The Christmas Truce 1914
“But, however, looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.”1
The English soldier Bruce Bairnsfather looked back on an event in which he had taken part. This small excerpt shows quite clearly that something extraordinary and unexpected must have happened. Bairnsfather talks about the Christmas Truce, which happened in 1914. After almost six month of war, soldiers fighting for the Entente powers and soldiers fighting for the “Mittelmachte” met in No Man’s Land and celebrated Christmas together. The soldiers exchanged gifts, sometimes addresses, and drank together. Often the truce started with a request to bury the dead comrades lying between the trenches. The Christmas Truce was a small peaceful episode in a cruel environment. Certainly, Bairnsfather’s statement is a bit too generalized because it did not occur along the whole frontline. Mostly English and German soldiers took part in the Christmas fraternization, but also in some cases French, Belgian, Austrian and Russian soldiers took part.2 In the following years the Christmas Truce was mystified as an act of humanity in an inhuman war. Jorgensen and Harrison-Lever published a picture book for children with the Christmas Truce as the background. A young soldier sees a nice colored small bird which was captured in barbed wire. He decides to leave his trench to free the bird, and no enemy shoots at him. The publisher’s text on the back introduces this book with the words:
“Early on Christmas morning the guns stop firing. A deathly silence creeps over the pitted and ruined landscape.
A young soldier peers through a periscope over the top of the trench. Way out in no-man’s land, he sees a small red shape moving on the barbed wire. A brightly coloured robin is trapped. One wing is flapping helplessly.”3 The Christmas Truce of 1914 was mystified in another way. Not only was the soldiers’ humanity emphasized in retrospect, but the war was combined with an element of sport. Stories about a football match between German and English soldiers were quite common. Many war diaries report a football match occurring during the 1914 truce, but whether or not a match was really played is unclear. Historians are still debating if a match was really played or if the soldiers just dramatized the truce.4 Contrary to in 1914, it is certain that a match between German and English soldiers occurred in 1915.5
From one perspective, the Christmas Truce was not unexpected. Several neutral powers tried to convince the warring nations to keep peace during Christmas and to show the minimum of Christianity. The most successful attempt to arrange a truce was the Pope’s appeal.6 He appealed the European powers to keep peace at Christmas, which might have helped to arrange a treaty to end the war. Not surprisingly, the nations would only have accepted peace if they were not disadvantaged by it.7 Not all nations agreed to a truce: Russia, for example, refused, because the orthodox Christmas is almost two weeks later than the catholic and protestant Christmas, making an official truce impossible.8 On the other hand the truce came totally unexpectedly. Both headquarters forbade a truce and fraternizations and threatened those who ignored their orders with hard punishment.9
That it was not viewed well in the headquarters shows how the truce worked. It was not a happening ordered by the authorities, but a truce made by the average soldier. The view on the whole topic is the view at the bottom of the hierarchy, of the people who were only mentioned as numbers in causality reports. Therefore, in most World War I monographs, the Christmas Truce is ignored. One exception is Ekstein in his book Rites of Spring. Contrary to the common way, his approach to World War I is cultural historical.
This paper approaches the Christmas Truce within the context of the Propaganda War. It asks if the propaganda of the warring states influenced the soldiers who took part in the truce, and if so, in what ways. If the soldiers were influenced by the propaganda, did they change their opinion about their opponents in the trenches? Maybe the soldiers bought the propaganda and saw the evil the propaganda had claimed in their opponents. To point out what impact the propaganda had on the soldiers, the first part investigates the different stereotypes which were created by the different propaganda departments. This part is mainly based on secondary literature, such as the Read’s book Atrocity Propaganda 19141919. International Propaganda and Communications and Roeter’s book The Art of Psychological Warfare. Primary sources written by propagandists round out this section. The second part will juxtapose how the soldiers adopted the propaganda or made their own opinions about their enemies. This part is very much based on primary sources.
1 Bairnsfather, Bruce. Bullets & Billets, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917), 69.
2 Ekstein, Modris. Rites of Spring. The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, (Boston/New York: First Mariner Books, 2000), 109-114.
3 Jorgensen, Norman; Harrison-Lever, Brian. In Flanders Fields, (Fremantle: Sandcastle Books, 2002), 32.
4 Brown and Ekstein do not believe that a football match was really played. Ekstein, Rites of Spring, 113, Brown, Christmas Truce, 134-135. Terraine and Weintraub do not negate that it might have happened. Terraine, “Christmas 1914 and After,” in History Today, No. 29 (12), 1979, p. 785, Weintraub, Stanley. Silent Night. The Remarkable 1914 Christmas Truce. (New York: Free Press, 2001), 120.
5 Eggers, Erik, „Ausfluge in die Menschlichkeit.“ Frankfurter Rundschau. 20 December 2002. 16. and Goldstein, Richard. “Bertie Fealstead, 106, Soldier Who Joined a Timeout in War” New York Times, July 30 2001.
6 Pope Benedict XV appealed the warring nations for peace on December 7. Another attempt to arrange a temporary peace was made by the American Senator Kenyon. Brown, Christmas Truce, 37.
7 “Germany was Ready for Christmas Truce,” New York Times, Dec. 11 1914, 2.
8 “No Truce, Says Russia,” New York Times, Dec. 12 1914, 5.
9 Weintraub, Silent Night, 149, Brown, Christmas Truce, 158-159.
- Quote paper
- Thomas Löwer (Author), 2003, The Christmas Truce, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/28872