Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Sept. 2014)
In the age of social media, Christmas is a time of year when WW1 Historians get asked a common question. What was the Christmas truce?
This legend is the focus of Chris Baker’s book, The truce. It’s one of a small group of small books dealing with December 1914 in the trenches, and this one does an excellent job of answering the question of what happened, and many more.
Tied up with the legend is the old story of opposing sides playing football, singing carols and meetings in no man’s land. Beginning with a thorough look at “Bloody December”, and the different units involved during the winter offensives in the western front, including the appearance of the Indian Corps, Baker dedicates half the book to combat.
Commonality is to be observed in all WW1 narratives, because no one can escape the appalling losses. Wether the writer is of the old school and focuses on the useless waste, or is of the newer mindset that admits the high casualties were an inevitable byproduct of old minds in a modern war, no one can deny the shocking scale of casualties had a numbing affect on those involved.
Midway through the book the tense changes from straight narrative, to a section called “In their words”. This ambitiously lists by Corps, division and brigade down to battalion, those units present on the frontline roughly from the 23rd to the 26th of December. Under their organisational headings are first hand reports, some from letters and diaries, some from official histories, that show quite clearly whether the soldiers present noticed a truce in their sector.
The picture that builds up left me in no doubt that the Christmas truce is no legend. Yet it was not the quiet Yuletide often imagined, where everyone just stopped fighting. Men died on parts of the frontline on Christmas Day. Some of the truces were merely excuses to bury the dead, a few of the accounts mention taking a good look at the enemy trenches.
However truces did occur, carols were exchanged across the darkness of no man’s land during Christmas Eve, football was played though wether it was with the Germans or not, is open to debate. Some had a try at starting a game but the officers couldn’t allow it. Indeed if it hadn’t been for some of the senior officers present it seems likely both sides would have had quite a party with each other, but there was a limit.
Small tokens were exchanged, some photographs were even snapped. Local field officers on both sides arranged unofficial ceasefires that lasted until the next day or the day after. There is no doubt about it, in a broad sense of the word a Christmas truce did occur. But sadly the Pope’s humane plea for a general ceasefire over the Christmas period went unheeded, apparently because the Russians wouldn’t agree. What that had to do with the Western front is anybody’s guess.
Reading through the accounts one is struck by a few commonalities. Motives were truces occurred were broadly the same, opposing sides both came away with a surprised realisation that the enemy were human. From the British camp comes many curious instances of finding Germans who had worked in Britain and who had family there. Often they reported that Saxons and Bavarians (who were the most friendly during the truces) were resentful of the Prussians for dragging them into the war and hoped for the end of hostilities soon.
How much of this is true? I ask. Was Germany really so divided about the war? Some say it was made up, others say there’s no reason to dismiss it totally. No answer is given here, because the book is really about letting the words of those who were present tell the story, and in that it does an excellent job.