If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.


Monday, 22 December 2014

Stille Nacht

Christmas of 1914 had been envisioned, as the war was getting under way, much differently as it had turned out.  Victorious armies were predicted to have been in occupation of Paris or Berlin by year’s end.  Many may be familiar with the term “Over by Christmas” which was touted by both sides as the war began in the summer of 1914.  The common interpretation of this phrase is either one of arrogance and ignorance or a naive sentimentality.  That, though, is a conceit of hindsight.  The underlying meaning in place at the time was that a quick victory was essential.  The material, human and financial cost of a protracted war against industrial nations was predicted to be so prohibitive that either a nation’s population or its financers would withdraw support for the war if those costs proved too high.  The one problem with waging the First World War as a quick and limited campaign was that everybody had the same idea at the same time, and neither side had a clear advantage.  In terms of military strength, the Entente had a 1.28:1 (man to man) advantage over the Central Powers.  While this advantage might seem clear, they are by a far margin away from being the military ideal of tactical advantage which is, even today, 3:1.[1]

Now, a vast network of trenches stretched for miles on end, forbidding any attempt at advancing and dislodging defenders on either side.  The forbearance of a long war and its prohibitive cost, in lives and wealth, could not be enough to leave it without conclusion.  Too much had been sacrificed so far that anything less than a total victory would be satisfactory.  A long, grim sequence of several years was now due to play out.

Very little good is seen to have come as a result of the First World War.  A century later, the common perception based upon a general notion of the futility of the years of near stalemate is that this war, more so than others in recent memory, was wasteful and cruelly inconclusive.  This view may not take into account the large impact that such an event must have upon humanity; but it is the popular notion.  Which is why, perhaps that tiny instances which inspire a feeling of sentimentality within such a dark episode can grow into the stuff of legend. 
 
For an event with such anecdotal provenance as what became known as the “Christmas Truce,” it is remarkably odd that neither Sir Basil Liddell Hart nor Sir John Keegan, in their respective books on the First World War make any mention of holiday related fraternization.  Such things did occur, and there is plenty of evidence of there being “a strange, spontaneous eruption of fellow feeling.” [2] G J Meyer describes the event as it is understood to happen:  “On Christmas morning, in their trenches opposite the British near Ypres, German troops began singing carols and displaying bits of evergreen....The Tommies too began to sing....Step by step this led to a gathering in no-man’s-land of soldiers from both sides, to exchanges of food and cigarettes, even to games of soccer.”[3]

Such informal arrangements at other times were not uncommon, and usually had a humanitarian purpose- such as the evacuation of wounded or the burial of dead.  Reciprocal periods of 'quiet time' emerged when soldiers tacitly agreed not to shoot at each other. Between battles and out of boredom, soldiers began to banter, even barter for cigarettes, between opposite sides. Informal truces were also agreed and used as an opportunity to recover wounded soldiers, bury the dead and shore up damaged trenches. In many ways, for the last of the professional soldiers, this was all part of the etiquette of war.[4] That certainly would have been part of the purpose behind localised truces.  In his book “The Truce: The Day the War Stopped” Chris Baker describes burials taking place, sometimes in a cooperative effort between sides, that there were exchanges of personal items, but only half, by his estimate, of British units at the front had any notion of these events.  Even during this period of relative quiet, Baker notes that 81 British soldiers died on Christmas day, some even at the places where the truces were in effect.[5]

These incidences were rather isolated, mainly in the British area of Ypres, as there was fighting in other places along the line.  French offensives in Artois had ended on the 24th, and another had begun in Champagne on the 20th.[6] Even some British units experienced “considerable activity: 2nd Grenadier Guards suffer losses in a day of heavy fighting. As night fell, things grew quiet as men fell back to their trenches to take whatever Christmas meal that had been provided for them.[7] Nor was it all fun and games in the areas gone quiet “a virtual truce at Christmas 1914 helped the British even more than the Germans to improve their defenses.”[8] The nature of the ground the British occupied at Ypres being unsuitable for defensive works as it was low-lying waterlogged clay meant that any chance to make improvements during a lull in fighting would have been seized.

