War

There Was More Than One Christmas Truce

Officers tried to stop the Christmas Truce of 1914 from recurring, but they didn't always succeed.

|

Illustrated London News

In the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, memorialized in film and song, informal ceasefires were declared along the Western Front of World War I. British, French, and German soldiers met in No Man's Land, where they traded gifts, sang carols, played soccer, and buried their dead. It is remembered fondly today as a rare moment of humane behavior in one of the worst wars in European history.

But maybe it wasn't so rare after all. The Scotsman reports:

[H]istorian Thomas Weber, of the University of Aberdeen, has uncovered evidence that festive meetings continued throughout the war, with a significant number in 1916 despite the huge casualties suffered in the Battle of the Somme.

Professor Weber has been given access to a large number of family memories of the war that show that, despite officers recording in official documents that no such friendly exchanges took place, the situation on the front lines was very different.

Weber wrote about some of these truces in his 2010 book Hitler's First War. In the trenches near Fromelles in 1915, he reports, the authorities actively attempted to prevent a rerun of the previous Christmas by ordering "massive machine-gun fire," among other measures. Nonetheless, small-scale acts of fraternization took place. If they weren't as widespread as in 1914, Weber argues, that wasn't because the men were less willing; it's because the higher-ups were working harder to stop them.

They kept trying to stop them as the war dragged on, but sometimes peace broke out anyway. The Scotsman story mentions "a truce between German and Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge in 1916":

The official version of events recorded by the Canadian Regiment, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, stated that the Germans tried to interact but that no one responded to it.

But the historian found that a letter written by Ronald MacKinnon, the son of a Scot from Levenseat, near Fauldhouse in West Lothian, tells a rather different story…."We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was 'tray bon' which means very good."

In Hitler's First War, Weber notes that when the Canadian soldiers arrived at Vimy Ridge in October, some Germans had greeted the newcomers by holding up a sign that said "Welcome Canadians." (Another sign said: "Cut out your damned artillery. We, too, were at the Somme.") As December 25 approached, the authorities again tried to prevent a spontaneous holiday peace. Some officers even cancelled their men's Christmas rum ration, fearing that it would only encourage fraternization—but they didn't coordinate this as well as they could have, because some other officers decided to double their men's rum. In any event, "All attempts to prevent a truce had been futile. The men of the Princess Pats embarked on a truce with their German opponents, conversing with the help of a Canadian soldier who spoke German."

Bonus reading: I first learned about the 1914 Christmas Truce in Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation, which covers it in a great chapter about the many ways "nonaggression between the troops emerged spontaneously in many places along the front." The chapter opens with a wonderfully frustrated quote from a British staff officer visiting the trenches—and not at Christmastime. He was

astonished to observe German soldiers walking about within rifle range behind their own line. Our men appeared to take no notice. I privately made up my mind to do away with that sort of thing when we took over; such things should not be allowed. These people evidently did not know there was a war on. Both sides apparently believed in the policy of "live and let live."

Advertisement

NEXT: The Ghost of Christmas Future Imperfect + seafood

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Live and let live is a great policy – that works great when mutually implemented, but only works when both sides adhere to it.

    1. tit vs tat strategy.

      1. Time for some game theory.

        1. Well, as I was trying to imply “Live and let live” doesn’t work as a prolong strategy when the other party or parties involved are working more aggressive, confrontational strategies and not employing a similar tactic to get to an optimum. Or when their goal is not so much aligned in terms of an “optimum” and they regard inflicting the most harm upon you as possible to be more of a ‘win’ than improving their own situation.

          1. I knew what you were getting at; I was just making an allusion.

            (You will probably enjoy the discussion in Axelrod, if you haven’t read it already.)

            1. You will probably enjoy the discussion

              Thanks for the link, but UCS doesn’t enjoy very much, so it’s doubtful he will enjoy reading Tweets.

              1. I meant I thought he’d enjoy the chapter in Axelrod’s book. That crazy tweet thread is an, er, acquired taste.

                1. Look, Jesse. If it’s not Columbo or Warhammer, UCS doesn’t care for it. This is established Hit’n’Run canon.

            2. Hah, I enjoy the suggestion that, “Guys, it’s time for some game theory” as a new universal New Yorker caption.

      2. Tit wins every time!

  2. I heard the bells on Christmas Day
    Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    And thought how, as the day had come,
    The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Till ringing, singing on its way,
    The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Then from each black, accursed mouth
    The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    It was as if an earthquake rent
    The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    And in despair I bowed my head;
    “There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

    1. Mark Twain’s war prayer:

      “Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle ? be Thou near them! With them ? in spirit ? we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it ?

