A moment of compassion on a battlefield during the Christmas Truce of 1914

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It was 1914. The British Army and the German Army were involved in hand to hand combat near Ypres during Wold War I.  It was brutal. Troops on both side were killed or injured in huge numbers. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. Over 40 million military personnel and civilians perished in World War I.  In the month of December 1914, the thoughts of the soldiers went back to their loved ones as it was getting nearer to Christmas, the soldiers frequently sang Christmas Carols in the trenches. Sir Edward Hamilton Westrow Hulse, 7th Baronet and a British Army Officer with the Scots Guards wrote detailed accounts of life in the trenches during World War I. Describing what happened in December, Sir Edward wrote that he was organising a concert party on Christmas Day which would “give the enemy every conceivable form of song in harmony” in response to frequent choruses of  German soldiers singing Deutschland Uber Alles. 

Soldiers on both sides were celebrating the birth of a Saviour, Jesus Christ. What an irony that they were celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace and here they were at war fighting each other on the Western Front. There were ‘unofficial cessations’ of hostilities, particularly during Christmas. Both sides had Christmas trees in the trenches, lit candles and sang Carols.

Then came moments of unimaginable compassion – sadly they were only moments. Captain Robert Patrick Miles who was with the Royal Irish Rifles recalled that moment of compassion in a letter: ” Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternising in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night. “

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Writing about the German soldiers Captain Miles noted: “They are distinctly bored with the war. In fact, one of them wanted to know what on earth we were doing here fighting them.”

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Then came the football matches on Christmas Day. Football and Compassion on a field of war! Gerard deGroot of the Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom wrote: “What a sight; little groups of Germans and British extending along the length of our front,” wrote Corporal John Ferguson of the Seaforth Highlanders. “We were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill. Fraternisation led inevitably to football. Men who could not otherwise communicate shared a common language in the game. “After a short while somebody punted across a football,” one subaltern recalled. “The ball landed amongst the Germans and they immediately kicked it back at our men … it was a melêe. It wasn’t a question of 10-a-side, it was a question of 70 Germans against 50 Englishmen.” That scenario was repeated all along the line. The locations of these matches remain obscure, in part because few soldiers subsequently admitted taking part.

On January 1 1915, an anonymous major wrote to The Times that an English regiment “had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2”. That score echoes through the accounts. Yet since the stories originate from various parts of the front, this suggests either incredible consistency in the results, or a remarkable willingness to remember the event in exactly the same way. Equally possible, all recollections might relate to a single mythical encounter that never actually took place. In truth, it matters not if a match ending 3-2 actually occurred, since myths are often more powerful than facts. The “match” is universally celebrated, even by the English who might otherwise prefer to forget another defeat to the Germans. At least it did not end in penalties.

Playing football rudely exposed the contrived nature of wartime animosity. For that reason, it was quickly quashed. Gustav Riebensahm, an officer in the 2nd Westphalian regiment, immediately complained to his commanders that “the whole thing has become ridiculous and must be stopped”. Near Ypres, a corporal named Adolf Hitler voiced the view that fraternisation “should not be allowed”. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien echoed that sentiment, reminding his subordinate commanders that “Friendly intercourse with the enemy … [is] absolutely prohibited.” An even sterner directive was issued by the 1st Army commander, General Douglas Haig, who warned that soldiers caught fraternising could face a firing squad.

In truth, there was never any danger that goodwill would endure. Everyone accepted that the moment of compassion was just that – a moment. At 8:30 on Boxing Day morning, Stockwell fired three shots in the air, then hoisted a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it. The German captain appeared on the parapet, bowed and fired two shots in reply. “The War was on again,” wrote Stockwell. The guns resumed their murderous cacophony; slaughter resumed. The footballs were put away, ” said Gerard deGroot.

It was a sad moment of humanity and compassion on a battlefield. A brief lull in the fighting and they then resumed hostilities after Boxing Day. Many who met on the field of war to exchange gifts and play football, perished afterwards in a hail of bullets and gunfire.

Ivan Corea

Sainsburys actually produced a film for Christmas recalling the story of the Christmas Truce of December 2014 and the football match between the British and German armies.

Here are some amazing photographs from 1914 of British and German solders meeting together during the Christmas Truce.

 

Photographs courtesy of Wikipedia and Pixaby

Excerpt from an article by Gerard deGroot in the Telegraph newspaper in London titled: ‘The Truth about the Christmas Day Match.” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/11310353/The-truth-about-the-Christmas-Day-football-match.html

Youtube clips from the Sainsbury’s advertisement on the Christmas Truce and the football match and genuine photographs from 1914 from Yesterday Today.