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Saturday, November 8, 2014

1914 Christmas Spirit Reaches WW II Trenches!

Mike Gray renowned military historian, shares a poignant picture of 1914 Christmas in the trenches, which leaves us wondering what if? We hope you will enjoy ths article as much as we do in Mike Gray's History Minute:


by Mike Gray 

While the events of that wartime Christmas of 1914, almost 100 years ago, have now passed into the realm of wartime myth the war in fact did take a holiday, and peace and goodwill towards men did prevail between the opposing combatants. Albeit for a short whileLet us look more closely.Even at this early stage in the First World War the Allied and German armies had already achieved a stalemate, and now sat in their trenches glaring at each other across the barbed wire and ruins that would be no-man's land. Positions they would occupy, with minor variations, for almost the next four years. Future advances and adjustments to this continuous line would be minor in the extreme, and would be achieved at the cost of a butcher's bill unimaginable in the history of human experience. Still, at this first Christmas of the War the soldiers of both sides had yet to attain that state of de-humanization that would engulf them all eventually into the chaos of total war, and thoughts of home, family and the traditions and meaning of Christmas were strongly felt, engendered by parcels and packages from family, civilians and governments back home.

German Troops Initiate Christmas Festivities 

Along some sectors of the front firing began to slacken spontaneously on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Soon, singing could be heard from the German trenches and in one section a band struck up. As darkness began to fall trees began to appear on top of the German trenches, some lit up with candles. British rifle fire toppled many trees back into the trenches, but the Germans stubbornly clambered out to set them upright again. More lighted candles and lanterns appeared along the trenches; huge fires were lit. German soldiers were by now out of their trenches and wandering freely about on their side of the wire.
British soldiers now began leaving their trenches too, and timid and tentative first contacts were made. Soon gifts of cigars, chocolates and cigarettes were exchanged. The numbers of men meeting in no-man's land steadily increased, officers included. Word of what was going on eventually reached the junior headquarters levels, and officers were dispatched to round up the errant well-wishers and return them to their respective trenches, but the singing of Christmas carols and other favourites continued on until early morning.

Rare Christmas Wartime Photos Taken

Christmas Day brought a return to the holiday amenities of the previous evening, with many more soldiers taking part. Caps, buckles, badges and scarves were exchanged. Names and addresses given, photographs of friends and family passed around. What seasonal gathering would be complete without pictures of course, and although personal cameras were forbidden by regulations, and a medium still in it's infancy, many photographs were taken and remain today as an unusual record of this incredible event.

image December 1914 World War II Oposing Forces Celebrate Christmas Together
1914 Rare Christmas War Photo

Joyful Christmas Festivities Bring Opposing Forces Together

A British soldier in a Rifle Regiment had his hair cut by a German who had been his barber in England. Tommies of the 6th Cheshires caught and roasted a pig, which they shared with their German counterparts. Beer and wines were exchanged, and sampled for impurities. Some Germans were treated to an impromptu bagpipe concert by a Scottish Regiment. There are many recorded instances of football (soccer) matches being played in no-man's land. Some took the opportunity to repair dugouts and strengthen their barbed wire, but as one British officer reported, both sides 'lent each other implements for re-enforcing each others wire entanglements'.

image December 25 1914 Oposing Forces sharing cigarettes
1914 War Photo -Camaraderie Across the Lines

HQ's Punish Christmas Fraternization

Sadly, it was too much of a good thing. News of what had been going on had now reached the staffs of the higher headquarters of both sides. Battalion, Brigade and Divisional Commanders were horrified upon learning what was transpiring on their respective fronts, and stern orders and directives were issued that all fraternization was to cease. Any peaceful overtures by the enemy were to be resisted, under the threat of dire and severe consequences.
Reluctantly and with little enthusiasm the soldiers returned to their trenches for the return of hostilities. Some units had made agreements to stretch the cease-fire for a further day, or more, but headquarters responded with further threats of retribution.
It is recorded that the truce was actually maintained in some sectors until the New Year, but for most sections of the line Boxing Day was 'business as usual'. However, and without headquarters knowledge, the return to hostilities was preceded by a pre-arranged signal to the other side, as had been agreed upon before-hand.Christmas

Ponderance - What If?

What If? One does wonder what might have happened had the soldiers been left to pursue the war in their own way.

Orders received by a Captain Hitchcock, December 1915:
'With the intention of showing the enemy that we have no intention of fraternizing with him, and also with a view to taking advantage of any slackness on his part over Christmas, a special programme will be carried out by the Artillery, Trench Mortars and Machine Guns.'
A snap-shot of the history of us.

For History Minute,

Mike Gray

About the Author:

image Omemee Ontario Historian Mike Gray
Mike Gray
Omemee Military Historian
Mike Gray, long-standing Omemee Legion member, is an active military history curator whose efforts have been recognized locally, provincially, nationally, and internationally. Mike enjoys ferreting out historic details,and bringing history to life. Mike says: 'I have been a lot of places, met some remarkable,wonderful, unusual, famous and not so famous people.Nothing surprises me anymore.' Have a history question? Leave a comment below, or ask Mike by email at mdgray AT xplornet DOT ca

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