Cheshire
1st Norfolk
4th Division in front of Ploegsteert Wood
10th Brigade 1st Royal Warwickshire
2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers
2nd Seaforth Highlanders
1st Royal Irish Fusiliers
11th Brigade 1st Hampshire
1st Rifle Brigade
1st East Lancashire
1/5th London (London Rifle Brigade)
12th Brigade 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers
2nd Essex
1/2nd Monmouthshire
XXXIII Bde RFA 135 Battery RFA
31 Heavy Battery RGA
6th Division at Frelinghien and Houplines
16th Brigade 1st Leicestershire
1st Buffs (East Kent)
17th Brigade 2nd Leinster
3rd Rifle Brigade
1/16th London (Queen's Westminster Rifles)
1st North Staffordshire
19th Brigade 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers
2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
1/5th Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)
XXXVIII Bde RFA 24 Battery RFA
XIII (H) Bde RFA 87 Battery RFA
7th Division at Bois Grenier, La Boutillerie and on the Fromelles road
20th Brigade 2nd Border
2nd Gordon Highlanders
1/6th Gordon Highlanders
2nd Scots Guards
21st Brigade 2nd Wiltshire
2nd Bedfordshire
2nd Yorkshire
22nd Brigade 2nd Queen's (Royal West Surrey)
1/8th Royal Scots
XXIII Bde RFA 104 Battery RFA
XIV Bde RFA F and T Batteries RHA
III Heavy Bde RGA 111 and 112 Batteries RGA
A and B Squadrons, the Northumberland Hussars
8th Division at Picantin, Fauquissart and Neuve Chapelle
23rd Brigade 2nd Devonshire
2nd Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)
24th Brigade 2nd East Lancashire
2nd Northamptonshire
25th Brigade 1/13th London (Kensington)
1st Royal Irish Rifles > War diary from Christmas 1914
XLV Bde RFA 5 Battery RFA
2 Field Company, the Royal Engineers
Meerut Division at Richebourg l'Avoué
Gharwal Brigade 1/39 Gharwal Rifles
2/39 Gharwal Rifles
18th Hussars

German units which took part in the truce
Brigade Unit
6th Bavarian Reserve Division, facing Kemmel
12th Bavarian Reserve Brigade 17th Bavarian Reserve Regiment
40th Division, facing Wulverghem and Ploegsteert Wood and at Frelinghien
48th Brigade 10th Infantry Regiment
88th Brigade 104th Infantry Regiment
  6th Jaeger Battalion
89th Brigade 133rd Infantry Regiment Saxon
  134th Infantry Regiment
24th Division, on the Armentieres-Lille railway 
47th Brigade 179th Infantry Regiment
48th Brigade 107th Infantry Regiment
13th Division, at Fromelles and on Rue des Bois Blancs
25th Brigade 158th Infantry Regiment
  13th Infantry Regiment
  11th Jaeger Battalion
26th Brigade 55th Infantry Regiment
  15th Infantry Regiment
14th Division, at Aubers and Festubert
27th Brigade 16th Infantry Regiment (3rd Westphalian)


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