      For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

      We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

      1. Was there ever a greater master of satire? I think not.

        1. I can only read that in a Monty Python voice.

    2. Christmas 1914 In No Man’s Land

      None of this is really news. Back in blighty, just about everyone of my age had surviving male relatives who served in the trenches who remembered the orders from the officers to ‘ensure’ they didn’t fraternize.

  3. astonished to observe German soldiers walking about within rifle range behind their own line. Our men appeared to take no notice. I privately made up my mind to do away with that sort of thing when we took over; such things should not be allowed. These people evidently did not know there was a war on. Both sides apparently believed in the policy of “live and let live.”

    And then they happily went on trying to kill each other in the new year.
    It was a different time, and they could still look upon the war as an activity that is not total and all-consuming. They had, what, 200 years of “chivalrous enemy” myth to look upon. The idea that these truces would undermine the war was, as usual, Commie fault – they thought workers would unite and overthrow their rules. Their rulers were pants-shitting over the possibility. In the end, for most, patriotism overrode class solidarity.
    Even French army at its nadir in 1917 never refused to fight. Some units just refused to go into further offensive actions after the previous set proved to be as bloody and ill-handled as 1914 opening.

  4. There’s actually also a film dedicated entirely to the event:

    Joyeux Noel

    and an opera based on the movie, which Michigan Opera Theater produced this past November:

    http://www.michiganopera.org/opera/silent-night/

    I saw the opera and it’s a really good modern opera. Both movie and opera are quite powerful, as you might imagine.

    1. Do you know who else went to the opera?

      1. Queen?

      2. H?kon Wium Lie?

  5. Can’t the cosmos lose their cocktail party cards for saying Christmas instead of Winter Holiday?

    1. It’s OK in historical context, especially if highlighting the warmongering evil of White European Christians.

      1. Well Americans do have a history of killing Germans on Christmas.

        1. Didn’t Washington also kill some Hessians on Christmas day?

      2. Sigh, because I may end up looking like Canadian version of Rush Limbaugh, the above was exaggeration for sarcastic effect, in the context “cosmo” pokes.
        Which are sometimes merited, but often not.

        1. I raise my Appletini to you, good sir.

          1. Appletini? You’re out of the club! Turn in your monocle, your orphans shall be divided among the more deserving!

            1. Meaning first-come, first served, you get to keep what you can keep.

              1. Trying to decide if a few more orphans are worth the risk of being blown up with a rocket launcher, which I’m told all libertarians carry on them.

                1. Only the poor ones, the successful have nukes. If I can’t have those orphans, no one can!

        2. like Canadian version of Rush Limbaugh

          Who the hell is the Canadian version of Rush Limbaugh anyway? Gavin?

          1. Don’t insult Gavin like that!

            1. Ok fine, he’s the Montreal version of Rush Limbaugh.

          2. Ezra Klein?

            Remember, Canadian version would of course be better.

            1. Why did I say Klein?

              Ezra Levant. Damn I need another coffee.

            2. Levant is more like our older version of Ben Shapiro; strongly pro-Israel, good at attacking anti-free speech activists, mostly traditional conservative, bit of a cunt personality-wise though.

              1. mostly traditional conservative, bit of a cunt personality-wise though.

                What’s his handle on Hit & Run?

                1. I’d say Cytotoxic but Levant isn’t that much of a cunt.

            3. The better question is who is American Mark Steyn? (Yes I know he lives in the United States but screw you he’s ours)

              1. Nobody else does the ‘demography bomb’ schtick quite like Steyn.

              2. They can’t make someone like Steyn because they lack the British journalistic tradition. They have to import from England.

  6. Both sides apparently believed in the policy of “live and let live.”

    ‘Live and let live’ occurred all along the front lines, but it was sporadic and not every place along the lines engaged in it.

    When officers would crack down on the practice, sometimes ordering an artillery barrage, a rock would be thrown into the enemy trench with a note wrapped around it, warning of the impending barrage and what time it would occur.

    It’s a truly fascinating example of what happens when you have two relatively similar cultures at war within a dozen feet of each other for years on end.

    1. I’m too lazy to google. Didn’t basic training start to inculcate the “kill kill kill” mentality after WWI or WWII, when it was noticed that drafting boys off the farm didn’t mean they instinctively hate the enemy, and intentionally shoot to miss?

