WWI’s Puzzling, Poignant Christmas Truce
This is not a travel story, unless perhaps it’s time-travel. I wrote it for The Washington Post on the 90th anniversary of the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in the Great War. My one-sentence interview with Europe’s oldest man, Maurice Floquet, was a memorable moment in my journalistic career! Revisiting this event is never out of season, I think.
By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2004
Nobody knows where the Christmas Truce of 1914 began. Nor is it certain, even today, whether the truce began in one spot and spread, or broke out simultaneously in many places, the convergent evolution of numberless human hearts.
What is known is that 90 years ago today — four months into what would eventually be called World War I — thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers spent a cold, clear, beautiful Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western Front.
The mysterious beginnings are fortunate. For want of the name of the first person (probably German) who proposed fraternization, or the place where it occurred (probably somewhere in Flanders), the Christmas Truce has acquired the aura of a miracle. In lacking a hero or sacred site, it has kept a single emotion at its core — the desire for peace of the most literal and personal kind.
It began in most places with nighttime singing from the trenches, was followed by shouted overtures and then forays between the lines by a few brave men. There followed, in daylight, a burying of the dead that had lain for weeks on the denuded ground called no man’s land. After that, large numbers of soldiers poured over the front lip of the trench.
Throughout the day they exchanged food, tobacco and, in a few places, alcohol. Some chatted, usually in English, a language enough German enlistees spoke to make small talk possible. In several places, they kicked around a soccer ball, or a stuffed bag functioning as one, although contrary to legend there appears to have been no official, scored matches.
Mostly, the soldiers survived, which is what they wanted from the day. They did not shoot each other.
Almost everywhere the truce was observed, it actually began on Christmas Eve, the high point of the season for the Germans. In many places, it lasted through Boxing Day, the day after Christmas observed by the English as a holiday. In a few parts of the line, hostilities didn’t recommence until after New Year’s Day, a holiday with special meaning for Scots and, to a lesser extent, the French.
War did resume, though. It was a truce, not a peace. What followed was misery, waste, loss and degradation on a scale that is difficult to imagine.
By the end of World War I in November 1918, the dead numbered: 1 million soldiers from the British Empire, 2 million Germans, 1.7 million French, 1.5 million soldiers of the Hapsburg Empire, 1.7 million Russians, 460,000 Italians, hundreds of thousands of Turks, and 50,000 Americans. The political and territorial consequences were numerous and complicated. The certain one is that the Great War did not end war, but instead laid the foundations for another one a generation later.
Against that background, the Christmas Truce of 1914 stands out with particular poignancy. While there had been truces for religious and secular holidays since classical times, the events that occurred 90 years ago this week were a spontaneous, unled cry for sanity before the advent of industrialized war.
“It is the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman,” says Modris Eksteins, a cultural historian at the University of Toronto, who has written on the truce. “As the war goes on, the enemy becomes increasingly abstract. You don’t exchange courtesies with an abstraction.”
There were a few brief, scattered truces in 1915, and virtually none thereafter. The reason was not simply that commanders were on the lookout. The soldiers themselves had become emotionally hardened by years of fighting.
“The ones who survived, who lived to see other Christmases in the war, themselves expressed amazement that this had occurred,” Eksteins said. “The emotions had changed to such a degree that the sort of humanity seen in Christmas 1914 seemed inconceivable.”
What’s curious, though, is that in some respects the Christmas Truce is now moving toward us, not away.
In both Germany and France, where the truce was largely unknown to two generations, it is being studied and celebrated.
A book published in 2003, “The Small Peace in the Great War,” is the first to fully exploit German source material on the truce, including previously undiscovered diaries and letters. A French production company has made a feature-length film, “Joyeux Noel,” that depicts the events. It will be released next year.
Last Sunday, two soccer teams whose members included people from the nations whose soldiers faced each other 90 years ago met in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a village 100 miles north of Paris. They played a match that commemorated the soccer-playing in the Christmas Truce.
