The 1914 Christmas Truce
is thought possible that the enemy may
On Christmas Day 1914, the first Christmas of The Great War, an amazing cessation of hostilities took place in some sections of the British front-line. Below is the account of the truce in the Sailly - Armentiers sector manned by George Anderson, George Gordon, William Milne, Alexander Pirie and their comrades of 6th Btn, The Gordon Highlanders.
"At Christmas 1914 there took place in some parts of the British line what is still regarded by many as the most remarkable incident of the War - an unofficial truce. During the winter it was not unusual for little groups of men to gather in a front trench, and there hold impromptu concerts, singing patriotic songs. The Germans, too, did much the same, and on calm evenings the songs from one line floated to the trenches of the other side, and were received with applause, and sometimes with calls for an encore. On quiet nights, at points where the trenches were quite near, remarks shouted from one trench system were audible in the other. Christmas Eve the Germans spent singing carols, and, the night being calm, they informed our men they did not intend to shoot on Christmas Day, asking at the same time that we also should refrain from violence. "No shoot to-night, Jock!, Sing to-night!" was one of the remarks they made on Christmas Eve. Little attention was given to this, but on Christmas morning, when our men were at breakfast, a cry was raised that the Germans had left their trenches. Springing to arms, they could scarcely believe their eyes when they looked over the parapet and saw a number of the enemy standing in the open in front of their trenches, all unarmed. Some of the enemy shouted "No shoot!" and after a little, a number of our men also got out of their trench.
Meanwhile Colonel McLean had come up on his daily tour of inspection, accompanied by the Padre, the Rev J Esslemont Adams, minister of the West United Free Church, Aberdeen. They had just completed a burial service over one of our men behind the line, when the Chaplain, looking up, observed the strange sight at the front trench, and drew the Colonels attention to it. Colonel McLean ran along the front line and ordered our men to come down, but they pointed out that more of our men further along were standing "on the top", and that a number of the enemy were out on their side and gazing peacefully across. The Chaplain, who had followed the Colonel, said to him, "I'm off, sir, to speak to the Germans; maybe we could get a truce to bury the dead in No Man's Land." Coming to a little ditch, which ran along the middle of the field between the lines, he held up his hands and called out, " I want to speak to your Commanding Officer. Does anyone speak English?" Several German officers were standing together, and one of them said, "Yes, come over the ditch." The Chaplain hurried forward, saluted the German Commander, and began to talk to him and his staff. Almost at the same moment a hare burst into view and raced along between the lines. Scots and Germans leapt from their trenches and joined in the eager chase. The hare was captured by the Germans, but more was secured than a hare. The truce of God had been called, and the rest of Christmas Day was filled with peace and goodwill.
Gordon Highlanders Regimental Christmas Card, Willie Middleton
Dotted all over the sixty yards separating the lines lay the bodies of the dead. Spades were brought out and soon each side set to work to dig graves for the fallen. The Chaplain had seized his opportunity and had urged both Commanding Officers to agree to a short religious service after the dead had been buried. This was arranged, and about four o'clock that afternoon took place what must remain one of the most memorable Christmas services of all time. One one side of the dividing ditch were British officers, with soldiers in rank behind them ; on the other, German officers with men of their regiments about them ; between them stood the Chaplain, an interpreter, and a German divinity student serving with the Saxons. The Padre read the 23rd Psalm in English, the German student reading it after him in German. Then a short prayer, which the interpreter had translated, was read sentence by sentence by the student after the English form had been recited. At the close the Chaplain stepped forward and saluted the German Commander, who shook hands with him and bade him farewell. It was an impressive sight - officers and men, bitter enemies as they were, uncovered, reverent, and for the moment united in offering to their dead the last offices of homage and honour.
The spirit of friendship and goodwill did not end with Christmas Day. Both sides were only too glad to snatch a brief respite from the discomfort and misery of the mud-filled trenches. A friendly understanding was come to, by which they warned each other of the approach of any of the Brigade or Divisional Staff. On their approach the "truce" seemed to vanish, and trench routine was normal. A few rounds were fired into the air, lest by accident a front-line combatant might come by harm. As soon as the Staff left the line, the truce revived, and friend and foe again swarmed into No Man's Land. The informal character of the truce sometimes created embarrassing situations. During one such visit the Brigadier, passing along the front line, looked over the parapet and saw a German fully exposed. Turning to the nearest rifleman, he ordered him to shoot the German down. The man, wishing to give the enemy a sporting chance, fired high. The German took no notice. The Brigadier became annoyed and ordered the private to shoot again. This time the soldier fired wide, but near enough to cause the German to look up in pained surprise. "Shoot again" ordered the Brigadier. The soldier obeyed, and so near was the bullet that the incautious enemy dived headlong into his trench.
The reverse of Willie Middleton's greeting to his family at Cults
A number of Germans were fluent speakers of English - one said he had been a waiter in the Hotel Cecil - and conversation was always possible. The greatest friendliness prevailed. All kinds of "souvenirs" were exchanged - coins, buttons and pipes ; while quite a busy trade went on in barter. Bully beef and jam were in great demand, and were exchanged for sausage and chocolate ; cigarettes and tobacco were the price of German cigars ; and British rum purchased wine or cognac. In these beverages they pledged each other's health, and to all appearance the War was at an end. Strangest perhaps of all, and most abiding proof of truce, when it was discovered that there were barbers among the enemy, a number of our men were shaved by them in No Man's Land.
A few days of quiet revealed in their own way the national characteristics of the combatants. The 6th Battalion, descended from forefathers for whom thrift and foresight had been a hard necessity and not a virtue, could not conceal its "canny" nature. Knowing that this situation could not last, many of the men took advantage of the "armistice" to fetch from the ruined buildings and fields nearby, supplies of firewood and potatoes against the days when peace and goodwill would be no more. Most of the enemy, though glad to escape the mud and to stretch their limbs in the open, still retained the optimism and truculence of early days of the War, and were confident they would be "Nach London" in three weeks. The few cases of war-weariness only threw into bold relief the confidence of the many. One German, asked by an officer of the 6th whether he was tired of the War, looked up wistfully at his tall questioner and whispered in pathetic English " Home, Sweet, Home !"
truce lasted from Christmas, 1914, to the 3rd of January 1915. Its
end had more formality than its opening. On the afternoon of 3rd January
a German officer approached our lines, accompanied by an orderly who
acted as interpreter. They asked for an officer. Capt. Dawson of "D"
Company, left the British trench and advanced over the open to meet
them. The two officers gravely saluted, the German officer informing
Capt. Dawson that instructions had been received that the ordinary
conditions of warfare must be resumed. After some discussion of the
time, watches were compared and were found to differ by nearly two
hours ; it was then agreed that the truce would lapse after the expiry
of an hour. That day only a few shots were fired, but on the following
day, in obedience of orders, volleys were fired all along the line.
A "feu de joie" passed from the 2nd Gordons through the
6th to the Guards, rifles being in the proper position, muzzles well
in the air. Immediately after, a message passed right along the front,
" Pass it along - the Kaiser's dead." The truce was over.
During the following Christmases of the Great War the Military Authorities were to ensure that these unique events were never repeated.