The Elementary Forms of Live and Let Live: Christmas Truces, Fraternisation and Inertia. The Problems of Communication

  • Tony Ashworth


At the outset of this study, we must distinguish between problems of the origins of truces, and problems of their persistence through time. Concerning origins, we want to know when and where tacit understandings first occurred, and also how they happened during battle, where each antagonist was ostensibly intent upon killing the other. Exactly when and where the first truce emerged can never be known; but the view that truces appeared for the first and last time during the Christmas of 1914 is incorrect. The Christmas truces were neither the first nor last instances of live and let live; for some truces occurred before the Christmas, and others for the duration of the war. A more correct view is that several forms of truce occurred throughout the trench war, and that truces briefly yet vividly emerged in the form of overt fraternisation on a widespread scale during the 1914 Christmas. The event can be likened to the sudden surfacing of the whole of an iceberg, visible to all including non-combatants, which for most of the war remained largely submerged, invisible to all save the participants. But how and when did truces first happen? Which activities were first involved?


Front Line Indirect Communication Tacit Understanding Combat Activity High Command 
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    R. Binding, A Fatalist at War (London: Allen … Unwin, 1929) p. 35 (nr. Ypres, 8 December 1914). Informal truces were not confined to British and Germans, for the events described by Binding, who was an officer of divisional cavalry, occurred between the Germans and French.Google Scholar
  2. 8.
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    On 26 December the British divisions in the line were: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and the Meerut (Indian) division. Accounts of some of these truces occur in the following sources: Anon. (Douglas Bell), A Soldier’s Diary of the Great War (London: Faber … Gwyer, 1929) pp. 77–87 (5/Rifle Brigade, 4th division); B. Bairnsfeather, Bullets and Billets (London: Grant Richards, 1916) (1/Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 4th division); F. Loraine Petre, The History of the Norfolk Regiment, Vol. 2 (Norwich: Jarrold … Son) p. 13 (1st Norfolk Regiment, 5th division);Google Scholar
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    A. L. Raimes, The Fifth Battalion The Durham Light Infantry 1914–1918 (London: 1931) pp. 79–80 (50th division, 5/Durham Light Infantry, January 1917, nr. Mametz, 4th Army). The same truce was witnessed by a gunner officer who wrote, ‘I was being led to our trenches by a sub. [infantry officer] … through mud until I saw a row of faces gazing at us about fifty yards away, and I suddenly discovered they were Bosche. I naturally took cover in a trench, … and then discovered that in thii particular section there was a recognised truce, as the trenches on both sides were so bad that they had stopped fighting until they were improved’.Google Scholar
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    R. Feilding, War Letters to a Wife (London: The Medici Society, 1929) pp. 154–5(16th division, 6/Connaught Rangers, February 1917, nr. Kemmel, 2nd Army) . Despite the severity of high command reaction, ad hoc truces to collect wounded still occurred; for instance, a battalion of the 66th division recorded that twenty minutes after it had raided the Germans: ‘a German climbed on to the top of his parapet and commenced to beckon to men in our line … the German said if we would provide stretchers they would fetch our wounded and dead. Stretchers were obtained and the work commenced … One of the Germans was quite familiar with Manchester and said he wondered what was on at the “Palace” that week … the enemy’s parapet was lined with men.’Google Scholar
  28. C. H. Potter and A. S. C. Fothergill, The History of the 2/6th Lancashire Fusiliers (Rochdale: 1927) pp. 52–3 (66th division, 2/6th Lanc. Fusil., March 1917, Festubert, 1st Army).Google Scholar
  29. 52.
    A. E. Ashcroft, History of the 7th South Staffordshire Regiment (London: Boyle, Son … Warchurst, 1919) p. 141 (11th division, 7/South Staffs. Regiment, October 1916, nr. Lens, 1st Army).Google Scholar
  30. 53.
    History of the Prince of 11’ales Own Civil Service Rifles (London: Wyman … Sons, 1921) pp. 90–1 (47th division, 1/15th London Regiment, April 1916, Vimy Ridge, 1st Army) . The form of words used varied in the sources. For instance, one author wrote: ‘The Arras front was really most charmingly quiet’, A. S. Turberville, A Short History of the 20th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps (Hull: Goddard, Walker … Brown, 1923) p. 48 (3rd division, 20 K.R.R.C. January/ February 1917, nr. Arras, 3rd Army).Google Scholar
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    F. W. Bewsher, The History of the 51st (Highland) Division (London: Blackwood and Son, 1921) p. 29 (51st division, Summer 1915, nr. Festubert, 1st Army).Google Scholar
  32. 67.
    R. M. Watt, Dare Call it Treason (London: Chatto and Windus, 1964) p. 79. The passage is from the U.S. Army’s translation of the 1917 edition of the Manual for Commanders of Infantry Platoons (Manual de Chef de Section D’Infanterie) p. 355. The British literature — both official and personal documents—is misleading with respect to official French policy for trench war. There is much evidence in personal documents that British trench fighters believed that live and let live was the French policy. This view is also found in the British official history which asserts that when the British relieved the French 10th Army in March 1916: ‘a state approximating to a suspension of arms existed … the enemy … seemed used to a policy of “live and let live” ’ (O.H.16.1. p. 209), and elsewhere that: ‘when the British took over from their allies they generally found a kind of unofficial suspension of arms or truce prevailing … with a view to cultivating an “aggressive spirit” G.H.Q. did not allow this state of affairs to continue … as far as the British were concerned the western front was never quiet’ (O.H.16.1. p. 156). This needs qualification. Some British units restarted the war on relieving the French, but others took over the French truce. While it is true that both British and French units practised live and let live, whether the French did so more frequently I do not know (my impression is that probably they did). But what must be corrected is any idea that official French directives ordered a policy of live and let live.Google Scholar

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© Tony Ashworth 1980

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  • Tony Ashworth

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