The Christmas Truce has become an enduring image of the triumph of man's spirit over adversity. What really happened in no man's land between British and German infantry in December 1914, and who was there?
This page is a very short summary. For full details, please consider buying my book, "The Truce", published in 2014:
You can also help funds the costs of running the Long, Long Trail by buying a copy. It is receiving great reviews and will make for a terrific Christmas present or addition to your Great War library.
Once the fighting of the First Battle of Ypres died down in November 1914, British units that had been holding the Ypres Salient were relieved by French ones. By December, the BEF had moved and was now holding a continuous sector of the Western Front from a little south of St Eloi, round past Armentières to Neuve Chapelle, past Festubert and to the La Bassée Canal at Givenchy.
The British force in France now consisted of the shattered units of the regular army, most of which had been all but destroyed at Ypres and which were in the process of being rebuilt by receiving new drafts, with the welcome addition of two Divisions making up the Indian Corps and some units of the Territorial Force.
The static and dull nature of trench warfare and the close proximity of the enemy (which meant that they could be heard, and their breakfast cooking smelled, although rarely seen) caused many men to be curious about the men they were facing. They were certainly facing the same conditions of wet and cold, and in a strange way a mutual respect developed.
There were occasional shouted conversations between trenches, and the odd instance of exchange of goods, although to be too adventurous was foolhardy for men were continually lost to sniper fire.
Under strong French pressure to take the initiative, the army was ordered into a series of small piecemeal attacks that proved to be very costly. Cut down by rifle and machine gun fire and unable to enter enemy trenches, the attacking units left many casualties lying in no man's land and on the enemy barbed wire defences.
|5 December 1914|
|II Corps HQ [General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien] issued an instruction to commanders of all Divisions: "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...officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises...the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy...such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks...the Corps Commander therefore directs Divisional Commanders to impress on subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit... friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited"|
|The early weeks of December 1914|
|Tremendous volumes of mail and gifts for the troops were sent from homes in the United Kingdom and Germany. King George V sent a Christmas card to every soldier, sailor and nurse; the Princess Mary fund despatched a gift box to every serving soldier.|
|14 December 1914|
|An attack of 8th Brigade at Wytschaete on 14 December 1914 fails with heavy casualties.|
|18 December 1914|
|An attack by 22nd Brigade [2nd Queen's and 2nd Royal Warwickshire] on the Well Farm position at La Boutillerie fails with heavy casualties. A further effort [by 20th Brigade; 2nd Scots Guards and 2nd Border] later in the day also fails.|
|19 December 1914|
|An attack by 11th Brigade [1st Somerset Light Infantry, 1st Hampshire and 1st Rifle Brigade] on the "German Birdcage" east of Ploegsteert Wood fails with heavy casualties, many of which are caused by British heavy artillery firing short of target.|
|20 December 1914|
|Local truce on the front of 22nd Brigade; Germans begin by taking in British wounded from no man's land. There is some contact: according to Lt G. Heinekey of 2nd Queen's, it lasted all morning. Lt Henry Bower, 1st South Staffordshire and at least one soldier of the 2nd Queen's were killed by rifle fire from neighbouring units while assisting with the wounded. A similar activity took place on the front of 20th Brigade.|
|23 December 1914|
|A German soldier, Karl Aldag, reports that both sides had been heard singing hymns in the trenches. German troops coming into the lines bring Christmas trees. Some men begin to place them on the parapets of the fire trenches. Local truce on the front of 23rd Brigade.|
|24 December 1914, Christmas Eve|
|The weather changes to a hard frost. This makes trench conditions a little more bearable. 98 British soldiers die on this day, many are victims of sniper fire. A German aeroplane drops a bomb on Dover: the first air raid in British history. During the afternoon and early evening, British infantry are astonished to see many Christmas trees with candles and paper lanterns, on enemy parapets. There is much singing of carols, hymns and popular songs, and a gradual exchange of communication and even meetings in some areas. Many of these meetings are to arrange collection of bodies. In other places, firing continues. Battalion officers are uncertain how to react; in general they maintain precautions. The night brings a clear, still air with a hard frost.|
|Units behind the lines attend church services and have in most cases arranged Christmas dinners which are taken in barns and shattered buildings. In the front lines, the fraternisation of Christmas Eve is continued throughout the day; not all units know about it, and it is not universal but is widespread over at least half of the British front. Many bodies that have been lying out in no man's land are buried, some in joint burials. Many men record the strange and wonderful events; may men exchange tokens or addresses with German soldiers, many of whom speak English. 81 British soldiers die on this day; a few die in areas that are otherwise peaceful and with fraternisation going on, victims of alert snipers. In other areas, there is considerable activity: 2nd Grenadier Guards suffer losses in a day of heavy fighting. As night fell, things grew quiet as men fell back to their trenches to take whatever Christmas meal that had been provided for them.|
|26 December 1914, Boxing Day|
