World War I Christmas truces were not confined to 1914 - new discoveries by Aberdeen historian
The widely-known Christmas truce of 1914, when World War I troops ceased hostilities on Christmas day, were not confined to a single year, a University of Aberdeen historian has discovered. For the latest history, heritage and archaeology news, features and opinion, sign up for our free e-newsletter.
Professor Thomas Weber has uncovered evidence that festive meetings continued throughout the war, with a significant number in 1916, despite the huge casualties suffered in the Battle of the Somme. He has been given access to a large number of family memories of the war which show that despite officers recording in official documents that no such friendly exchanges took place, the situation on the front lines was very different.
Professor Weber made the discoveries while conducting research for a new book on the untold story of the Great War. The forthcoming book maps out phenomena that ‘wartime censors, commanding officers, and a post-war generation battling with the meaning of the war did not want us to see’.
AN OFFICIAL COVER UP?
Professor Weber said his research reveals a century-long history of cover-ups, where the official records of regiments and those of senior officers conflict with the testimonies of ordinary soldiers.
One such example is a truce between German and Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge in 1916. The official version of events recorded by the Canadian Regiment, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, stated that the Germans tried to interact but that no-one responded to it.
But a letter written by Ronald MacKinnon (left), the son of a Scot from Levenseat, near Fauldhouse in West Lothian, tells a rather different story: ‘Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was ‘tray bon’ which means very good.’
‘Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was ‘tray bon’ which means very good.’
Professor Weber said: “In the course of research for a previous book, I came across a surprising number of references to Christmas truces well beyond 1914.
“I wanted to develop this further as it goes against our standard understanding of the war and was fortunate to be given access to many private accounts of those who fought in the trenches. As a result, it has become clear that we need to reconsider the view that combatants during the Great War were driven by a brutalising and ever faster spinning cycle of violence and of a radicalization of minds which made this type of truce impossible after 1914.
“A hundred years on, it is important instead to focus on what drove soldiers to continue trying to fraternise with their opponents during Christmas as well as during other times of the year.”
Professor Weber also points to evidence recorded by Arthur Burke, a Private serving in the 20th Battalion Manchester Regiment, who wrote home to his family in Salford on Christmas Day 1916, describing how men from his unit and the Germans had been ‘on absolutely speaking terms’ amidst the ‘rotten weather, raining and thawing’ in the lead-up to Christmas. More than that, ‘German soldiers had come to the British side and exchanged cigarettes’.
Burke, who was to be killed in action in October 1917, wrote: “It got so frequent it had to be stopped and even after our order to quit, two of our boys got 28 days for going out and meeting them half way for a chat… There’s never a rifle or machine gun shot fired by either side for many days, although we got orders to fire we knew it was hopeless to do so - so we didn’t.”
Professor Weber added that other evidence from all fronts from Christmas, Easter, and other times of the year points to the continued willingness of rank and file for handshakes and interchanges of civility and greetings but that this was increasingly clamped down upon by orders from above. Fraternization of this kind, Weber argues, occurred frequently but did not spread quite as widely as they had done in 1914, as officers had learned how to respond swiftly to friendly encounters with the enemy.
For instance, a British officer ordered sharpshooters to open fire when German soldiers approached men of the 5th Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment to wish them a ‘Merry Christmas’ and to propose for an Anglo-German meeting in no-man’s land. As Private Walter Hoskyn recorded in his diary, the behaviour of his officer did not meet the approval of the rank and file: “The dirty dog. What a very un-British thing to do,” he wrote.