11th December, Christmas Truce
This image commemorates that extraordinary moment of Christmas 1914, at the start of World War I, when men from both sides come together in an act of defiance and goodwill. Although there was no official truce, about 100,000 British and German troops were involved in an unofficial cessation of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The first truce began on Christmas Eve when German Troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Flanders in modern-day Belgium.
The Germans placed candles on their trenches and upon Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own, and the two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon afterwards, there were excursions across the “No Man’s Land” where small gifts were exchanged, food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent that night and the truce also allowed a breathing spell in which recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines. Joint services of burial were held. The fraternisation was not, however, without its risks – some soldiers were shot by opposing forces. In some sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, but it continued until New Year’s Day in others.
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, Commander of the British II Corps, was irate when he heard what was happening and issued strict orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. In the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to try to ensure that there were no further lulls in combat. Troops were also rotated through various sectors of the front to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy. However, deliberate dampening of hostilities occurred – for example, artillery was fired at precise points, at precise times, to avoid enemy casualties by both sides.
On Christmas Day, after a night of carol singing, a private with the Welsh Fusiliers recalled that feelings of goodwill had grown so much that at dawn Bavarian and British soldiers clambered spontaneously out of their trenches. A football was produced from somewhere – though none could recall from where. “It wasn’t a game as such, more a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been fifty on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably half an hour.”
A wonderful moment of hope and peace in the midst of the conflict that was, at that time, the costliest of life in human history.
Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Men!
Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer