The Christmas Truce 1914

Cognac bottle battlefield map
The New Year Truce Cognac bottle

The Christmas Truce was not a universal activity along the Western Front and this was clearly illustrated by the very different experiences of the 1st Battalion and the 2nd Battalion The Royal Irish Rifles on the 24 and 25 December 1914. Therein lies a clue to similar events both before and after the much publicised truce. The truce was not a single spontaneous event; the empty (miniature) cognac bottle in the illustration is evidence of an attitude that also manifested itself in the New Year truce experienced by the Royal Irish Fusiliers at Ploegsteert, Belgium. Did the men on the front really need a festive date to trigger such activities or were the truces evidence of a lasissez-faire attitude?

During the autumn of 1914 there had been a universal optimism that the war would be over by Christmas. That calendar expectation was never realised and the exchanges with German officers and soldiers during the Christmas Day Truce confirmed that even German optimism continued to nourish their belief that the war would be over in months - it would follow the inevitable defeat of the Russians! When the 'Race to the Sea' ended in November 1914, and the Germans had failed to 'annihilate' the Allies, the opposing armies became increasingly entrenched and soon settled into static trench warfare. The war of attrition would replace the war of annihilation but it would be 1915 before the evolution of 'offensive' trench warfare, depth positions, field fortifications, mining, the employment of aircraft as spotters for artillery, the creeping barrage, mines and of course - toxic gas as a weapon of war.

An acceptance of one's lot at trench level and an attitude of 'Live and Let Live' began to develop in the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force's regular infantry battalions. What did men do when faced by an immovable object - the trenches opposite? The smell of bacon wafting over the line around breakfast in the early morning became a signal for the mutual accommodation of one of their few comforts - a hot meal. There were examples of ration 'details' carrying their 'hayboxes' (hot-meal containers) above the parapets in full view of the other side. And there was mutual musical entertainment, both instrumental and vocal, with the singing of 'Stille Nacht' versus 'Silent Night' being the most poignant and publicised. Somewhat different and perhaps more bizarre was the mutual entertainment of the 'Bisley' competitions. A German would climb out of his trench, prop a tin can on a stick and then a British soldier would do the same. The winner was the first to knock down the opposition's can with a well aimed round from his rifle.

Such mutual accommodation went further; there were reports of temporary marker flags raised by one side as a signal to the snipers opposite not to fire until the markers were removed. These mutual arrangements were passed on by one battalion to another during relief, with the in-place officers and NCOs referring to the local routine as one of 'let sleeping dogs lie' or 'rest and let rest'. The casualty statistics given for a local battalion area were an average from overall losses and often a battalion sector's experience did not mirror the official statistics - many casualties were in single figures or even nil and others much higher. Offensive activity was often dictated by the nature of the opposing German regiment and whereas the Saxons had a reputation for being the least offensive, the aggressive Prussians were the opposite. This led to certain sectors gaining the reputation 'cushy', contrasting with sectors 'whose quality took the form of a permanent manifestation of evil'.

Lieutenant General H L Smith-Dorrien, Commander II Corps, had already issued a warning at the beginning of December:

It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of troops exists. 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 reaction at GHQ, Army and Corps level was to counter the perceived malaise of 'Live and Let Live' by attempting to instil a mind-set of 'Kill or be Killed' and commanders' directives were duly issued. Some senior staff wished to pursue disciplinary action against commanders of units involved in the truce, but none were during 1914. Perhaps there was no will to do so because of messages such as the following sent by Brigade Headquarters to the 1st Battalion:

'8 Division message begins – So long as Germans do not snipe, there should be no sniping from our lines today but greatest vigilance must be maintained as Germans are not to be trusted. Our guns will not be firing today unless asked to do so by Infantry or unless German guns fire.'

It might appear that a mutual understanding had indeed been exercised at Headquarters 8th Division on Christmas Day 1914 as, strangely, the German artillery opposite the 1st Battalion fell silent. However, there was 'war as usual' in other far from 'cushy' sectors.