Fighting stops, carols start: WWI battlefield Christmas Truce
AS DAWN broke over the First World War battlefields of the Western Front on Christmas Day in 1914, something unexpected happened.
The rifles all but stopped firing, the trenches went quiet and, in the silence, hymns and Christmas carols began to float in the air that hung between enemy lines.
This became forever known as the Christmas Truce.
With the war just a few months in, and many soldiers believing it would be over early in the new year, soldiers were imbued with a bit of the Christmas spirit thanks to gifts and treats in packages from home.
It is believed thousands of Allied and German troops took part in the temporary stop to hostilities, largely from Messines, Belgium, down to Neave Chappelle, France, about 15km either side of the Belgian-French border.
Along many sections of this front, enemy troops were hunkered down as little as 30m away from each other.
British soldier Corporal A Wyatt, of the 1st Norfolks, wrote a letter home in which he described how the extraordinary festivites started along his regiment's section of the line, with the Germans singing Christmas songs before shouting:
"Three cheers for the English!"
"Then both our men and the Germans started singing hymns together," Wyatt wrote.
"The same thing carried on nearly all night. On Christmas morning ... we heard the Germans shouting, 'come over here, we will not fire!'
"They got out of their trenches and started walking about on the top. Our chaps, seeing them, did the same.
"Then all at once came the surprise. The Germans started walking towards our trenches, and two or three of our chaps went out to meet them."
What followed was a day of goodwill, exchanging of Christmas greetings and goodies, and a laying aside of the pointlessness of war to capture the humanity that still existed on both sides of the conflict. There was even a friendly sporting rivalry.
"We finished up in the same old way, kicking a football about between the two firing lines," Wyatt wrote.
The so-called Christmas Truce was not an official laying down of arms, but an organic springing up of ceasefires among enemy soldiers along various parts of the front. In some places, it did not happen at all, and overall it was actively discouraged by many senior officers, particularly the British.
For others, it was at least a brief reprieve to be able to collect the dead and give them a respectful burial.
A letter to his wife by a senior British officer at the time, General Walter Congreve, has recently emerged after being unearthed by staff at Staffordshire County Council, in England. The letter relates not just the extraordinary nature of the cessation of hostilities between warring forces, but also of the understanding those hostilities would soon resume.
Gen Congreve admitted while he allowed the Christmas Truce to take place and was invited to join in, he personally declined to take part because he thought the Germans "might not be able to resist a general".
In recognition of the frail, temporary peace, he added: "One of the men said he had had a fine day of it and had smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army, then not more than 18. They say he's killed more of our men than any other.
"But I know now where he shoots from and I hope we down him tomorrow."
Not only did the Christmas Truce not last long in many parts of the Western Front, that brief show of cheer and goodwill was never to happen again for the rest of the long war.
The ANZAC name is born
AS German and Allied troops were singing carols to each other and sharing small gifts in No-Man's Land, the ANZAC name was born.
The first contingent of the 1st Australian Imperial Force spent that Christmas of 1914 in Egypt, where they began to train for their impending deployment.
By the time the Anzacs experienced Christmas on the Western Front, the British command saw the date as an opportunity to wreak even more havoc on the enemy.
Australian official historian Charles Bean wrote that on December 25, 1916, "at the hour when it was thought probable that the Germans would be sitting down to their midday feast, every gun of the [British] Fourth and Fifth Armies fired two rounds at the points where the enemy's troops and staffs might be foregathering".
Bean said the order was considered "ruthless" and "repugnant" by many of the British troops.
The Australian War Memorial notes hundreds of thousands of Australians have spent Christmas at war: freezing in First World War trenches, as prisoners of war of the Japanese, or on reconnaissance and ambush operations in Vietnam.
Even today, Australian soldiers find themselves spending Christmas far away, on operations in Afghanistan.
The Christmas Truce
THE Christmas Truce was not observed on all parts of the Western Front and, in some parts, there were reports of soldiers deliberately using it as a ruse to shoot enemy troops.
The letter suggested there was more chance of a truce where Germans of Saxon descent made up the front line than if they were Prussians (Saxony and Prussia were both old European kingdoms that became part of modern-day Germany).
It reads in part: "Directly in front of our regiment, there were one or two German regiments. On our right was a regiment of Prussian Guards and on our left a Saxon Regiment.
"On Christmas morning, some of our fellows shouted across to them saying that if they would not fire, our chaps would meet them halfway between the trenches and spend Christmas Day as friends. They consented to do so.
"Our chaps at once went out and, when in the open, the Prussians fired on them, killing two and wounding many more.
The Saxons, who behaved like gentlemen, threatened the Prussians if they did the same trick again.
"Well, during Christmas Day our fellows and the Saxons fixed up a table between the two trenches and they spent a happy time together, and exchanged souvenirs and presented one another with little keepsakes.
"They said they would not fire on us as they considered us all English gentlemen, and all the while we were opposed to one another they never bothered us at all. They said they did not want war and thought the Kaiser quite in the wrong.
"They were continually falling out with the Prussians. (The Prussians) are the people who are the cause of the war and hate the English very much indeed."
According to soldiers who were involved in some of the unofficial Christmas truces on the Western Front, songs and hymns sung by troops on all sides included:
- Good King Wenceslas
- Silent Night
- O Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas Tree)
- The First Noel
- It's a Long Way to Tipperary
- Auld Lang Syne
- The British, German and Austrian national anthems