War History: Show of Christmas friendship as the sniping and shelling stopped

German soldiers from the 134th Saxon Regiment and British soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regimen

German soldiers from the 134th Saxon Regiment and British soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment meet in no man's land at Christmas, 1914 - Credit: Archant

It’s much-romanticised, that unofficial truce on the Western Front 100 years ago this Christmas. Mike Peters, Galloway Travel’s resident military historian, looks at one of the most extraordinary moments of the First World War

An Illustrated London News interpretation of the events of Christmas, 1914 - 'British and German Sol

An Illustrated London News interpretation of the events of Christmas, 1914 - 'British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches' - Credit: Photograph: Alamy

There is no doubt that Sainsbury’s Christmas advertisement has really raised public awareness of the remarkable lull in the fighting between British and German regiments that took place at certain points along the frontline over the Christmas of 1914. It has of course stoked up the perennial debate about whether or not there was a full-blown football match between Tommy and Fritz, but I will leave that question for another column nearer to Christmas.

Suffice to say I do like the advert, especially as it was filmed locally, and applaud the fact that although its producers could not resist including the football, they managed to focus on the reality of the truce and captured the spirit of why it came about.

We are lucky that one of the witnesses to the events of that Christmas was the cartoonist and artist Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather. His diary entries and sketches are valuable sources of information that, when added to the other accounts and photographs, broaden our understanding of how those that participated felt about the war, the conditions in the trenches and the Germans across the frozen fields.

By December, 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were in their fifth month of fighting. Those that had survived the retreat from Mons, the battle of the Marne and the first battle of Ypres found themselves settling into a new ? more static but equally deadly ? form of warfare.

As winter approached it was obvious the war that had almost shattered the BEF would not be over by Christmas. The BEF, although battered, had been reinforced by the Indian Army Corps. On Christmas Eve it was licking its wounds and holding positions around Ypres.

It is in the vicinity of Ypres, near Messines, that we find Bairnsfather. In the trenches around “Plugstreet Wood” he notices a subtle change in the tempo of the fighting as Christmas draws closer. He wrote the following about the atmosphere in his sector of the frontline on Christmas Eve:

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“The day had been entirely free from shelling, somehow we all felt that the Boches, too, wanted to be quiet. There was a kind of invisible, intangible feeling extending across the frozen swamp between our lines, which said ‘This is Christmas Eve for both of us – something in common.’

“About 10pm I made my exit from the convivial dugout on the left of our line and walked back to my own lair. On arriving at my own bit of trench I found several of the men standing about, and all very cheerful. There was a good bit of singing and talking going on. Jokes and jibes – on our curious Christmas Eve, as contrasted with any former one – were thick in the air. One of my men turned to me and said:

‘You can ’ear ’em quite plain, sir!’

‘Hear what?’ I inquired.

‘The Germans over there, sir; you can ’ear ’em singin’ and playin’ on a band or some-thin’.’”

Bairnsfather listened, and heard the German voices himself. “I listened away out across the field; among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices, and an occasional burst of some unintelligible song would come floating out on the frosty air… I popped into my dugout and found the Platoon Commander.

‘Do you hear the Boches kicking up a racket over there?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘They’ve been at it some time!’ ‘Come on,’ said I, ‘let’s go along the trenches to the hedge there on the right – that’s the nearest point to them over there.’”

Bairnsfather and his companions could clearly hear German singing and music. The British soldiers close by played their imitations of the German songs on harmonicas, cat-called and sung their own ribald songs.

Suddenly, an accented voice shouted out in English from the German trenches. “Come over here!” After a burst of disbelieving laughter, a British sergeant yelled back “Come over here!”

“You come halfway, I come halfway,” floated back across the darkness. “Come on then!” shouted the British sergeant. “I’m coming along the hedge!”

After more shouting from troops on both sides of no-man’s-land the two soldiers climbed out of their trenches and walked into the void. Bairnsfather writes of listening in breathless silence as the pair engaged in spasmodic conversation.

Shortly, the British sergeant returned to the safety of his own lines, carrying German cigarettes and some cigars for which he had exchanged tinned rations and Capstan tobacco. Bairnsfather wrote that “the séance was over, but it had given the requisite touch to our Christmas Eve – something a little human and out of the ordinary routine.

“After months of vindictive sniping and shelling, this little episode came as an invigorating tonic, and a welcome relief to the daily monotony of antagonism.”

This little episode was just a prelude to the events to follow on Christmas Day.

If you would like to learn more about Bairnsfather and the truce – with Mike Peters – our next Galloway Christmas truce tours are scheduled for December 4 (Stowmarket) and December 16 (Norwich). Details: www.travel-galloway. com or visit one of the Galloway shops.