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

  • Tony Ashworth

Abstract

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?

Keywords

Assure Lime Smoke Straw Trench 

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Notes

  1. 7.
    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.
    For instance, one infantry officer asserted ‘There was no truce on the front of my battalion’. J. Terraine (ed.), General Jack’s Diary 1914–1918 (Eyre … Spottiswoode, 1964) p. 94 (1/Cameronians, nr. Houplines). But there are signs that this unit did exchange some form of Christmas greeting with the enemy— see p. 88 of the same diary.Google Scholar
  3. 12.
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  4. 13.
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  5. 14.
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  6. 16.
    P. MacGill, The Red Horizon (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1916) p. 84 (47th division, 18/London Regiment, March [9[5, nr. Festubert, 1st Army).Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    S. Gillon, The Story of the 29th Division (London: Nelson … Sons,) p. 77 (29th division, May 1916, nr. Englebelmer, 4th Army). The 29th relieved the 31st division.Google Scholar
  8. 18.
    R. C. SherritTand V. Bartlett, Journey’s End (London: Corgi Books, 1968) pp. 129–30 (24th division, 9/East Surrey Regiment). This is a work of autobiographical fiction and whether the above incident actually occurred is not known; yet it could easily have happened and is probably typical of many actual incidents. As far as I can determine the line which Sherriff described above was Vimy Ridge—although the main event of the book occurs elsewhere. The 24th division was in the line near Vimy when Sherriff first joined his unit—October 1916—and remained in Vimy, Souchez, Loos until April 1917; this was the main part of Sherriff’s trench war experience. Generally the sector was not overactive. In the history of a battalion in the same division as Sherriff’s unit, it is interesting to read of a sector where ‘The enemy post was within easy bombing distance of our own, and consequently neither side cared about stirring up strife, as it was apt to become unpleasant for the instigator’. The History of the Eighth Battalion The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment 1914–1918 (London: Hazell, Watson … Viney, 1921) p. 72 (24th division, March 1916, nr. Loos, 1st Army). Possibly Sherriff’s battalion occupied the same part of the line at about the same time.Google Scholar
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  11. 23.
    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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  16. 29.
    J. H. Morgan, Leaves from a Field Notes Book (London: Macmillan, 1916) pp. 270–1. The author was attached to G.H.Q. of the B.E.F. as Home Office Commissioner, and while not a participant, he was an eyewitness of trench warfare, for his duties involved daily visits to the H.Q.s of almost every corps, division and brigade, and took him on one or two occasions into the trenches.Google Scholar
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    W. E. Gray, The and City of London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in The Great War (London: 1929) p. 33 (6th division, 1/2nd London Regiment, April 1915, nr. Armentieres, 2nd Army).Google Scholar
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    C. H. Dudley-Ward, Regimental Records of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Vol. 3 (London: Forster, Groom and Company, 1928) p. 420 (38th division, 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, May 1918, nr. Aveluy, 3rd Army). Neither incident nor order is recorded in the history of the 38th division; but there is a mention in the history of the 2/Royal Welch, where the ‘ringleader in the exchange of news, views and cigarettes’ is reported as falling from favour. However, the history also commented that ‘Front and rear have never looked on such incidents from the same angle’. The ‘rear’ is, of course, high command. See The War The Infantry Knew, op. cit., p. 479.Google Scholar
  19. 35.
    D. Sutherland, War Diary of the Fifth Seaforth Highlanders (London: John Lane, 1920) p. 27 (51st division, 5/Seaforth Highlanders, July 1915 Laventie, 1st Army). Both Greenwell and Hay wrote of similar occasions where as part of a live and let live arrangement the Saxons shouted of their impending relief by Prussians, and asked the British to stir it up for the latter; see Greenwell, op. cit., p. 21 (48th division, 4/Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, June 1915, Ploegsteert Wood, 2nd Army);Google Scholar
  20. I. Hay, Carrying on After the First Hundred Thousand (London: Wm. Blackwood, 1917) p. 59 (9th division, 10/ Argyll … Sutherland Highlanders, Ploegsteert Wood, Spring 1916, 2nd Army) .Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    A. Scott and P. M. Brumwell (eds.), History of the 12th (Eastern) Division in the Great War (London: Nisbet … Co., 1923) p. 7 (12th division, 7/East Surrey Regiment, June 1915, nr. Armentières, 2nd Army).Google Scholar
  22. 37.
    T. M. Banks and R. A. Chell, With the 10th Essex in France (London: 1921) p. 57 (18th division, 10/Essex Regt. November 1915, La Boiseile, 3rd Army).Google Scholar
  23. 39.
    J. D. Hills, The Fifth Leicestershire 1914–1918 (Loughborough: The Echo Press, 1919) p.46 (46th division, The 5/Leicestershire Regiment, July 1915, Comines Canal sector, Ypres, 2nd Army).Google Scholar
  24. 41.
    A. W. Pagan, An Account of the 1st Gloucestershire Regiment During the War 1914–1918 (Aldershot: Gale … Polden, 1951) p. 83 (1st division, 1/Gloucester Regt. May 1916, Les Brébis, 1st Army).Google Scholar
  25. 43.
    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
  26. C. H. Ommaney, The War History of the 1st Nôrthumbrian Brigade R.F.A. (T.F.) (Newcastle: 1927) p. 131.Google Scholar
  27. 50.
    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
  31. 60.
    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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