The Christmas Truce
The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had fought bravely in slowing the German advance in August 1914 and saved the day at Ypres (19 October – 22 November). However, by December 1914 it had suffered around 90,000 casualties. The original force had been almost wiped out.
The survivors, and a continuous stream of reinforcements (largely Territorial and Indian soldiers), now held a line from just south of Ypres in Belgium, through Armentières and on to La Bassée in France. This was only a small fraction of the 400 miles of trenches that ran from the Channel to the Swiss border. The soldiers along this front faced a freezing winter in the trenches and Christmas away from their loved ones.
Around this time unofficial truces between British and German soldiers took place along parts of the BEF’s front. In the trenches on Christmas morning carols were sung and rations thrown across the opposing lines.
It was not long before the more adventurous soldiers started to venture into no-man’s land. Here they exchanged food, tobacco, cigarettes, drink, badges, buttons and caps. Games of football also broke out. The only result recorded was a 3-2 victory by the Germans, quoted in several soldiers’ letters.
As well as exchanging gifts, both sides saw the lull in fighting as a chance to find the bodies of their comrades and give them a decent burial. On some parts of the front hostilities were officially resumed early on Boxing Day. In other areas the ceasefire lasted for several days.
Although strict orders were issued against fraternisation by the high command of both sides, many junior officers tolerated the truce and allowed events to take their own course. They never doubted that eventually the fighting would resume in all its fury.
Indeed, for the rest of the war there was to be no major repeat of the 1914 truce. The event therefore acquired semi-mythical status and has since been celebrated as a rare glimmer of humanity in a brutal conflict.
By Dr Matt Thomas of the National Army Museum
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