As dawn broke over the Western Front on December 25th, 1914, the entire night had been punctuated by fire.
Platoon Sergeant Tom Gregory was manning a forward listening post with Private Percy Huggins just twenty yards from the German front line when a shot rang out of the morning glow. The sniper’s bullet tore through Huggins’s skull, killing him instantly.
Spotting the shooter, Gregory avenged his subordinate, but a few moments later he was also killed — with his finger on the trigger, just a heartbeat slower than the enemy marksman.
Huggins and Gregory are two of the 149 subjects of the British Empire whose deaths are recorded on Christmas Day 102 years ago. But the story of their grisly murders is elided from most yuletide memories of Christmas 1914, for in our grief at the massive death toll of the Great War, we prefer to focus on the myths that make us feel better about it. False narratives of this history may be comforting, yet they are erroneous, and even damaging. Widespread belief that a Christmas miracle occurred in wartime, and that it offers lessons for the peace of humanity, has become a pernicious abdication of responsibility.
Here is the true story of the so-called ‘Christmas truce’ of 1914. It is not pleasant. It is not easy to contemplate. But we must. Only by understanding what actually happened, and how the English-speaking world convinced itself that a magical ‘peace of God’ broke out, can we ever hope to prevent global conflicts in the new age.
The so-called ‘truce’ was not uniform along the Western Front
When German front line units posted small trees on the parapet of their trenches and began to sing carols on Christmas Eve, they received a very mixed reception.
Much of France and most of Belgium were occupied by a hostile German Army, so very few of their soldiers were in the mood for a Christmas party with the enemy. A majority of British units kept up a steady rate of fire all that night and throughout the day. The Army of India was Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu, and therefore utterly impervious to the Christian holiday spirit. German front line units celebrated Christmas Day, yet all but a few got right back to the business of butchery by the afternoon.
The ‘truce’ was in fact uneven and incomplete, scattered along the parts of the line held by the British Army, a series of local truces rather than a single grand moment. Contrary to popular perceptions, there was no general desire among all the men along the battlefront to stop fighting, hold hands, and sing Kumbayah. It is telling that no similar truce occurred on the Eastern Front.
But back to those little Christmas trees. Kaiser Wilhelm II had ordered them delivered to every unit in his vast military, including submarine crews. If the entire German Army had attacked today rather than hoisting decorations, the assault would have immediately been understood for what it really was.
We forget now that the first German outrages on Britain itself, shelling and bombing civilian targets along the coast, had already occurred; that the world was horrified by German atrocities in Belgium; that Wilhelm was dismayed by the negative press he received. When the pope called for a Christmas ceasefire to bring the “peace of God,” Kaiser Wilhelm alone answered in the affirmative — not because he wanted peace, but because he disliked being held responsible for the outbreak of war.
In our eagerness to find a happy ray of sunshine amid the maelstrom, we have misconstrued the Kaiser’s gesture as a successful PR effort. It was certainly not seen that way in the German Army, for there was no mention of these Christmas Day events in German newspapers. But we would make an even greater mistake by trying to ascribe the entire affair to a single individual.
The ‘Christmas truces’ were a result of allied military policy
December was mostly a fallow month for military operations. After the Western Front took its 430-mile long shape in October, the useless battles of November had left both sides exhausted, and often confused about their enemy’s order of battle. During December, limited local truces had become a commonplace method of obtaining intelligence about who was on the other side of no man’s land. Unit war diaries from up and down the line report these meetings and the knowledge gleaned from them.
Tactical intelligence can be a subtle art. Observing the number of sergeants leads to an understanding of how many platoons must occupy a certain strong point. Unit patches reveal the organization of German sectors of responsibility. A conversation with a German might reveal how many machine guns are in a certain trench. The trick, of course, is that no headquarters could possibly acknowledge this policy at the time. That would defeat the purpose of allowing these parleys. For if treachery was ever confirmed, the other side would naturally refuse to reciprocate, or conceal information, or devise entrapments. Operational security demanded official silence on the matter.
Our latter-day interpretation of these events as spontaneous displays of humanity leaves all of this out — and so much else.
Local ‘truces’ were convenient for some commanders
Hastily dug under fire, the trenches of December 1914 were in dire need of improvement. Along much of the British line, the forward-most positions were just shallow scrapes that flooded upon the first hint of rain; parapets needed to be sandbagged for protection. Corpses often rotted in the open, demanding burial. Enemy infiltration had begun to play a serious role on the battlefield — indeed, the first great ‘trench raids’ were just a few weeks in the future — and the first strands of barbed wire were already multiplying every night.