An all-star team of retired French players, Varietes Club de France, beat the international team, which called itself the Selection of Fraternity, 5-2 before 2,000 spectators. It was a clear day with the temperature hovering at the freezing point, like 90 years ago.
The game was held to raise money for a monument to the Christmas Truce. The village was chosen because it was where French soldier Louis Barthas, who proposed such a monument in a famous postwar memoir, was serving in December 1914.
“I am very touched by this idea,” says Christian Carion, the writer and director of “Joyeux Noel,” who organized the event. “Because on the Earth there is no monument to fraternization. There is always a monument for victory. And where there is a victory there is a defeat. But a monument about fraternization — there is not one anywhere.”
It’s an assertion difficult to prove. But even if there is, somewhere, a monument to making unapproved peace with the enemy, it’s hard to believe the world couldn’t use a second one.
Hold Your Fire
It appears there are no surviving participants of the Christmas Truce among the roughly 100 living veterans of World War I.
There is at least one man alive who witnessed it from a distance. He heard the silence.
Alfred Anderson was a “territorial” — the British equivalent of a national guardsman — serving in the 5th Battalion of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment in France. On Christmas he was “in reserve,” behind the front lines, part of a complicated rotation that limited soldiers’ time in the front-line trenches to three to seven days.
“It was very cold and very still. He said he could hear these voices shouting, carried over on the night air. What he could hear was total stillness, which he found very eerie,” says Richard van Emden, an English television producer and historian who has interviewed him.
Anderson, who was wounded by an artillery shell in 1916 and discharged, is now 108. He worked as a joiner in a carpentry shop for much of his life. Today he lives by himself in a village near Perth, Scotland. “He is incredibly fit. If you met him you’d think he was about 85,” van Emden says.
Also in uniform in December 1914 was Maurice Floquet, who turns 111 today and is the oldest living French veteran of World War I. He was on the Western Front in Belgium, but his part of the line did not fraternize with the Germans. What he chiefly remembers of Christmas is the menu: bread, soup, a few dates, and a bottle of red wine split among four soldiers. He was wounded twice in 1915 and discharged. He worked for many years as an auto mechanic.
In a brief interview conducted Wednesday via fax machine through a translator, Floquet said he did not learn of the truce until many years after the war.
“Such a thing could not be told to the soldiers, for how would they pursue the war if they knew?” he said from his home in a village near the Cote d’Azur.
Recent research suggests that in 1914 at least 100,000 people participated in the Christmas Truce, directly or indirectly.
Since the start of war in August of that year, German troops had advanced west across northern France and Belgium, expecting to be victorious in six weeks. But they failed to reach Paris and by late September had withdrawn from some of the captured territory and began to dig trenches. The trench line of the Western Front, still under construction at the end of the year, eventually snaked 475 miles from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland.
Two months of fighting in Belgium that became known as the First Battle of Ypres ended in late November. Sniping and scattered efforts to capture enemy trenches continued.
Historians believe that many conditions came together in December to make the truce possible.
Losses since the start of the war were already huge. According to historian John Keegan, the French dead numbered about 306,000 (including 45,000 teenagers). The Germans had lost 241,000, and the Belgians and British each about 30,000.
Except for some Indian troops in the British Expeditionary Force, virtually all combatants came from countries where Christmas was widely celebrated. On the German side, many units were from Saxony and Bavaria, and shared Roman Catholicism with their French and Belgian foes. (German troops from those regions, at least by reputation, were also more open to breaches of military discipline than the soon-to-arrive Prussians.)
Pope Benedict XV, who took office in August, had called for a Christmas truce, which was officially rejected. In France, a prominent bishop called for peace and met with the republic’s president, Raymond Poincare.
“This visit is very unusual,” says Pierre Miquel, a historian of World War I and retired professor at the Sorbonne. “The cardinal immediately had to say that nobody in the clergy can speak for a political purpose.”
