Friday, 30 November 2012

Soldiers' First Noel on the Western Front

We all stand together: soldiers at the 1914 Christmas Truce
This week's post looks at the the heartwarming tale of two sides who lay down their weapons, climbed from their trenches, and greeted each other on No Man's Land with smiles, cigarettes and a game of football. Yes, it's the 1914 Christmas Truce, and however sentimental or unlikely it may sound, it really happened - although perhaps not in quite such a film director-friendly way that folklore suggests.

In December 1914 the Great War was four months old and exhausted troops were digging in for the winter. The volunteers of Kitchener's Army had yet to arrive and those at the front were mostly British soldiers of the Regular Army, professional soldiers who were doing their jobs and had no personal axe to grind against the Germans.

Christmas Truces were springing up all along the front, at different times and up in various forms and for those interested in finding out more, there is a link to a very informative article at the end of this post.

Sceptics may say that troops simply used the truce as an opportunity to spy on the other side, but having spent months reading soldiers' letters and diaries, I don't believe that - fellow feeling towards the enemy is not an uncommon theme.

In December 1914, Sgt George Fairclough wrote: 'I came down with 94 prisoners and a young officer of the German artillery - he had only been fighting for a fortnight when he got captured. I never met a nicer chap. I asked him, for a joke: what about knocking off for three days at Christmas?' He laughed and asked his men. They all said: 'Yah yah bong, bong, good, good'. He turned and said: 'These men don't like fighting; they would sooner be with their wives and children.'

Sgt Major Alfred Dowling was less fortunate than Fairclough, by December 1914 he was a prisoner of war. But he had no complaints about his captors: 'We feel properly out of the world here but the Germans are treating us very decently. They gave us cigars etc on Christmas Day,' he wrote to his wife.

There was fellow feeling towards the 'enemy' elsewhere on the battlefields, not just France. An Australian soldier, Ernie Hough, wrote home from Gallipoli in 1915: 'The Turks have fought a good clean fight and are still fighting that way. I know several instances wherein our wounded have been treated kindly by the Turks, and in no case to my knowledge has one case been proved where they have done anything offside. I think in justice to our enemies that this should be said of them.'

For those interested in reading more about the 1914 Christmas Truce, see:

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