Christmas truce or Christmas strike?
Laurence's account in today's entry describes German and French soldiers making an impromptu truce on Christmas Day. The Christmas truce has gone down in legend, although it took different forms in different parts of the lines.
John French, commander of the British troops, appears to have been shocked by the spontaneous truce and gave strict orders that such behaviour should not be allowed again (although after the war, he tried to claim the truce was an example of chivalry). A year later, British troops were warned ahead of Christmas that they would be punished if they 'fraternised' with the enemy.
Keir Hardie, the British Labour politician and pacifist, welcomed the truce as a spontaneous strike. He said, “Why are men who can be so friendly sent out to kill each other? They have no quarrel.” He predicted that soldiers on both sides would realise “that the workers of the world are not 'enemies' but comrades.”
News of the truce arrived only gradually in Britain, and parts of the pro-war lobby were keen to discourage reports of it. However, several local newspapers picked up the story from local soldiers' letters home. The following report appeared in The Oban Times:
From Private MacGregor's letter it appears that along some parts of the British and German front there was witnessed on Christmas Day a scene which may well be described as the most wonderful thing that has happened during the five cruel months of war.
After incidentally remarking that instead of the usual bully beef the men had a Christmas dinner of fresh beef and plum pudding, Private MacGregor says that on Christmas morning the Germans, discarding their rifles, jumped out of the trenches and shouted to their opponents not to shoot. This request was at once acceded to by our "Tommies" and "in a very short time both lines of trenches were emptied of their occupants, who mingled with one another and exchanged souvenirs." The Germans, he says, seemed to have plenty of good things.
As the soldiers were fraternising and endeavouring to talk to each other in the most friendly fashion, a hare ran through the lines. Instantly, with the greatest good humour, friend and foe joined in a frolicsome chase. They tumbled and pulled each other about, and of course in the midst of all this hilarity Master Hare quietly escaped.
Advantage was taken of the truce to bury the dead, some of whom had been lying between the opposing fronts since the previous engagement. This incident leads the writer to remark on the grim sight presented by a mound behind their section of trenches where lie those who have fallen in action, and in the fact that the last resting place of many gallant lads is marked by a rude cross made out of a ration box.
On the day after Christmas the truce was still in operation, and the Germans continued to march about and to pay occasional visits to the British trenches. The Germans, says Private MacGregor, looked big and smart in their grey coats, and are a fine soldierly set of men. While the men on this particular part of the front prolonged the season of "peace and good-will" into the following day, those in other parts of the line were not as fortunate, and both to the right and left the guns and rifles again began their deadly work.
Undoubtedly the strangest thing of all that happened on Christmas Day on this part of the front - emphasising in the most striking manner the power engendered by all that Christmas stands for in our religious annals - was a short service held by a British chaplain, the Rev J E Adam, of Union Street, West United Free Church, Aberdeen, his hearers comprising German as well as British soldiers. He also held a burial service over a grave in which 16 Germans were buried. After the service a German officer presented the clergyman with a cigar.
During the truce the men had an opportunity of viewing their respective positions. The trenches in some parts are only a matter of 50 yards apart, and there is even shorter distance between the respective entanglement. Private MacGregor points out that the truce was not altogether spent in innocent fun, some of the men being busily engaged all day in strengthening the trenches and making the dug-outs as comfortable as possible. He explained that varying distances separate the trenches, and that the men's positions are frequently changed so that they are not kept permanently in the same section of trench.
From The Oban Times, 9 January 1915.
Laurence wrote to his parents from a Friends Ambulance Unit station in France on Boxing Day 1914, picking up themes that had been cut short in his last letter. Here's an abridged version of his letter.