How Christianity United Enemies During the First World War
The Christmas Truce of 1914 began on Christmas Eve at some parts of the Frontline. Here Bruce Bairnsfather, famous for his ‘Old Bill’ sketches, recounts his experience of a truce on Christmas Eve. It is a testimony to the shared culture of the warring parties and the power of religion – Christianity – to unite enemies, as well as divide them.
The following account of the Christmas Eve Truce comes from Bruce Bairnsfather’s war memoirs, Bullets and Billets (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917), pp. 68-73. Bairnsfather was a Captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
The Spirit of Christmas in a Time of War
It was now nearing Christmas Day, and we knew it would fall to our lot to be back in the trenches again on the 23rd of December, and that we would, in consequence, spend our Christmas there. I remember at the time being very down on my luck about this, as anything in the nature of Christmas Day festivities was obviously knocked on the head. Now, however, looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.
Well, as I said before, we went “in” again on the 23rd. The weather had now become very fine and cold. The dawn of the 24th brought a perfectly still, cold, frosty day.
The spirit of Christmas began to permeate us all; we tried to plot ways and means of making the next day, Christmas, different in some way to others. Invitations from one dug-out
to another for sundry meals were beginning to circulate. Christmas Eve was, in the way of weather, everything that Christmas Eve should be.
This is Christmas Eve for both of us.
I was billed to appear at a dug-out about a quarter of a mile to the left that evening to have rather a special thing in trench dinners — not quite so much bully and Maconochie about as usual. A bottle of red wine and a medley of tinned things from home deputized in their absence. The day had been entirely free from shelling, and somehow we all felt that the Boches, too, wanted to be quiet. There was a kind of an invisible, intangible feeling extending across the frozen swamp between the two lines, which said ”This is Christmas Eve for both of us — something in common.”
About 10 p.m. I made my exit from the convivial dug-out on the left of our line and walked back to my own lair. On arriving at my own bit of trench I found several of the men standing about, and all very cheerful. There was a good bit of singing and talking going on, jokes and jibes on our curious Christmas Eve, as contrasted with any former one, were thick in the air. One of my men turned to me and said:
“You can ‘ear ’em quite plain, sir!”
“Hear what?” I inquired.
“The Germans over there, sir; you can ‘ear ’em singin’ and playin’ on a band or somethin’.”
I listened; — away out across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices, and an occasional burst of some unintelligible song would come floating out on the frosty air. The singing seemed to be loudest and most distinct a bit to our right. I popped into my dug-out and found the platoon commander.
“Do you hear the Boches kicking up that racket over there?” I said.
“Yes,” he replied; “they’ve been at it some time!”
“Come on,” said I, “let’s go along the trench to the hedge there on the right — that’s the nearest point to them, over there. ”
A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a strong German accent.
So we stumbled along our now hard, frosted ditch, and scrambling up on to the bank above, strode across the field to our next bit of trench on the right. Everyone was listening. An improvised Boche band was playing a precarious version of ”Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles,” at the conclusion of which, some of our mouth-organ experts retaliated with snatches of ragtime songs and imitations of the German tune. Suddenly we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again. A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a strong German accent, ”Come over here!” A ripple of mirth swept along our trench, followed by a rude out-burst of mouth organs and laughter. Presently, in a lull, one of our sergeants repeated the request, “Come over here!”
”You come half-way — I come half-way,” floated out of the darkness.
“Come on, then!” shouted the sergeant. “I’m coming along the hedge!”
“Ah! but there are two of you,” came back the voice from the other side.
Well, anyway, after much suspicious shouting and jocular derision from both sides, our sergeant went along the hedge which ran at right-angles to the two lines of trenches. He
was quickly out of sight; but, as we all listened in breathless silence, we soon heard a spasmodic conversation taking place out there in the darkness.
Presently, the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Maconochies and a tin of Capstan, which he had taken
with him. The séance was over, but it had given just the requisite touch to our Christmas Eve — something a little human and out of the ordinary routine.
A little human punctuation mark in our lives of cold and humid hate.
After months of vindictive sniping and shelling, this little episode came as an invigorating tonic, and a welcome relief to the daily monotony of antagonism. It did not lessen our
ardour or determination; but just put a little human punctuation mark in our lives of cold and humid hate. Just on the right day, too — Christmas Eve! But, as a curious episode, this was nothing in comparison to our experience on the following day.
The featured image is from the Illustrated London News (9 January 1915): “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches.” The subcaption reads “Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternising on the field of battle at the season of peace and goodwill: Officers and men from the German and British trenches meet and greet one another—A German officer photographing a group of foes and friends.”
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