Today's Honour Roll

January
19
Today's Honour Roll recognizes 201 Australians who fell on this day in history.
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Name Date of Death Conflict
BROWN, Ernest 19 Jan 1942 World War 2
SYKES, Arnold 19 Jan 1969 Vietnam War
BROWN, Harold Kenneth 19 Jan 1943 World War 2
DICKSON, Beaumont Churchill 19 Jan 1942 World War 2
COCK, John Raymond 19 Jan 1969 Vietnam War

The 1914 Christmas Truce - Determining Fact From Fiction

The 1914 Christmas Truce - Determining Fact From Fiction 

“I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights anyone will ever see,”[1] wrote Captain A D Chater in a letter home to his mother on Boxing Day, 1914.

“I saw a German, waving his arms…two of them got out of their trench and came towards ours”.

“In about two minutes, the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas”.[2]

The storied Christmas Truce of 1914 is well documented and often cited as a time in history where human kindness overcame all else. The moment has inspired countless renditions, from films and stage shows such as Joyeux Nöel, The Christmas Truce and Oh! What A Lovely War, to Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’ music video and even an advert for British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. These re-creations have made the Christmas Truce ubiquitous, but they have also incorporated certain elements of artistic licence into the story.

To begin with, the truce wasn’t as spontaneous as the movies and adverts depict it. The idea of a ceasefire during the holiday was proposed by Pope Benedict XV on the 7th of December:

“I ask that the guns may fall silent at least on the day the angels sang”.[3]

His request was officially ignored by the leaders of the partaking nations, but it may have been inspiration for soldiers to schedule their own truces. There are reports of the 2nd Battalion from the Essex Regiment meeting German soldiers in no-man’s land as early as the 11th of December.[4]

In some places, the trenches were separated by less than 100 yards of no man’s land, so the opposing armies were accustomed to hearing the sounds of enemy’s daily routines. Naturally, this sparked curiosity amongst the camps.[5] There was no ingrained animosity between the German’s and English; much like a young Australian backpacker may travel overseas to work, it was common for young Germans to visit England.[6] The Germans’ considered the English their Anglo-Saxon cousins.[7] The French, whose country was currently occupied by German forces, were not so understanding, although there a still reports of truces between French and German troops on Christmas.

What is often lost in modern retellings of the story is that the truce wasn’t confined to a single battlefield or two individual battalions. What really occurred was a series of separate ceasefires, each originating of their own accord. Time magazine later wrote that upwards of 100,000 men participated.[8]

The dusting of snow over the battlefield is not a fabrication added by modern producers to draw on a modern association of snow and Christmas time. A cold snap struck Northern France on Christmas Eve[9] which delivered the idyllic white blanket of snow and froze over the muddy floors of the trenches, a welcome reprieve for the soldiers.

There is also truth to the German troops lining their trenches with Christmas trees like they do in the film Joyeux Nöel. The tradition of tree decoration originated in Germany[10] before being adopted by other cultures, so they were sent as gifts to improve morale.

Carolling back and forth between the trenches is also confirmed through many first-hand accounts. In some places, the carols transitioned into tentative requests to look above the trenches, then the exchange of messages in tin cans. Eventually, as British machine gunner Bruce Bairnsfather recalls, an agreement was made to meet in the middle.[11]

British soldiers lay down their weapons and partake in some carolling.

Getty Images

Such agreements were by no means universal. In fact, 149 Commonwealth infantrymen lost their lives that day (although it must be noted many deaths were from previously sustained wounds).[12] The Hertfordshire regiment was a mix of Territorial Army personnel (a volunteer reserve force) and the incredibly professional Guards Brigade. When they spotted the lights from the German Christmas trees and heard the calls for a temporary truce, they were ordered to shoot the lights out in defiance.[13]

Private Percy Huggins was a member of the Hertfordshire regiment, and on the dawn of Christmas morning, was killed by a single bullet to the head.[14] In a final letter to his mother on Christmas Eve, Percy asked “that you will spend as happy a Xmas as possible, and I will do the same”.[15] Attempting to avenge his mate’s death, Sergeant Tom Gregory scoured the frosty front line trying to locate the sniper responsible. He did, killing the German with a single bullet of his own. Unfortunately, a second German sniper had located Sergeant Gregory in the process, and a fraction later, he too was dead.[16]

Corporal Clifford Lane, another solider serving with Private Huggins and Sergeant Gregory, recalled the order to “open rapid fire”[17] when he heard the sounds of Christmas celebrations from the German trenches. He survived the war, and in an interview in 1983, said he “greatly regretted [firing] because [a truce] would have been a good experience”.[18]

Further north from Rue De Bois where the Hertfordshire regiment was stationed, a brief moment of peace like those depicted in films did occur:

“We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet it seemed like a dream,” wrote J Reading in a letter home to his wife.

“We shook hands with them. We gave them cigs, jam and corn beef. They also gave us cigars,”[19] wrote another anonymous British soldier.