It is therefore completely logical that some of the captains and colonels who ran the British Army were eager for a respite from the constant combat so they could improve their defenses and bury their dead. Because episodes of fraternization had been encouraged from the top, officers and sergeants saw no reason to stop them and felt every incentive to allow them.
December also saw less intense combat because the armies had exhausted their supplies of artillery ammunition. None of the combatants had planned or stockpiled enough explosive shells for a long war, but expenditure in battle had been enormous, while production capacity had not yet scaled up. As a result, British artillery crews were limited to firing just eight shells a day, the German crews to ten. A lull in the fighting thus represented an opportunity to store up ammunition for future operations, and in fact just six days later, the armies of the Western Front ended 1914 with a massive, day-long artillery duel.
So contrary to the popular notion that the ‘Christmas truce’ was a mass uprising by soldiers who were tired of fighting, these events were already known to the chain of command when they happened. Not only were the truces tacitly encouraged, they were carefully stage-managed.
Everyone was supervised while in no man’s land
We like to imagine that the truces were a moment of sanity when men disobeyed their faraway generals, rejecting military discipline to rise up out of their trenches as a body and meet in fellowship. It’s a constant theme of art and song inspired by the Christmas truces, and misinforms no small amount of pacifist narratives.
In reality, only small groups of soldiers were ever allowed out into no man’s land at any time during the Christmas Day truces. The enemy was not allowed to get close to the opposite side, lest they glean tactical intelligence that could be used to military advantage. Before leaving their trenches, men left their weapons behind in safe hands, observing good order and discipline to appear empty-handed before the enemy. Contrary to myth, they did not all ‘lay down their arms’ upon feeling a sudden pacifistic impulse. It was still a war. They were still soldiers.
Poetic interpretations of these meetings in the neutral zone never acknowledge the tension under which they all took place. Snipers provided overwatch the entire time. During the late afternoon, an accidental gunshot in the British lines caused a German rifleman to reflexively shoot and kill Private Walter Smith of the 5th Cameronians. He is just one of eight British soldiers known to have died while meeting Germans in no man’s land on Christmas Day — a tally that somehow gets left out of every antiwar activist’s retelling of these events.
Nobody was actually punished for what happened
According to those who say ‘war is a lie,’ the armies of the Western Front took special measures to prevent the so-called ‘Christmas truce’ from happening again. To be sure, Field Marshall Sir John French — the British Army’s commander-in-chief — acknowledged in his diary that “there was a little feasting” in no man’s land on Christmas Day, and ordered an end to the policy that encouraged fraternization to gather intelligence. But this pressure was exerted only on the colonels and brigadiers, not the rank and file, and there is no record of anyone being demoted or punished over the affair.
Nor were any units specifically pulled from the line due to the truces. On the contrary: Western Front armies were learning the necessity of rotating units in December 1914, allowing each battalion to recuperate in the rear while another took its place in the front line so that men did not break. Furthermore, the British Army was expanding at a rapid pace, requiring a second army-level command and shaking up the British order of battle. To the men who had taken part in the Christmas Day truces and knew nothing of higher level decision-making, these organizational changes may have seemed like punishments or preventive measures, but they were not.
British soldiers wrote home about their experiences, with many of their letters published by a still-free press, and they drew a variety of reactions. Some readers found the Christmas Day behavior perfectly Christian while others saw it as unpatriotic. British soldiers defied the ban on cameras to take photographs which were also published in newspapers. Yet none of the participants was ever identified for prosecution or punishment. There was a debate, but there were no investigations.
Instead, the whole matter was largely forgotten in the press of wartime events. Which is not to say that the British Army wasn’t embarrassed by the disclosures, including the policy of fraternizing for information, because the tactic was soon prohibited.
Why the ‘truces’ of Christmas 1914 were never repeated
The war would continue to see unofficial, local truces from time to time, but they were never systematic or widespread, rarely lasting more than a few hours.
No man’s land became a lifeless, cratered hellscape. Chlorine gas had denuded the ground in many spots, shellfire and axes had sheared or cut the trees down, corpses putrefied in every nook and bramble, while tangles of barbed wire had proliferated all over like an invasive plant. The ground was littered with shrapnel and refuse and detritus. Many of the most active battlefields of the war remain highly toxic, with many ‘red zone’ areas still off-limits in France today.
In short, the neutral zone was hardly a suitable pitch for jolly lads to kick a soccer ball around on in December 1914. This was even more true one year later.