|Some snow. In some areas, the friendly spirit was resumed. Gradually however, officers and men on both sides began to resume normal trench caution. The atmosphere in general remained relaxed as Brigade and Battalion officers took a pragmatic view of events. The chance was taken to carry out work that would otherwise have been hazardous. By now, however, news of the truce was reaching higher commands. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien requested particulars of those units and officers who took part, with a view to disciplinary action. In the event, no action was taken against any unit or officer. 62 British soldiers die on this day.|
|27-31 December 1914|
|The weather turns wet again, with rain, sleet and storms. There were instances of men disappearing in the flooded trenches. Yet in some areas the friendly mood remained for several days and there was almost no firing, although open fraternisation gradually died away. On New Years Eve, there was a certain amount of singing and exchange of messages, but no truce as such.|
|5th Division on Wulverghem - Messines road and in the River Douve valley|
|14th Brigade||1st Devonshire|
|1st East Surrey|
|15th Brigade||1/6th Cheshire|
|4th Division in front of Ploegsteert Wood|
|10th Brigade||1st Royal Warwickshire|
|2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers|
|2nd Seaforth Highlanders|
|1st Royal Irish Fusiliers|
|11th Brigade||1st Hampshire|
|1st Rifle Brigade|
|1st East Lancashire|
|1/5th London (London Rifle Brigade)|
|12th Brigade||2nd Lancashire Fusiliers|
|XXXIII Bde RFA||135 Battery RFA|
|31 Heavy Battery RGA|
|6th Division at Frelinghien and Houplines|
|16th Brigade||1st Leicestershire|
|1st Buffs (East Kent)|
|17th Brigade||2nd Leinster|
|3rd Rifle Brigade|
|1/16th London (Queen's Westminster Rifles)|
|1st North Staffordshire|
|19th Brigade||2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers|
|2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders|
|1/5th Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)|
|XXXVIII Bde RFA||24 Battery RFA|
|XIII (H) Bde RFA||87 Battery RFA|
|7th Division at Bois Grenier, La Boutillerie and on the Fromelles road|
|20th Brigade||2nd Border|
|2nd Gordon Highlanders|
|1/6th Gordon Highlanders|
|2nd Scots Guards|
|21st Brigade||2nd Wiltshire|
|22nd Brigade||2nd Queen's (Royal West Surrey)|
|1/8th Royal Scots|
|XXIII Bde RFA||104 Battery RFA|
|XIV Bde RFA||F and T Batteries RHA|
|III Heavy Bde RGA||111 and 112 Batteries RGA|
|A and B Squadrons, the Northumberland Hussars|
|8th Division at Picantin, Fauquissart and Neuve Chapelle|
|23rd Brigade||2nd Devonshire|
|2nd Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)|
|24th Brigade||2nd East Lancashire|
|25th Brigade||1/13th London (Kensington)|
|1st Royal Irish Rifles > War diary from Christmas 1914|
|XLV Bde RFA||5 Battery RFA|
|2 Field Company, the Royal Engineers|
|Meerut Division at Richebourg l'Avoué|
|Gharwal Brigade||1/39 Gharwal Rifles|
|2/39 Gharwal Rifles|
Note: those units that were under command of the Divisions and Brigades shown but do not appear in the table did not take part in fraternisation, often because they were in billets and out of the front line at the time. The list has been compiled by reference to war diaries, soldiers letters, reports, etc.
|6th Bavarian Reserve Division, facing Kemmel|
|12th Bavarian Reserve Brigade||17th Bavarian Reserve Regiment|
|40th Division, facing Wulverghem and Ploegsteert Wood and at Frelinghien|
|48th Brigade||10th Infantry Regiment|
|88th Brigade||104th Infantry Regiment|
|6th Jaeger Battalion|
|89th Brigade||133rd Infantry Regiment Saxon|
|134th Infantry Regiment|
|24th Division, on the Armentieres-Lille railway|
|47th Brigade||179th Infantry Regiment|
|48th Brigade||107th Infantry Regiment|
|13th Division, at Fromelles and on Rue des Bois Blancs|
|25th Brigade||158th Infantry Regiment|
|13th Infantry Regiment|
|11th Jaeger Battalion|
|26th Brigade||55th Infantry Regiment|
|15th Infantry Regiment|
|14th Division, at Aubers and Festubert|
|27th Brigade||16th Infantry Regiment (3rd Westphalian)|
The Pope calls for peace at Christmas
In early December 1914 Pope Benedict XV began an initiative, requesting that the nations "cease the clang of arms while Christendom celebrates the Feast of the World's Redemption". Germany said it would do so as long as the other nations did; they did not, and the Pope's effort faltered. It is doubtful whether it had any meaningful impact on what eventually happened.
Football in no man's land
Football seems to have become the centre-peice of the truce. It is almost impossible to discuss the subject without football coming up, yet in reality it was a very minor element in what went on. No British or German official account (war diaries, regimental histories etc) mentions it. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from men's letters, newspaper articles and so on, but no photographs or hard documentary evidence of football being played. In only very few areas are there even instances of two men of the same unit talking about football, and in no confirmed case is there any mention by a German and British soldier who were in the same sector of the front line at the same time. The most convincing evidence comes from the area of the British 5th Division near Messines, with a man of the 1st Norfolk Regiment and more than one from a nearby company of the 1/6th Cheshires mentioning that men had kicked a ball, but even this would barely stand up in court. No mention from a German soldier in the same sector has yet been found. Elsewhere there is a possibility of something happening that involved the British units in the area of Frelinghien. What seems increasingly clear is that football did not take place in the Ploegsteert - St Yvon area, which is the one spot many people have come to think it did! In my book I also expose the falsified report by one British officer who said he had taken part.
18 December 1914: Major (Temp. Lt-Col) Robert Brewis, 2nd Royal Warwickshire. Killed during attack at La Boutillerie. Buried in Sailly-sur-la-Lys Churchyard. A veteran of the Sudan.
23 December 1914: Lt-Col Henry Lempriere DSO, 7th Dragoon Guards. Has no known grave but is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Le Touret.
Lt-Col Reginald Alexander, 3rd Rifle
Brigade. Died of wounds; buried in Bailleul Communal
Tip: did my soldier take part in the Christmas Truce? For a man to have been there, he should have arrived in France by say 18 December 1914 at the latest. You can find this from his medal index card. He will have a 1914 or 1914-15 Star and an appropriate date of entry to theatre. He will also have served with one of the units shown on this page.
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