While these events are reproduced in modern retellings, directors often also rely on quotes like Private Harold Atkins reports of another regiment playing “a game of football with the enemy opposite them”[20] in their retellings.

Whether or not any football match occurred on Christmas Day 1914 in France is highly contentious. English and German soldiers almost certainly did not dive to save goals on a makeshift pitch in no man’s land as the Sainsbury advert will have you believe.

Men simply did not have soccer balls on the front line, although a tin of bully beef wrapped in a couple socks may just have sufficed.[21] Even still, the ground surrounding the trenches was brimming with craters from shells and criss-crossed with barbed-wire; not exactly ideal pitch conditions.

Other accounts from the day speak of the want to start a game between the two armies, but fail to confirm if one ever came to fruition.[22] There are shards of evidence of soccer matches occurring between soldiers stationed near villages like Messines, but these were between regiments in the same army.[23] The closest thing to evidence of a match between the opposing sides is a letter that was published in the Manchester Guardian on New Year’s Eve 1914 stating:

“Men have been talking together, and they had a football match with a bully beef tin, and one man went over and cut a German’s hair!”[24]

A short story titled ‘Christmas Truce’ written by Robert Graves in 1963 has the final score of a supposed match at 3-2 in favour of the German’s, though this account is entirely fictional.[25] Regardless, the scoreline is still cited when English football teams pay tribute to the Christmas Truce today. In 2014, a friendly match between the British and German armies was held in commemoration of 100 years since the truce. A statute of a German and British solider was also  unveiled in St Luke’s church in Liverpool to mark the occasion.

 

‘All Together Now’ designed by Andy Edwards, on display in St Luke’s church in Liverpool.

Image from BBC

“The [Christmas] Truce didn’t change anything…the war went on”.[26] The soldiers involved all thought the war would be over in the following weeks. Hardly any survived the ensuing fighting of the next 3 years. Yet the legacy the truce left behind is as important as ever. It may not have ended the war, but it remains as a lesson to us all that hope and peace can transcend even the world’s most horrific of tragedies. It doesn’t matter whether a soccer match was held or whether certain regiments refused to partake. The fact that such a beautiful moment in history even occurred is surely inspiration to us all in the pursuit of world peace.

©  Ned Young

 

 

[1] Deardren, L (2014), Christmas Day truce 1914: Letter from trenches shows football match through soldier's eyes for first time, Independant, [online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/christmas-truce-of-1914-letter-from-trenches-shows-football-match-through-soldiers-eyes-9942929.html [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[2] Ibid.
[3] Baime, A and Janssen, V (2018), What Happened When WWI Paused for Christmas, [online] HISTORY, Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/christmas-truce-1914-world-war-i-soldier-accounts [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[4] Moss, S (2014), Truce in the trenches was real, but football tales are a shot in the dark, The Guardian, [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/16/truce-trenches-football-tales-shot-in-dark [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[5] Ibid.
[6] Sharwood, A (2014), The truth behind the Christmas Truce, [online] NewsComAu, Available at: https://www.news.com.au/national/the-wwi-christmas-truce-what-really-happened/news-story/dcce417d43e678f624a1d81a212e12e5 [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[7] Ibid.
[8] Warfare History Network (2019), The Christmas Truce of 1914: Fact and Fiction - Warfare History Network, [online] Available at: https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2018/12/09/the-christmas-truce-of-1914-fact-and-fiction/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[9] Sharwood, A (2014), The truth behind the Christmas Truce, [online] NewsComAu, Available at: https://www.news.com.au/national/the-wwi-christmas-truce-what-really-happened/news-story/dcce417d43e678f624a1d81a212e12e5 [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[10] Ibid.
[11] Baime, A and Janssen, V (2018), What Happened When WWI Paused for Christmas, [online] HISTORY, Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/christmas-truce-1914-world-war-i-soldier-accounts [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[12] By Agency (2014), Christmas truce of 1914 was broken when German snipers killed two British soldiers, The Telegraph, [online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/11307513/Christmas-truce-of-1914-was-broken-when-German-snipers-killed-two-British-soldiers.html [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Warfare History Network (2019), The Christmas Truce of 1914: Fact and Fiction - Warfare History Network, [online] Available at: https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2018/12/09/the-christmas-truce-of-1914-fact-and-fiction/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[20] Crocker, T (2015), The Myth of the Christmas Truce Soccer Match, The New Republic. [online] Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/126570/myth-christmas-truce-soccer-match [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[21] Sharwood, A (2014), The truth behind the Christmas Truce, [online] NewsComAu, Available at: https://www.news.com.au/national/the-wwi-christmas-truce-what-really-happened/news-story/dcce417d43e678f624a1d81a212e12e5 [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[22] Crocker, T (2015), The Myth of the Christmas Truce Soccer Match, The New Republic. [online] Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/126570/myth-christmas-truce-soccer-match [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[23] Moss, S (2014), Truce in the trenches was real, but football tales are a shot in the dark, The Guardian, [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/16/truce-trenches-football-tales-shot-in-dark [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.