11 December 1914 – December Of The Damned

The unit war diary of the 2nd Essex Regiment records that at about 10 AM today, “Officers & men of A & D co meet Germans ½ way between the trenches — Germans said they were fed up — Regt occupying trenches 181st Regt 19th Saxon Corps — trenches appeared to be held in about same strength as ours & in same state.” Later, Private H. Scrutton writes about this meeting at the middle of no man’s land in a letter home which is published by the Norfolk Chronicle on New Year’s Day.

As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them. We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:

From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer).

“Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer).


From German trenches: “Good morning.”

From our trench: “How are you?”

“All right.”

“Come over here, Fritz.”

“No. If I come I get shot.”

“No you won’t. Come on.”

“No fear.”

“Come and get some fags, Fritz.”

“No. You come half way and I meet you.”

“All right.”

One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fritz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange.

It is the latest example of fraternization breaking out in the cold, wet doldrums of trench warfare. Six days ago, the commanding general of Second Army issued a memorandum on the topic directing his division commanders to prevent these episodes from turning into a morale-killing breakdown of order and discipline. As related by Private Sutton, today’s exchange is not a pacifistic endeavor at all, but an attempt to identify the unit across the line and gather intelligence on their conditions. Both sides are deliberately opaque about their own operations and keenly interested in developing knowledge of the enemy’s order of battle: what unit is in that section of trenches? How many platoons hold that strong point? And so on.

During December, unit war diaries up and down the line report on similar meetings. Germans are supposedly as “fed up” with the horrid conditions and daily attrition of trench warfare as British soldiers are. Men of London and Ireland and Wales note the regional rivalries in their enemy’s army: Saxons and Bavarians dislike Prussians, who trust neither of the other two. These observations are reported widely in the British press as it prints many soldier narratives of the Christmas season of 1914.

Burial of the dead conducted during one of the 'Christmas Truces'

Burial of the dead conducted during one of the ‘Christmas Truces’

There are also practical considerations behind the ‘Christmas Truces.’ Pungent corpses in no man’s land demand to be recovered and buried, which is impossible to accomplish under fire. In many sections of the line, snipers on both sides will sometimes hold their fire while comrades leave the trenches to bring meals from the field kitchens in the rear. No one precisely negotiates these arrangements; they are simply allowed to happen, and then exploited.

These same snipers referee the Christmas Day truces, watching out for treachery by the other side. Far from the popular image of these December events as spontaneous breakouts of peace among men who, given a century of hindsight, would naturally take this moment to pry themselves out from the iron grip of sadistic overseers and declare a new age of democracy and freedom, the December meetings in no man’s land occur only with the tacit or explicit approval of superiors. Peace activists and poets make far too much of these events in celebration of nonviolence — which is fine for songs and stories, but remains an ahistorical understanding of the relative calm that broke out in the last month of 1914.

Of course, no headquarters can possibly acknowledge this activity at the time. To do so would defeat the purpose of having these local truces in the first place; the other side would naturally refuse reciprocation, or conceal information, or entrap their enemy. Intelligence always involves some dissonance between public policy and ground-level operations. The very act of spying must necessarily take place in secret, and at the moment both sides are reorganizing and rearming for a long war. Among the surprises being prepared right now is a massive chemical warfare effort, with one of the Kaiser’s most prominent apologists organizing the program.

French prisoners at a German work camp in 1914

French prisoners at a German work camp in 1914

The words ‘per diem’ currently dominate operational calculus in headquarters. German artillery crews are down to ten shells a day; British crews have just gotten back up to eight a day from six; Belgian and French gun crews are seeing the same shortages. The shell crisis is making it hard to attack or defend, so both sides occupy themselves with digging and use the lull of combat to store up against the new fighting of a new year.

With the dawn of 1915, both sides are installing barbed wire and obstacles in no man’s land as well as in between their frontal, secondary, and last-ditch lines of defense. Aside from shutting down infantry assaults, constant infiltration is a major impetus in both sides’ fortifications. There is no trust-building in these ‘Christmas truces;’ unit war diaries of the armies also record small raids in December. Prisoners, it seems, make even better sources than ‘new friends,’ and they can be made to construct defenses in the open so that the enemy will hold their fire. Both sides make this misuse of prisoners, leading to change in the international laws regarding prisoners of war.

Nor does the killing ever actually abate. Belgians are fighting off more German attacks on the Yser, a narrow river that has proven a remarkably-strong bulwark against the mighty Imperial Army; between now and Christmas, King Albert will take the offensive and reclaim Dixmude. Indian troops in the line do not celebrate Christmas, while the Germans across no man’s land are learning to fear and respect them. During this time of supposed peace, hundreds of men a day are killed, wounded, or made prisoner from all armies along the Western Front. Most of the men on either side of no man’s land today will be casualties by the end of the war; the ‘Christmas truces’ are not a blessing, for these men are the damned.

A German prisoner being interrogated in September. While there were abuses and neglect of POWs on all sides, actionable intelligence was produced without torture

A German prisoner being interrogated in September. While there were abuses and neglect of POWs on all sides, actionable intelligence was produced without torture throughout the war