The fraternity between British and German soldiers extended beyond a one-off game of football over Christmas 1914, sometimes lasting up until Easter. Mark Rowe tells of a remarkable truce.
At first glance, this is a classic snapshot of the Christmas Truce of 1914: the day when Britons and Germans laid down their guns, shook hands and even played football. And yet this picture, taken from the book Meetings in No Man’s Land: Christmas 1914 and Fraternization in the Great War, reveals more than one might initially think.
The picture dismantles some of the stereotypes associated with the Christmas truce, and shows how the cessation of hostilities was more substantial than a 24-hour interlude. The photograph of German soldiers from the 134th Saxon Regiment and men from the Warwickshire Regiment, was taken on Boxing Day by a British artillery subaltern Cyril Drummond. The fraternisation of Christmas Day mainly involved infantrymen.
“Artillerymen behind the lines heard about the truce and came down on Boxing Day to see what was going on,” says Malcolm Brown, historian at the Imperial War Museum and a co-author of the book. According to Brown, a dialogue accompanies the picture: “They were very nice fellows to look at,” wrote Drummond. “One of them said “we don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to kill us, so why shoot?” I lined them up and took a photograph”.
Good will in no-man’s-land
The picture encapsulates the tales of fraternisation documented in the book. Goodwill extended well beyond Christmas and continued, in piecemeal fashion, even until Easter in some areas, according to Brown. “The public perception is that there was this one football match with goalposts,” he says. “Football is an important element in the story, as it was a common currency, but there were so many other elements, for instance the fact that many of the Germans spoke English. That was a key influence in the phenomenon of fraternisation”.
Brown and his fellow historians, one German, the other two French, used a range of sources, mostly contemporary. “Local newspaper reports featured letters from soldiers saying this was happening,” comments Brown, who emphasises that the truce was spontaneous. “It sprung up here and there. You’d get one battalion that fraternised next to one that didn’t”.
Of course, the truce couldn’t last. “There were attempts to set something up for Christmas 1915 but it didn’t get very far,” says Brown. “Poison gas poisoned the air and the atmosphere. Prisoners were killed – and when revenge comes into it, you deal a horrific blow to any kind of chivalry. Soldiers who subsequently joined the war dismissed these events as eyewash – but it wasn’t eyewash. People fraternised to a far greater degree than has hitherto been thought possible”.