      1. I don’t know. I do know there’s been some military research that showed that soldiers fire into the air rather than at the enemy. But after reading a book on it, I questioned some of that research. I believe the book I read was On Killing written by a Military Academic. I seem to recall a tirade about Violent Video games and their effect on the innocent yutes of America, and then the whole book started to smell like an Agenda.

        Personal anecdote: I do remember when I went paintballing and I took my daughter, she had a tendency to stick her gun over the top of an obstacle and fire upwards into the air, over the other team’s head, but that was largely because she didn’t want to get shot in the face, but still wanted to participate in the actual fight.

        Not sure if soldiers did the same thing but was being interpreted as ‘shooting to miss’.

        1. If I remember, SLA Marshall had a very influential study after WW2 that found most soldiers reported shooting to miss, and this affected the way US Army did basic training afterwards (though I’d argue, going fully professional is what allowed for the change to actually matter).

          And yeah, it’s hard to tell if, say, a guy spraying his Garand shots every which way, or a Civil War soldier who loads a cartridge but drops the bullet are trying to not kill anyone, or panicking and trying to make themselves look scary but not be a target.

        2. I do know there’s been some military research that showed that soldiers fire into the air rather than at the enemy.

          Axelrod writes about that too?soldiers in opposing trenches who were happy to shoot to miss as long as the other side reciprocated.

          1. Yeah, but that gets into the realms of the Selfish Gene Theory with robbers/suckers/thieves.

            If you’ve been in the trenches for a couple of weeks exchanging ineffective fire with a bunch of guys a couple hundred feet away, you don’t want to shoot Fritz, because his replacement, Helmut, might not be playing the same game.

            1. This is what I’m wondering about. Cold research shows x bullets fired, y people killed etc., it’s hard to really know what the motivations are. They could range anywhere from “Hey, I can fire my rifle but not stuck my head above the trench– I’M PARTICIPATING!” to scenarios exactly like what you describe above. Or something inbetween.

              1. In the case of Vietnam, for example, one technique was to pin down VC units with suppression fire (which takes a lot of munitions) and wait for the F100 Super Sabers to come in with napalm – so in the strictest sense, fatalities from small arms fire in that engagement will have been negligible, and maybe 10s of thousands of rounds of ammo fired between ground troops and helos.

                That’s why (especially the modern) statistics will be misleading. Small arms fire is useful for all sorts of purposes in addition to just being aimed at an enemy combattant.

          1. He’s still harping on it… Nov. 16, 2016:

            Are Video Games Breeding an Assassination Generation?
            There’s a proven correlation between video games and gun violence, yet we still allow our children free access to these games, breeding an assassination generation.

            http://www.thedailybeast.com/a…..ation.html

            1. Proven, eh? tell us more!

      2. Snopes. Take it for what it’s worth.

        Excerpt from “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows”, Melanie Joy

        There is a substantial body of evidence demonstrating humans’ seemingly natural aversion to killing. Much of the research in this area has been conducted by the military; analysts have found that soldiers tend to intentionally fire over the enemy’s head, or not to fire at all.

        Studies of combat activity during the Napoleonic and Civil Wars revealed stirking statistics. Given the ability of the men, their proximity to the enemy, and the capacity of their weapons, the number of enemy soldiers hit should have been well over 50 percent, resulting in a killing rate of hundreds per minute. Instead, however, the hit rate was only one o two per minute. And a similar phenomenon occured during World War I: according to british Lieutenant George Roupell, the only way he could get his men to stop firing into the air was by drawing his sword, walking down the trench, “beating [them] on the backside and … telling them to fire low”.1 World War II fire rates were also remarkably low: historian and US Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall rerported that, during battle, the firing rate was a mere 15 to 20 percent; in other words, out of every hundred men engaged in a firefight, only fifteen to twenty actually used their weapons. And in Vietnam, for every enemy soldiers killed, more than fifty thousand bulletss were fired.2

        1. What these studies have taught the miltiary is that in order to get soldiers to shoot to kill, to actively participate in violence, the soldiers must be sufficiencly desensitized to the act of killing. In other words, they have to learn not to feel — and not to ffeel responsible — for their actions.

          1: Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in war and Society. New York: Back Bay Books, 1996, 12.

          1. Isn’t the danger then that they’ll shoot their bosses?

        2. “There is a substantial body of evidence” is pretty much equivalent to “There are some who say”.

          In modern (post-Franco-Prussian war/American civil war) warfare, aimed small arms fire is both accurate and deadly. There’s a huge incentive to keep your head behind cover and minimize the time you spend exposed. Hence, firing high and use of suppression fire. In the case of Vietnam, jungle warfare and the complicated tactics it creates a battlefield which demands a lot of suppression fire, especially when US troops were conscripted and (initially) not particularly well trained in that kind of theater.

