The Christmas truce of 1914 is one of the most enduring images of the First World War and is generally reported as a 'one-off' phenomenon not repeated as the conflict grew ever more brutal.
But a University of Aberdeen historian 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.
Historian Thomas Weber has been given access to a large number of family memories of the war which show that despite officers recording in official documents that no such friendly exchanges took place, the situation on the front lines was very different.
He made the discoveries while conducting research for a new book on the untold story of the Great War. The forthcoming book maps out phenomena that ‘wartime censors, commanding officers, and a post-war generation battling with the meaning of the war did not want us to see’.
Professor Weber said: “In the course of research for a previous book, I came across a surprising number of references to Christmas truces well beyond 1914.
“I wanted to develop this further as it goes against our standard understanding of the war and was fortunate to be given access to many private accounts of those who fought in the trenches. As a result, it has become clear that we need to reconsider the view that combatants during the Great War were driven by a brutalising and ever faster spinning cycle of violence and of a radicalization of minds which made this type of truce impossible after 1914.
“A hundred years on, it is important instead to focus on what drove soldiers to continue trying to fraternise with their opponents during Christmas as well as during other times of the year.”
Professor Weber said his research reveals a century-long history of cover-ups, where the official records of regiments and those of senior officers conflict with the testimonies of ordinary soldiers.
One such example is 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 a letter written by Ronald MacKinnon, the son of a Scot from Levenseat, near Fauldhouse in West Lothian, tells a rather different story:
‘Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … 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.’
Another participant in the truce, Sergeant A. C. Livingston, a U.S.-Canadian dual citizen from Washington State, who served in the 47th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force – shared a similar account with his daughter Pat later in his life. By that time living in British Columbia, his eyes teared up every time he recalled that opposing troops “exchanged gifts of cans of ‘bully beef’ for cigars and thought they were coming out ahead on the gifts as the main thing they used the bully beef for was to line the bottom of the trenches to keep them out of the mud” and that “strains of ‘Silent Night’ were sung across no-man’s land in German and English.”
Professor Weber said: “Another truce between German and British soldiers reportedly took place at Loos, halfway between Arras and Lille during Christmas 1916, while at Beaumont Hamel on the Somme German and British servicemen from the 2nd Battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company, a unit from London, waved at each other.
“Elsewhere on the Somme, Anglo-German encounters even went further than that, in spite of the fact that more than one million soldiers had either been killed or wounded in the Battle of the Somme that recently had come to an end.”
Professor Weber points to evidence recorded by Arthur Burke, a Private serving in the 20th Battalion Manchester Regiment, who wrote home to his family in Salford on Christmas Day 1916, describing how men from his unit and the Germans had been ‘on absolutely speaking terms’ amidst the ‘rotten weather, raining and thawing’ in the lead-up to Christmas. More than that, ‘German soldiers had come to the British side and exchanged cigarettes’.
Burke, who was to be killed in action in October 1917, wrote: “It got so frequent it had to be stopped and even after our order to quit, two of our boys got 28 days for going out and meeting them half way for a chat… There’s never a rifle or machine gun shot fired by either side for many days, although we got orders to fire we knew it was hopeless to do so - so we didn’t.”
Professor Weber added that other evidence from all fronts from Christmas, Easter, and other times of the year points to the continued willingness of rank and file for handshakes and interchanges of civility and greetings but that this was increasingly clamped down upon by orders from above. Fraternization of this kind, Weber argues, occurred frequently but did not spread quite as widely as they had done in 1914, as officers had learned how to respond swiftly to friendly encounters with the enemy.
For instance, a British officer ordered sharpshooters to open fire when German soldiers approached men of the 5th Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment to wish them a ‘Merry Christmas’ and to propose for an Anglo-German meeting in no-man’s land. As Private Walter Hoskyn recorded in his diary, the behaviour of his officer did not meet the approval of the rank and file: “The dirty dog. What a very un-British thing to do,” he wrote.
Professor Weber said: “When officers failed to prevent fraternization from happening, they rarely reported those cases up the chain command for fear of being court-martialled themselves. In the few cases that they were officially reported, they tended to be written out of the story after the event. There is strong evidence that instances of fraternization were purged from official regimental war diaries before they were published in book form in the interwar years.
“The general view is that after the first Christmas there was no repeat because of the circle of violence and its ensuing bitterness that then set in. In fact, what we see is that despite the difficulties they endured, soldiers never tried to stop fraternising with their opponents not just during Christmas but throughout the year.”