The Great War 1914-1918, still to this day is considered one of the worst wars in global history, due to the 25 million who were wounded or unfortunately lost their lives in brutalistic ways in the four year period. However, at the beginning of the conflict it was believed to be all over by Christmas, a short conflict fought in mainland Europe. As fighting continued with no apparent winner or any ground being gained by either combatant, the war quickly became an entrenched stalemate. This first global conflict is also a first for many aspects of modern war. Since the 1700s, militaries have been divided up into three predominant sections; infantry, artillery and cavalry. However, by the outbreak of the First World War, this classification was no longer relevant due to advances in military technology. By the turn of the twentieth century it was clear that a combined force had emerged, the land army, the navy and the newly formed air division, which would find it’s footings and seal it’s strategy for the next century during the conflict.
But today, we are going to talk about something else that made the First World War special, a new dimension to the word “great”. I’m referring to the great works of art and humanity that shine under the mud. I hope that people have been subjected to Siegfried Sassoon and John McCrae along with other world war poets, and their vibrant haunting poetry that encapsulate the dread, despair and death the war gave, in such a precious lyrical format.
An example of Sassoon’s poetry here is his poem Everyone Sang:
“Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.”
For more examples, check out my post from Remembrance day here.
Within all the conflict, people still had the energy to express themselves as humans. Another one of these great acts of humanity comes about in the first year of the war, in the heart of winter, during Christmas. I am of course talking about the Christmas Truce. It’s been a long standing tradition in European war for there to be truces of God. Mainly being a pinnacle feature in the middle ages leading up to the 19th century, the pope would urge fighting to cease on holy grounds such as Easter or Christmas or other holy reasons. 1914 began the same way with Pope Benedict urging a ceasefire on both sides for a Christmas truce. Germany initially accepts the idea of truce, on the condition that all other warring powers would do the same. There was speculation at the time, that a week truce over Christmas would also lead to the end of the conflict, but as we know, that never happened officially. However the idea never left the minds of the soldiers, and for a few hours over the first Christmas of the war, the trenches in Flanders and France, laid down their arms to join together for food, carols, games and comradery. The truce was completely unofficial and illicit, with many higher officers viewing the unofficial truce as fraternization.
The Events of the Christmas Truce
It’s hard to know exactly what went down during the truce as many soldiers left their trenches on their own fruition, reports only being written in memoirs and the odd communication with headquarters.
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade
Around 8:30pm on the 24th December 1914, it was reported by the Royal Irish Rifles, that the German’s opposite their position had illuminated their trench in light, wishing them a Happy Christmas. Later on, further down the line, the carols began to be exchanged, Germans starting off with Silent Night, Allied lines coming back with The First Noel. The next morning, Christmas morning, troops on both sides emerged from the trenches to meet in the heart of no mans land, exchanging souvenirs, stories and cigarettes. One account shares “Many of our chaps walked out and met the Germans between lines… we exchanged souvenirs, I got a German ribbon and a photograph of the crown Prince of Bavaria. The Germans opposite were awfully nice fellows; Saxons, intelligent; respectable looking men.”
It is thought that around two thirds of troops engaged in the truce, around 100,000 men coming together at Christmas. A great interpretation of this exchange has been immortalised in the musical Oh! What a Lovely War, the scene can be viewed here.
One of the most talked about aspects of the Christmas Truce is a great football match between the Allies and the Germans. There is speculation that said match, is indeed a myth, with limited sources on the matter. Many letters and war diaries mention the loose plans around playing again, with no mention of an actual game being played. In a letter from Captain A. D. Charter of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders to his dearest mother, he mentions the day’s festivities, the impromptu parley between the sides and talk of game. However, there is no clear evidence that a game actually took place. In lieu of mention of game, several mentions of a joint burial service between the Germans and English for their fallen comrades was held, specifically men from the 10th, 11th and 12th Infantry Brigade.
Despite this unofficial truce affecting a large number of troops over Christmas, not all experienced the festivities. As aforementioned only two thirds of troops were involved in exchanging gifts, stories, cigarettes and burying their dead. The third left still dealt with the deadly existence of war. The Grenadier Guards were spending their Christmas consolidating trenches and receiving heavy sniper fire.
The war went on to last a further four years, ending on what we know as Remembrance day, 11th November, 1918. Although drawn out and bloody, there has been no war like the Great War since (in my personal opinion) in terms of art and humanity. In all the despair, there is hope. That is shown in the events of Christmas 1914.
Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!