          In Napoleonic warfare, a Brown Bess musket with a 3/4in diameter ball was (fortunately) so inaccurate that the only chance a general had to do serious and substantial damage to an opposing unit was to be within about 30 yards of the target, and they had a firing rate of about 3 rounds a minute – 5 or 6 from crack troops. But the weapons were *really* inaccurate.

          I’d like to see the citation *specifically* for that

          “should have been well over 50 percent”

          number.

          ‘cos that right there is hogwash.

          1. Especially since comparing Napoleonic and Civil War weapons accuracy collectively is stupid. The Minie ball alone significantly increased accuracy in the Civil War.

            1. That 20 year transitional period bracketed by the US Civil War and the Franco Prussian war is complicated because as a grunt you could be up against muskets one day and maxim guns the next.

          2. Exactly. That 50 percent figure is garbage. Ever been shot at? That’ll change your ability to keep a 2″ grouping.

    2. “It’s a truly fascinating example of what happens when you have two relatively similar cultures at war within a dozen feet of each other for years on end.”

      And quite a contrast with the utter viciousness of how World War II in the Pacific was fought against the Japanese.

      1. The Krauts were more sort of like us than the Gooks. So you actually sometimes felt bad for killing them. That’s what my grandpa said. Well, maybe that’s not exactly what he said, but something like that.

        1. Gooks are Koreans – not Japanese.

          1. Oh yeah. My grandfather was in WW2 and the Korean war, so I get those mixed up sometimes. He was in the invasion at Normandy and lost one lung from getting blown up in a tank, had 2 purple hearts. Well I have them now, he passed away just over a year ago.

          2. I thought Gooks were NVA or Charlie. Were they using the pejorative ‘gook’ in Korea?

            1. Yep. Gooks = NVA.

              Slopes are Korean right?
              I’m a honky or a cracker
              spics are wetbacks
              nips are japs
              polacks are polish

              slavs should be an insult but technically not.

              There is a name for the blacks that gets people up.

              1. There is a name for the blacks that gets people up.

                African Americans?

      2. the utter viciousness of how World War II in the Pacific was fought against the Japanese

        I think it’s safe to say the Japanese brought most of the viciousness to that situation. We weren’t like the Chinese either, but we weren’t raping Nanking.

        1. “I think it’s safe to say the Japanese brought most of the viciousness to that situation”

          I don’t disagree with that.

        2. The Japanese were definitely one of the worst combatants for individual atrocities (other competitors include the Wehrmacht “Shoot One Jew on Bridge Chained to Multiple Jews” tactic or the Soviet “Rape Our Way to Berlin” strategy). But American troops could be pretty damn vicious.

          Having the upper brass tell the troops “No seriously, stop collecting Japanese skulls, it makes us look bad” is not exactly a good sign. There’s also a bunch of execution of POWs, torture, etc. But at least they weren’t eating POWs slowly like some Japanese troops did on blockaded islands.

          1. One of the dirty not-so-secret secrets of WW2 in Europe was that most platoons would have a guy with a Browning Automatic Rifle or equivalent light machine gun whose job it was was to deal with prisoners who would have slowed down the rate of advance thru’ enemy territory.

            Line the prisoners up, march them off around a barn and hit the happy switch. Brits, Yanks, Krauts, and I expect the Italians all did it.

            Yeah, they edited that out of “The Longest Day”.

          2. The Japanese were definitely one of the worst combatants for individual atrocities (other competitors include the Wehrmacht “Shoot One Jew on Bridge Chained to Multiple Jews” tactic or the Soviet “Rape Our Way to Berlin” strategy). But American troops could be pretty damn vicious.

            History written by the winners blah blah, a lot of American troops were responding in kind. Interviews with soldiers fighting the Japanese were horrified at what they saw the Japanese troops and resolved to “stop taking prisoners” after that.

            1. +1 Bataan Death March et al

          3. Yeah. I think the book is “Fly Boys”

            The Japanese commanders on Chi Chi Jima got hammered on Sake every night, line up the prisoners over holes, sliced one prisoner’s head off with Samari sword and ate his liver with Sake.

            That’s according to the book.

      3. Sneak attacks tend to piss people the fuck off. There was a newspaper survey in 1943 (I believe, I’d dig for the source but lazy) that suggested that over ten percent of the American adult populace wanted to kill every Japanese person on the Home Islands.

