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Tony Mckenna


All Quiet on the Western Front: The Christmas Truce

Posted: 20/02/2013 22:35

Like smoke drifting across no man's land as the sound of the guns and the mortar finally fell quiet, the Christmas truce of 1914 has been shrouded by the mists of time. A historical event which occurred early in the First World War and one many of us are familiar with; yet it has the feel and texture of legend as much as fact.

I first heard about it in a school assembly. Our headmaster described, in sombre almost reverent tones, how as Christmas night arrived, the men in the trenches stopped fighting, laid down their weapons and walked out to embrace one another under the stars. They even played a game of football. Perhaps because the concepts of fighting and football and Christmas were ones close to our own hearts, we followed the story with rapt attention.

That in itself was special, I guess - for our school assemblies were usually categorised by a cacophony of shuffling and coughing and hushed whispers. Now a silence fell. An event, which had happened many decades before in the annuls of a history which was of meagre interest to small children, nevertheless - and for a few minutes - seemed to claim us entirely.

To this day, the Christmas truce retains that power - the power to fascinate. And it retains an aura of mystique too. When one delves into the records and accounts surrounding it, one tends to find - paradoxically - that things become murkier and more mysterious rather than less.

There is, for instance, no uniform consensus surrounding the totemic football game which was said to have taken place between the soldiers. Some accounts argue there was no one single match; that, in fact, quite a few kickabouts were had in various spots dotted along the trenches, and these were amalgamated into a single event only in retrospect. Others suggest - more controversially - that it is unlikely that any football matches occurred in the first place. 'Where', they ask with hardheaded pragmatism - 'would anyone find a ball?'

Moreover, it is stipulated, most of the 'witness' reports were not based on genuine first-hand accounts but were probably little more than recycled rumours that were later seized upon by 'post-war pacifists' - perhaps because such anecdotes so successfully crystallise both the absurdity of war and its pathos.

There does, however, seem to be some evidence to suggest that at least one match took place. References to the same 3-2 score line crop up here and there. And in 1983, in a televised interview, Ernie Williams, a former private of 6th Cheshires recounted his detailed memories of a match which possibly involved "a couple of hundred taking part".

In any case, even if the legendary football match did take place, we shouldn't forget that it was merely one element of a broader and quite remarkable dynamic. Again, the way in which the truces broke out is disputed for the process was by no means linear, and in many places along the Western Front there were no cessations in the fighting. However it seems that in the week leading up to Christmas, some groups of soldiers began to exchange greetings and sing carols from across the trenches. Frank Richards, a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers describes how both sides erected signs wishing one another 'Merry Christmas'. A correspondent for the Daily Telegraph reveals how some of the German troops managed to slip a chocolate cake to the British side. Letters sent home show how soldiers eventually stepped out into no-man's land in order to shake hands and exchange gifts.

Although the truce took place at Christmas, it wasn't the product of some quasi-religious epiphany which allowed the scales to fall from the eyes and the soldiers to be possessed by some transcendental yearning for brotherhood. The stakes were far too high for such easy sentimentality. Rather it was an awkward and tentative process which was interrupted by suspicion and distrust on both sides, underscored by the type of black humour the perennial presence of death is likely to induce. In one priceless exchange a British Tommy refused to sing songs with opposing troops shouting "We'd rather die than sing German". At which point a German soldier offered the immortal riposte - "It would kill us if you did".

But despite tensions, fraternisations did occur - and on a massive scale. It is estimated that some 100 000 troops participated in the spontaneous ceasefire. In some cases the troops would not resume aggressions for several days. What is often omitted from more saccharine and apolitical accounts of the truce - is the outrage it evoked on the part of the command centres - and the clinical, cold blooded measures they took in order to make sure that it could not sustain, and would not be repeated.

Officers who had indulged or supported the fraternisations were disciplined and in the case of Captain Iain Colquhoun of the 1st Scots Guard - court-martialled. The 2nd Welsh Fusiliers - who had not fired a shot from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day - were relieved without notice. But more significantly the British high command perpetuated a series of slow interminable bombardments and trench raids in the period immediately following - designed, quite literally, to blow to smithereens the precious, precarious solidarity the soldiers had started to forge against the darkest of backdrops.

As the year of the centennial of the truce approaches, the current UK government is devising plans to mark it; plans which will include a series of football games as part of the homage. This is simultaneously welcome and worrying; on the one hand any commemoration to such a moving and resonant event should be encouraged - but at the same time the temptation to the government to apoliticise the truce, and the conflict more generally, is clearly a strong one.

Conservative minister Andrew Murrison has already spoken of the need for any narrative to "be personal and parochial'" eschewing broader references to "grand strategy". Quite so. In a period when the nation remains embroiled in futile wars overseas, the current government will surely be inclined to reappropriate the Christmas truce; to absolve the record and to conveniently forget that then - as now - there remained a powerful and humane undercurrent of opposition to war among those who were the casualties of it.