Beyond these physical limitations, the British Army also changed a great deal. Nearly three million British men would be in uniform by December 25th, 1915, and by then the vast majority of men who had experienced the Christmas truces were either dead, wounded, or not in the front line rotation the next time around. Thanks to bloody experience as well as indoctrination, soldiers at war in December 1915 understood that fraternizing with the enemy was not simply forbidden, but dangerous.
More importantly, however, German attacks on the British Isles — and the British empire — had expanded, taking a toll in both civilian life and imperial power. Zeppelins started bombing London in January 1915. The passenger liner Lusitania was sunk in May, sparking several days of xenophobic riotsacross England. Meanwhile, German influence had expanded the conflict across the Middle East and southwest Asia, stoking the fires of jihad and feeding nationalist aspirations across North Africa, Arabia, and Persia, all the way to the tribal belt of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the space of that one year, nationalism and public anger had greatly increased around Europe, while the high death toll had still not ruined the war’s popularity. The very real abuses of civilians in Belgium had been transformed into sensationalist propaganda, while the phenomenon we now call ‘fake news’ had already become ubiquitous. In turn, German hatredfocused on England (‘perfidious Albion’) above her allies, justifying more air raids and torpedoes, further arousing British outrage.
Pacifists and poets prefer to believe that a sequel Christmas truce of 1915 was derailed by self-interested warmongers. But the sad truth is that peace was actually less popular on both sides a year later, thanks to the downward spiral of mutual enmity. We are used to thinking of wars as the product of old hatreds, but in fact our human conflicts create those hatreds where they have not existed before.
The December truces have always been misinterpreted
The war produced all sorts of dubious myths, many of which reflected Edwardian fascinations. Tall tales of ghosts, sea monsters, and fairies emerged. The so-called Angels of Mons had supposedly saved the lives of British soldiers in August, while an annihilated unit at Gallipoli was later said to have been lifted away by a heavenly cloud. Hallucinatory sightings of phantom submarines and airships were reported all around the world.
Nine weeks after Christmas, far from the war zone, a prank involving lamp-lit balloons created a mass panic in Canada over fears of improbable German air raids launched from imaginary secret bases in the still-neutral United States. This process of weaving rumor and legend into truth never actually stopped, not even when the fighting did. Two generations later, the children of the Cold War reimagined the Canadian incident as an early instance of UFO phenomena. Something very much like that process has taken place with the Christmas truces of 1914.
We forget that Field Marshall Joseph Joffre had just ended the First Battle of Champagne due to horrendous losses, making the Western Front quiet enough for Christmas carols to carry across open ground. We never recall the deaths of Private Huggins, Sergeant Gregory, or Private Smith. These are not comforting realities. Instead, we prefer to hear Garth Brooks sing “Heaven’s not beyond the clouds / It’s just beyond the fear” in the spirit of the Christmas season. Rather than engage with the truth about the Great War, we want populist folk lyrics: “the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame,” sings John McCutcheon. Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace, so we like to think that peace broke through the fog of war. We want the Christmas miracle to be true.
The lens through which most people have seen this topic is an explicitly religious one, but there are also politics to peace. As mentioned before, the British press published hundreds of unredacted letters from soldiers who took part in the events of no man’s land during December 1914. Many of their mistaken ground-level impressions, such as the rearrangement of battalions and orders against fraternization being punishments for the truces, have been transmitted to us because they fit a particular narrative of the First World War as “lions led by donkeys,” the phrase popularized by Thatcherite MP Alan Clark. It is a version of history in which blame for the conflict belongs to ‘the elites,’ not ‘the people’ who enthusiastically embraced war and lined up to enlist.
Like the Kaiser, we would rather not carry the burden of responsibility.
Nor is the false version of these events limited to one side of the political aisle. The people who reject war the hardest believe in the ‘Christmas miracle’ most strongly: “We urge our leaders to follow the example set by the Christmas Truce soldiers who rejected militarism and the glorification of war,” says the organization Veterans For Peace. “We call on the nation to honor veterans and all those who have died in war by working for peace and the prevention of war.” As admirable as the goal is, their narrative of the event is flawed. It has been imbued with false light.
Almost exactly one century after the United States stepped forward as a global power, a new president-elect promises to tear up the world order that was forged in those fires. There are many who applaud this moment in expectation of a greater peace, as if the old system has been holding humanity back, but they are wrong, just as surely as Kaiser Wilhelm II was wrong that he could win quickly and reshape the world to his liking.
Peace was not breaking out on Christmas Day 1914. Peace is not breaking out now. Only by substituting wishful thinking for evidence can anyone make such a claim.