During 2014 there have been many commemorations of the start of WW1. In fact it was the theme for the Wadworth Gala. As we approach Christmas this year we come to the anniversary of another remarkable event, the Christmas Truce.
There was no official truce for Christmas. In fact there was no ‘truce’ to speak of, but rather ‘truces’ – dozens of informal, spontaneous incidences all along the front. Some of them lasted hours, some days. Few of them were organised, and certainly none of them were endorsed by high command.
The rapprochement began on Christmas Eve, as the German soldiers decorated their trees. The campaign at home had been very successful and they had lots of them – enough to pitch them all along the parapet of their trenches. “The scene from my sentry post was hardly creditable” wrote a rifleman named Percy Jones. “The German trenches... were illuminated with hundreds of little lights.”
While British officers decided whether or not to shoot at the lights, a cry came up from the enemy trenches: “Englishmen, don’t shoot. You don’t shoot, we don’t shoot.” Then the carolling began.
Across no-man’s land came the sound of voices, Stille Nacht, Helige Nacht. The British lines listened, sometimes cheered. “Guten singing, Jerry” they shouted, and returned fire with carols of their own, with God Save the King, or one of the Army’s many bawdy parodies of popular hymns. Many carols are known in both German and English, and in some places trenches traded verses or sang together.
Inevitably, as a sense of goodwill developed over the course of the evening, individual soldiers began to venture out of their positions. Arms raised, holding out hats full of cigarettes or sweets as a gift, men cautiously approached. Souvenirs were exchanged, translators found, and where officers were involved, agreements reached for the following day.
On Christmas Day it is the football that has gone down in legend, but there was no organised match played in no-man’s land. Instead, there are numerous eye witness accounts of shambolic kickabouts. Hats and coats were thrown down for goals. Sometimes there was a ball, sometimes not. One game used an empty ration tin. In some cases the Germans watched the English play, and in a few instances the sides played each other.
The truce came to a scrappy end around midnight on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, petering out or formally concluded.
This had been a grassroots truce with no official sanction, and as word of it spread, direct orders were given to start firing again before anyone got any ideas. In some cases hostilities were only resumed with great reluctance.
So at Christmas we are going to remember this “grass roots truce” by making our carol service a “Silent Night” special with some film from the truce and some sketches as well as some traditional carols and readings. Sherry and mince pies afterwards.
We hope you can join us at this and other services during the Advent and Christmas period.