The reaction to these events was certainly mixed.  Press coverage was largely sympathetic, and from their messages does the popular notion of widespread episodes of goodwill and fraternity develop.  Military leaders were more concerned.  Regardless of the holiday, this sort of behaviour could lead to a larger lapse in discipline.  The London Rifle Brigade's War Diary for 2 January 1915 recorded that ‘informal truces with the enemy were to cease and any officer or [non-commissioned officer] found to having initiated one would be tried by Court Martial.’”[9]

Christmas itself would still be a celebratory occasion, but forward from 1914, that would be confined to rear areas. “Great efforts were made to provide something special for Christmas dinner, and if a battalion was in the line for Christmas, then it was granted an ‘official Christmas’ once it was relieved and in billets.”[10] This indicates an “all business” approach to the front line, at least from 1915 onward.   The men, even at the front did not go without “Throughout the month, 460,000 parcels and 2.5 million letters were sent to British soldiers in France. King George V sent a card to every soldier, and his daughter, Princess Mary, lent her name to a fund which sent a small brass box of gifts, including tobacco or writing sets, to serving soldiers.”[11]

The Canadian Expeditionary Force, not yet at the front, faced a dreary, miserable Christmas at training camps in England.  “Heavy rains began only a week after arrival (in October) and it continued to rain for 89 of the next 123 days, turning the rolling countryside around Salisbury into a quagmire of mud.”[12] Living conditions were terrible: “By 17 December the Engineers and the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades had gone into huts at Larkhill, between Bulford and Bustard Camp; but Christmas found 11,000 Canadians still under canvas. From the beginning of the war, the War Office had sought to solve its accommodation problems by billeting a large part of the ‘New Armies’ recruited by Lord Kitchener.  Now, as the continual exposure to the wretched weather threatened the health of the Canadians on the open plain, billets were requisitioned for as many as possible in the adjoining villages.”[13] Though, the Official History continues to record “Officers and men did their best to improve conditions. Welfare agencies helped to ameliorate the lot of the soldier in his off-duty hours. Welcome parcels of food, knitted goods and tobacco came from the Canadian War Contingent Association, an organization of Canadians in England and their friends. The Y.M.C.A. supplied reading material and stationery and operated refreshment centres. The Canadian Field Comforts Commission, organized from voluntary women workers by two Toronto ladies, who on the Minister of Militia's authority had proceeded overseas with the First Contingent, looked after the distribution of gifts received from Canada.”[14]

It may not have been that masses of men grouped together in a peaceful way on a day highly prized for the promise of “Peace on Earth” and “goodwill toward men,” but it should be admirable that these glimpses of humanity’s great desires, no matter their actual scale, occurred.  While it might do well to be cautious in placing more significance on it than fact would allow, perhaps it may be more fitting to ask why these small truces couldn’t have been more common.


This has been the last post that If Ye Break Faith will publish in 2014.  Overall, it has been a remarkably kind year with many of the essays receiving very favourable response.  I would like to extend my thanks to all of you who have read and enjoyed this work, and all the best for a great holiday season.  I shall be enjoying the holidays with family and friends, as I sincerely hope you all will do as well, and return to publishing new material in January, 2015.  Until then, please like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

Merry Christmas,


Christopher J Harvie




[1] Notes from lecture ““Beyond the Front: The Efforts in Winning Canada’s Total War” MTP 1: The Concept of “Total War” CJ Harvie
[2] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg 237
[3] Meyer, G.J. ibid.
[4] Snow, Dan “What Really Happened in the Christmas Truce of 1914?” via bbc.co.uk
[5] Baker, Chris “The Truce: The Day the War Stopped” Amberley Press, 2014 via 1914-18.net
[6] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg 181
[7] Baker, Chris, ibid.
[8] Desmond Morton & JL Granatstein “Marching to Armageddon”: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989, pg 54
[9] Snow, Dan, ibid.
[10] Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004, pg 98
[11] Snow, Dan, ibid.
[12] John Marteinson “We Stand on Guard”: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army, Ovale Publications, 1992 pg 101
[13] Nicholson, G.W.L. “Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919” Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, 1962 pg 36
[14] Nicholson, G.W.L., ibid. Pg 38

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