Nevertheless, both peace and Christmas celebration were in the air. The German government had sent thousands of small Christmas trees, and candles for them, to the front. On the British side, military shipments were suspended for 24 hours so that 355,000 brass boxes embossed with the profile of Princess Mary, the king’s daughter, and containing a pipe and tobacco products, or candy, could be delivered.
The greatest incentive, though, was the simple misery of the moment — almost continuous rain, foul and muddy trenches, daily killing, and dead bodies in view.
“You couldn’t bury the dead because if you tried, they’d shoot you,” says Michael Juergs, former editor of Stern magazine and the author of “The Small Peace in the Great War.” “So you always had to look on the no man’s land and you can see your own future, which is to lay dead there.”
Merging the Lines
The history of the Christmas Truce is essentially a compendium of anecdotes gleaned from letters, diaries, oral memories, and, to a lesser extent, official military records. The most complete accounts in English are “Christmas Truce” (1984), written by British authors Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, and “Silent Night” (2001) by Stanley Weintraub, an American. Juergs’s book has not been translated from German.
A few generalizations are possible.
Fraternization was much more common in the British sector than in the French or Belgian, although contrary to some early reports, it occurred in the latter two, as well. The initiative appears to have been taken most often by the German side. The closeness of trenches — in some cases only 100 feet — allowed gradual escalation of contact. The fact that most troops knew a repertoire of secular and religious songs — including some in their enemy’s language or in Latin — was very helpful. Cigarettes and cigars were the first items to be exchanged in the initial contacts between enemy troops; it may have been tobacco’s finest hour.
In most places, commissioned officers followed the lead of enlisted men, although there were exceptions where the officers were out front. One was Lt. Kurt Zemisch, a schoolteacher who spoke French and English and was serving in a Saxon regiment. His account is in a multivolume diary found in an attic in the 1990s by his elderly son. The entries were in an archaic form of shorthand that Rudolf Zemisch had to teach himself before he could read what his father had written.
“I have ordered my troops that, if at all avoidable, no shot shall be fired from our side either today on Christmas Eve or on the two pursuant Christmas holidays. . . . We placed even more candles than before on our kilometer-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination — the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake.”
On Christmas Day near the village of Fromelles, members of the 6th Battalion of the Gordon Highlander Regiment met their German enemies in a 60-yard-wide no man’s land and together buried about 100 bodies. A service of prayers and the 23rd Psalm was arranged.
“They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry,” a 19-year-old second lieutenant named Arthur Pelham Burn wrote to a friend. “The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again.”
An English captain, R.J. Armes, wrote: “At times we heard the guns in the distance and an occasional rifle shot. I can hear them now, but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German halfway. They exchanged cigars or smokes, and talked.”
According to various accounts, there was at least one pig-roast, at least one session of hair-cutting (with payment in cigarettes), several kick-abouts with soccer balls, and innumerable exchanges of food and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. At one place on the French line, the Germans carried a drunk French soldier back “as far as the limit of our barbed wire, where we recovered him,” wrote soldier Charles Toussaint.
It didn’t work everywhere. There is evidence that in at least two places, soldiers attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces. Sometimes this was followed by apologies.
Eventually, the Christmas Truce ended and its participants went back to war.
The General’s Perspective
The meaning of the truce has been debated for years.
Perhaps the most eloquent statement came from a British participant, Murdoch M. Wood, in 1930 in Parliament: “The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”
There’s a much more recent story, though, that shows the truce has not retreated entirely to the realm of idealism and stirring rhetoric. Its subversiveness — which every participant recognized — is still alive. In some quarters, the truce is still a threat.
Christian Carion, the director of “Joyeux Noel,” wanted to make his movie in France. He researched many sites and found an acceptable one on a military reservation. He sought permission to shoot there, but after many months was turned down. According to Carion, a general told him: “We cannot be partner with a movie about rebellion.”
He made his movie in Romania instead.
Staff researchers Gretchen Hoff in Paris and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this article.