This blog was written by Joseph Ratcliffe, a volunteer at Stockport Local Heritage Library and Archives.
One of the few enduring images of the Great War was the Christmas truce of 1914: principally of opposing forces playing spontaneous games of football in no-man’s land. While our remembrance of the war is often concentrated on the tremendous waste of life, the truce remains a symbol of the goodness of human nature: though it was only for one day, soldiers put aside their differences and even managed to enjoy each others company. Our understanding of what happened that day is enhanced enormously by the written accounts of the soldiers involved. All during the war, soldiers wrote letters to their local newspapers which provide a key insight into what it was like at the frontline.
One such, published in the Stockport County Borough Express on January 7th, 1915, written by Pte. Wood of the Cheshire Territorials, details an unusually peaceful day in the trenches:
“we have had another go in the trenches, spending Xmas Eve and Xmas Day there, being relieved on Xmas night. But you would not have thought there was a war on during Christmas Day for there was not a rifle shot fired all day, and our fellows and the Germans were walking about on top of the trenches, and making fires to warm themselves, for it was so cold and frosty, and we had a bit of a snowstorm.”
From this letter, we get an idea of the shared discomfort in the “cold and frosty” conditions which engendered a certain camaraderie, which we see in other letters.
In a letter published on January 14th, Cyclist Sgt. Tom Knott tells of his companies “unique experience of fraternising with the enemy”, in which the truce allowed “both sides to get out[…] and stretch their legs up and down the open fields”, much like in Pte. Wood’s letter. Walking in the open fields was clearly considered a luxury of some note and this rare respite from the fear of attack engendered an environment of joviality and conviviality, which Sgt. Knott refers too:
“They were all very friendly-disposed, even the officer, and they all seemed to wish urgently for peace. Cigarettes were exchanged on one side for cigars on the other, and the Germans handed cough drops all round. Both sides parted with much hand-shaking, after about an hour’s conversation.”
In the Stockport Advertiser and Guardian, a correspondence from Sergeant-Major F. Naden, of the 6th Cheshires, records similar scenes of fraternisation. Food, a luxury during the war, is again mentioned: “the Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff”. The festivities also included music: “the Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification”. A letter received by a Mr. G. Blease from his son who was in the 6th Battalion also includes references to music. He writes that “we all mixed together and men played mouth organs and tin whistles and danced”. Another soldier, Pte. Wild, claims that some Germans even “put their names in our books and we our names in theirs”. This level of camaraderie even extended to more unsavoury tasks. Sergeant-Major Naden records a “gruesome task” in which they had to bury the body of a Frenchman which had been in front of their trenches for “a couple of” weeks and the “Germans helped us to dispose of him”.
At this early stage of the war, it is clear that friendly interaction with the enemy was acceptable amongst soldiers. Opposing troops still shared the feeling that to some extent they were in-it-together, a feeling which would later disintegrate due to the huge death tolls and the attritional nature of the war. This is echoed in comments found in soldiers’ letters. Sgt. Tom Knott in his letter states that the Germans “seemed to wish urgently for peace”. In Sergeant Major Naden’s letter, he says that “the Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war, and wished it was over”. Of course it was not only the Germans that tired with the war – Pte. Wild in his letter wistfully “wonders whether we shall be shaking hands with them again or firing at them”. Even in some cases where orders were given to stop fraternisation – Naden received an order that “all communication with and friendly interaction with the enemy must cease” – the general restlessness and disillusionment with the war, which would later be replaced by rampant chauvinism, still existed, which made camaraderie possible. Back home, news of the truce was even received with some hope, which an article in the Advertiser called “Christmas Greetings at the Front” attests. Many saw it as a sign that the war could be resolved by an “early peace” and that there was a possibility that “good relations between the peoples of the two nations” could continue after the war was over.
British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914, front of 11th Brigade, 4th Division. (Image courtesy of The Imperial War Museum**.
However, though the truce was fairly widespread, not all soldiers enjoyed a peaceful Christmas. A member of the 6th Cheshires, M. Willie, writes to the Advertiser that “on Christmas Day the Germans only gave us six shells, so we had a nice quiet day”. The Advertiser also received a poem from an anonymous member of the 6th Cheshires, which recounts a less than pleasant Christmas:
The bullets are falling fast,
The shells are dropping wide,
The trenches full of water are,
This happy Christmas tide.
For some, the war continued as usual. Instead they would have to satisfy themselves with a package that all soldiers at the front received, which one soldier records: “on returning to our billet a piece of Christmas pudding and a present of a box containing pipe, tobacco, cigs, matches was given to each man, also a photo of King George and Queen Mary”. Stockport soldiers at home or abroad even received a message from the Mayor of Stockport, Councillor T. W. Potts. In it, he sends on behalf of himself and fellow citizens “Hearty Christmas greetings” and writes of our appreciation of the troops’ self-sacrifice. Furthermore, he touchingly adds a reassurance that “those you have left behind… are being well cared for”. This message, clearly meant to boost morale, was conveyed to the soldiers and many sent their thanks, some of which are included in the Advertiser. A L/Cpl G. H. Leah, for instance, writes that “I conveyed your message to the members of the 6th Reserves on Christmas morning”.
Though the war would later become more ill-tempered and brutal, the Christmas Day truce endures as a testament that a sense of shared human experience could transcend sides and patriotism, and for many, at least for that one day, fighting stopped.
*Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum – http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022262
** Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum – http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205247304
Stockport Advertiser and Guardian, Fri Jan 1st, 1915.
Stockport Advertiser and Guardian, Fri Jan 8th, 1915.
Stockport County Borough Express, Thur Jan 7th, 1915. “Christmas in the Trenches”, Pte. Geo. Wood. H. Co., Ches. Territorials.
Stockport County Borough Express, Thur Jan 14th, 1915. “Exchange of Compliments, Smokes and Cough Drops”, Cyclist Sgt. Tom Knott.