Dawn finds the Western Front at war, for there have been exchanges of fire all night. Private Percy Huggins is manning a forward listening post just twenty yards from the German front line when he is shot in the head by a sniper. Tom Gregory, his platoon sergeant, personally assumes his dead subordinate’s duties. Scanning in the early light of a rare clear day, he spots the sniper and takes him out with a single shot. While aiming at a second sniper, Sergeant Gregory is killed with his finger on the trigger, just a heartbeat slower than his killer.
Huggins and Gregory are two of the 149 soldiers of the British Empire who will die today. But their deaths are elided from popular views of Christmas 1914, for in our grief at the massive death toll of the Great War we prefer to focus on the myths that make us feel better about it. In fact, French and Belgian units prove much less willing to hold their fire today against the enemy occupying their land, and committing regular atrocities against their people, than the British troops who are far from home. British soldiers will find Belgian and French civilians spitting at them for having treated with the enemy at all; within the British sector, Indian troops refuse to participate, and many units keep up a steady rate of fire all day. The war does not take a holiday so much as it slacks off — and even the slacking is uneven.
Most of our poets and historians have proven very unhelpful to our understanding of these events by trying to magnify and shoehorn a few local, limited truces into much larger, more ambitious themes about politics and peace. When today’s writers say with the best of intentions that men ‘laid down their arms’ to meet each other, it is a fundamental mischaracterization of what was in fact an extremely tense situation. Men meeting to parley in no man’s land will of course not carry their weapons with them, but each local encounter never consists of more than a few soldiers from each side at one time. The notion that a century ago, everyone set aside the war together, all at once, to have a daylong Christmas party is just ahistorical nonsense.
Rather than a spontaneous, mass event, in almost all sectors where some sort of truce takes hold only a few men at a time are allowed to participate in them, and they do so under the watchful eyes of snipers. In fact, during the late afternoon an accidental gunshot in the British lines causes a German rifleman to reflexively shoot Private Walter Smith of the 5th Cameronians dead; he is just one of eight British soldiers known to have been killed during these ‘truces.’ There is no ‘laying down of arms.’ The enemy is generally not allowed to see too much of one’s own trenches, and visits are limited in scope. Peace is not breaking out.
Total war makes us all uncomfortable, as it should. A majority of us would rather dwell on the endearing Edwardian image of a soccer ball being kicked about no man’s land than confront the stark realities of Christmas 1914, when German airplanes and cruisers were just beginning to raid the English coastline, stirring public outrage in Britain. We do not want to regard this story in the context of plans being laid for mass death in 1915: gas attacks, the Second Battle of Ypres, and the fiasco at Gallipoli are all coming in the next 90 days. In that sense, today’s events are not a pacifist miracle, but a macabre perversity — an exercise in cognitive dissonance that later generations have imbued with false light.
Consider the operational setting. Limited allied attacks have been underway for several days along the curving, irregular line from Diksmuide to Givenchy to Verdun — favorable ground for Joseph Joffre’s first systematic offensive adaptations to the unwelcome new reality of trench warfare. The first week of what will come to be known as the First Battle of Champagne brought an end to a brief lull in fighting that had occurred due to exhaustion and a shortage of shells. Allied generals were already aware of fraternization episodes breaking out at the front lines during that time, and in fact military intelligence encouraged some of those episodes to glean knowledge of the enemy’s order of battle.
General Smith-Dorrien specifically warned his division commanders not to let these events turn into ‘live and let live‘ stagnation in the first week of December, but both sides have fallen into certain mutual habits anyway. For example, everyone will use harassing fire all night to keep their enemy alert, but then both sides will hold fire while everyone eats breakfast. It has been the script for every day on the Western Front, not just today. As German troops begin singing Christmas carols and mounting small Christmas trees on the parapets of their trenches this morning instead of returning fire, shouting for their enemies to join them in celebrating the holiday, there is recent context for their calls to fraternize. But what of the chains of command?
First, let us note that so many near-simultaneous attempts to draw the allies into a truce across such a long front speaks to central planning. If the entire German line had attacked on this day, we would immediately acknowledge the role of the Kaiser’s General Staff without argument. That the Kaiser has instead provided every unit in the field, even submarine crews, with a small Christmas tree somehow does not trigger the same presumption. Some contemporaries had wondered if a ‘peace of God’ might not break out on the holiday, such was its cultural power; so what are we to make of a broad German effort to inspire humanizing fraternization, given that Germans had by now developed such a rough and warlike reputation in the world?
Shouldn’t we at least regard the possibility that an unofficial ‘charm offensive’ on the Western Front has been twisted into the ‘peace of God‘ that so many of us would love to believe in?
Sir John French is celebrating Christmas himself today, unaware yet of matters unfolding in no man’s land. Noting the Christmas truces in his autobiography, he reckons that “there was a little feasting” in no man’s land on Christmas Day, but his contemporary letters say nothing about it. French discourages future fraternization through relentless pressure on his subordinate senior officers. Commanding the British Army in Europe from many miles behind the longest front line the world has ever seen, he depends on colonels and captains to maintain discipline in the ranks; they are the ones most responsible for allowing the fraternization, so they are the ones who feel his wrath. Individual soldiers who participate are not identified from photos or letters for punishment, nor are there any reprisals. Contrary to the myths propagated by pacifists, there is no mass desertion or revolt after Christmas by men who are suddenly afraid to kill one another.
Perhaps fearing embarrassment, Germany largely suppresses news of the truces at home. The topic remains taboo in France even today. What we now know of the ‘Christmas truces’ has mainly been transmitted to us through soldiers’ letters that were published in the British press, where they were controversial even at the time, but were never censored. With all the veterans now long dead, we have songs and haloed commemorative essays to represent the best of our wishful thinking. We do not recall the deaths of Private Huggins, Sergeant Gregory, or Private Smith, nor do we recognize that most of the men meeting in no man’s land today will not survive the war.
During 1915, no man’s land will become inhospitable to life — a corpse-choked mess of barbed wire, shell craters, and obstacles that is the worst possible environment to hold a football match — yet we still prefer to believe that the sporting spirit overcame hatred and horror for the afternoon of a savior’s birthday. Such notions are not a compliment to the men who went to war in 1914, but a way of repressing the truth of the Great War from our own memories.