        1. My grandparents (who were in high school at the time) STILL haven’t forgiven the Japanese people.

    3. two relatively similar cultures at war within a dozen feet of each other

      Yeah, I was thinking that we’re probably not tossing any Christmas hams at whoever we’re fighting in the ME each year.

  7. I don’t think Obama’s drones will start playing soccer come Christmas eve.

    1. The heathens they’re bombing don’t celebrate Christmas.

    2. Maybe not, but you have just made an awesome Rocket League sequel!

      1. Rocket League doesn’t need a sequel.
        They already tried adding powerups and that was an abomination.

        1. That’s why a sequel, or spinoff. You put that shit in a different game, and keep the idea of the original intact!

          1. They could just add a new mode like the others. I still have the option of playing Hoops, but I don’t hate myself enough.

  8. Are we talking about the truce with my in-laws? I don’t think it will hold another year.

  9. One of the most disgusting things in history to me is the officers actively trying to undermine moments of shared humanity like that.

    1. I heard once, no source to verify, that French, English, and German officers stationed on the front that fateful Christmas night were all severely reprimanded to varying degrees.

      1. I wouldn’t doubt it. My blood boils at the thought of a fat old cigar-comping general sitting 50 miles behind the lines screaming at subordinates because the enlisted men aren’t risking their lives enough or killing enough for just a few days of the year.

        1. Which, to me, is why the truces happen. You and the other guy are just two dudes trying to live through your leaders’ attempts to get you killed. One can only imagine how fucking horrifying standing in the phalanx or shield wall or tercio.

    2. I’m not going to be too judgmental. It was what it was. If those officers were under orders to take territory– which includes the killing of the enemy, then there’s going to be pressure to stop that.

    3. Want to be really disgusted? Read Eleventh Month, Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day.

      You can learn about officers who ordered men into battle on the morning of Nov. 11 to seize an objective that had already been awarded to their country under terms of the armistice. Why would they do this? In order to get the combat experience that guaranteed promotion.

  10. I can’t imagine being friendly with someone who shot my friend in the face.

    1. Drink well tonight and Christmas cheer, for tomorrow I shall shoot thee in the face! Cheers!

      1. I’m gonna tell my wife that on Saturday night.

        1. +1 I’m stealing that

        2. Sleep well, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.

          1. +1 Dread Pirate Roberts

    2. I don’t know – Harry Whittington is still friends with Cheney.

  11. Those battles were so horrifying that I bet each side had mutual respect for the other side.

    That being said, I’ve been shot in the face before and it’s not so bad.

      1. Did he pay or you?

  12. OT: Dispatch from the political class:

    “This is even more worrying than terrorism, strange though that may sound,” said Jacqueline Boysen, a biographer of Ms. Merkel who has known her since the 1990s. “Terrorism is terrible and frightening, but our political future is so uncertain.”

    1. Yeah, no doubt Oma Merkel’s political career is more important than people getting ran down in the Christmas market. I’m not sure which is more Important, Merkel’s uncertain career or Obama’s uncertain legacy. This is just one reason why I hate these global socialists so much.

      1. The Times runs this like it is not even a particularly remarkable quote. If someone on the political right had said this the Times would have had a field day.

      2. They’re delusional. What narrative is Germany and Merkel going to offer the world? That of German tolerance? “We’re all Krauts now?”

        1. I did notice that the Facebook shtick of overlaying the profile photo with the flag of a country that was attacked, didn’t happen this time. Nor “pray for Berliners” memes. And that douche playing Imagine didn’t show up either. So perhaps something is finally starting to change.

          1. I was asking about Piano Totting Imagine Guy – I guess maybe it’s too cold?

            Though it would be too perfect if he showed up on Dec 25, to add extra pathos.

      3. People getting run over by vehicles happens literally every day. But Merkel hasn’t lost an election yet! You can clearly see which is more remarkable.

    2. With right-wing populism on the rise across Europe, Ms. Merkel has been seen as a bulwark against illiberal democracy.

      “Illiberal democracy” = someone other than us

    3. her cabinet on Wednesday swiftly passed an array of measures, first announced in August, to bolster domestic security, including extensive video surveillance of a kind common in Europe but rare in Germany

      Seht ihr was, sagt was! Problem solved.

  13. “In Hitler’s First War”

    You know who else…hey, you ruined it!

  14. This always seemed stupid to me. Germany occupied half of France, what were the allies supposed to do, just let them keep it?

    Yeah, it’s great they were able to sing and play soccer, but there was kind of a reason for the war…

  15. What if we had trench warfare with psychotic religious zealots?

    1. No need for a Christmas truce, a lot easier to dehumanize since they did half the work themselves.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.