The Christmas Truce of 1914 has entered the common mythology of the First World War and has been well documented as a result. The 1st Battalion Somerset Light Infantry were in the front line at Ploegsteert Wood and witnessed the truce first hand.
The Christmas Truce has become the title of a series of unofficial ceasefires which happened along the Western Front in December 1914. It did not reach the whole length of the Front; in some areas the two sides mingled, whilst in others the fighting continued.
The Christmas Truce was not the first and only truce of the war, as the armies had started to entrench a ‘live and let live’ attitude had developed and on occasion fraternisation occurred. However the Christmas Truce stands out due to its longevity and the number of men involved.
The early months of the war had been characterised by movement, with both German and Allied forces trying to gain ground and advantage. However, by November this movement had stagnated and the defensive trench system was developed. In many places the two armies were so close that they could hear each other, and this at times led to conversation and the exchange of the dead.
The Trenches at Ploegsteert, Autumn/Winter 1914
It is thought that the wet weather and poor conditions in November and December was a catalyst leading to the truce. The war diary of the 1st Battalion confirms this belief:
13 November 1914 Rained Hard all day… We moved into trenches in PLOEGSTEERT WOOD – The sides in the Wood were about 3ft deep in mud and movement was most difficult…15 November 1914 Rained hard all day – Very wretched for men in the trenches, which are mostly half full of water…19 November 1914 Very cold indeed today. Snow and frost…26 November 1914 Thaw continued today and everywhere it is very muddy…1 December 1914 C. Coys trench was flooded in one part today by a spring of water…any attempt to dig seems only to bring more water in. Very muddy everywhere today…7 December 1914 Trenches in very bad state after last night’s rain. Continual pumping and bailing does not suffice to keep the water down
The diary continues:
25 December 1914 There was much singing in the trenches last night by both sides. Germans opposite us brought up their Regimental Band and played theirs and our National Anthems followed by “Home Sweet Home”. A truce was mutually arranged by the men in the trenches. During the morning Officers met the German Officers half way between the trenches and it was arranged that we should bring in our dead who were lying between the trenches. The bodies of Capt Maud, Capt Orr and 2/Lt Henson were brought in also those of 18 NCO’s and men. They were buried the same day. The Germans informed us that they had captured wounded officer and this was thought to be 2/Lt K GG Dennys who commanded one of the attacking platoons of B Coy on the 19th. There was a sharp frost last night, which continued during the day, and the weather very seasonable. Not a shot or a shell was fired by either side in our neighbourhood; and both sides walked about outside their trenches quite concernedly. It afforded a good opportunity for inspecting our trenches by day light. The enemy’s works were noticed to be very strong. A very peaceful day.
26 December 1914 A day very similar to yesterday, but thaw started in afternoon. Truce still continued. No firing of any description…
28 December 1914 The truce continued today but about 8pm the Germans sent over to say they were going to continue firing at midnight. However no shots were fired in our vicinity…
30 December 1914 Truce still continues…The Germans sent in the following message to the Left Trench this morning “Dear Comerades, I beg to inform you that is forbidden us to go over to you but we will remain good comerades. If we shall be forced to fire we will fire to high. Please tell me if you are English or Irishmen. Offering you some cigars. I remain yours truly camerade – X.Y.” No answer was given to this communication.
31 December 1914 The Germans celebrated the New Year with Great vigour. Trumpets were sounded and other instruments played and there was much singing. They also had lanterns hung on their wire entanglements. At 11pm they fired a feu-de-joie over our heads. This was taken by our guns to mean an intended attack and they started shelling…
11 January 1915 The truce came to an abrupt end today and snipping started again in earnest – The presumption is that our “friendly” enemy of the last fortnight has been relieved
The truce is also recorded in the personal diary of Corporal Arthur Cook of A Company, who records:
Fri Dec 25 Very sharp frost last night. Have received plenty gifts of puddings and cakes. Was also presented with Princess Mary Gift containing tobacco, cigarettes and pipes. Had a walk round Ploegsteert, the roads are lovely and hard with the frost. The troops in the front line are having a very quiet time.
Sat Dec 26 Was on fatigues timber carrying in the morning. Relieved C Coy in the front line 4pm it is very quiet here, both sides have been fraternizing with each other and exchanging souvenirs
Sun Dec 27 Had to demolish our shelter this morning to allow the RE’s to build up a breast work. There is no firing to our front. The Germans and our fellows are walking about outside the trenches quite free and easy. A lot of our fellows went out and met Fritz who came half way, a lot of hand shaking took place, followed by exchange of cigarettes for cigars and then paired off and walked up and down no mans land, I went out myself later on and had a chat with several of them, quite a lot of them can speak fair English. I had a cigarette off one of them, they all look well and told us as long as we don’t shoot , they wont, so I don’t know who will start the ball rolling here again, it is quite amusing to look on the scene and to think that a few hours ago, they were at one another’s throats and probably in a few hours time they will be again then tell us they don’t want to shoot. There appear to be plenty of Germans here, by the number knocking about. Having this time here our fellows took advantage of and picked up all our dead which had been lying in no man land since Dec 19th, and buried them in the cemetery in Plogesteert Wood near to Somerset House (Bn HQ). The Germans themselves handed us the body of Capt C E Maud DSA and told us he was a very brave man. Was relieved by ‘B’ Coy and went back to S.B. Farm. My section was on guard all night and next day.
Captain Maud in 1913
The Grave of Captain Maud and other men of the Somerset Light Infantry
Private Edward Packe tells a similar story in his diary:
A very curious state of affairs reigned here on Christmas Day, I don’t know how it started but anyhow Germans and English were walking about in between the two trenches, hobnobbing and exchanging cigarettes etc…There were a good many German dead near our trenches and these we brought into the middle and then they took them away to bury them and we did the same to ours
(The diary of Private Packe is part of the Liddle Collection, University of Leeds Library)
The published regimental history of the Somerset Light Infantry makes no mention of the truce or the fraternisation.
Article from the Shepton Mallet Journal reporting the truce in a letter home from the front, 15 Jan 1915
The following year, December 1915, the Allied Commanders ordered that no fraternisation was to take place and many artillery barrages were used to dissuade the enemy from communicating.