WWI 'Christmas Truce' was about respite, not rebellion

Terri Blom Crocker is author of The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory and the First World War, to be published by University of Kentucky Press.
Terri Blom Crocker is author of The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory and the First World War, to be published by University of Kentucky Press.

On Dec. 25, 1914, in the first year of the First World War, German, British and French troops on the Western Front laid down their arms to meet in no-man's-land and exchange holiday greetings and souvenirs.

The Christmas Truce is now perceived as a rebellion against a hated war, a view promoted by countless histories, television documentaries, plays and fiction.

As told in these sources, the holiday truce is indeed a heart-warming tale — but one that bears little relation to the truth.

There may have been soldiers who rushed out to meet the enemy with peace and brotherhood in their hearts and mutiny on their minds, but for the vast majority of the troops involved, the reality was much different.

The truce came about for a number of reasons: the professionalism of the soldiers involved, the conditions of trench warfare, foul weather, the absence of major initiatives along the Western Front at that time and memories of traditional celebrations of Christmas.

In reality, the holiday truce was caused by rain, mud, curiosity, lack of personal animosity toward the enemy and homesickness, rather than by frustration and rebellion.

That armistice, as reported by those who participated in it, does not have the narrative appeal as it is now commonly portrayed.

In the popular imagination, the holiday cease-fire has left behind the legend of a "candle lit in the darkness of Flanders," and a lingering collective memory of football matches, shared cigars and camaraderie.

The reality: The soldiers involved saw the truce not as a revolt against the war, but merely as a day off from it. It changed no one's mind toward the conflict.

Shortly after fraternizing with the Germans on Christmas Day, W.J. Chennell of the 2nd Queens Royal West Surrey regiment wrote that "I should like the war to finish and yet I should like to see them wiped out, as they thoroughly deserve it," demonstrating that a friendly afternoon spent with the enemy had not changed his mind about the need to defeat them.

No men were punished for their participation in the truce, and no troops mutinied afterward. The fraternization was openly reported in the British and German press. Even the army leadership saw little reason to oppose the event: Lieutenant-Colonel Fisher-Rowe of the 1st Grenadier Guards wrote to his wife that the Germans "say they want the truce to go on till after New Year and I am sure I have no objection. A rest from bullets will be distinctly a change."

In light of these facts, why has the Christmas truce become a symbol of the frontline soldiers' hatred of a bloody and futile conflict?

The answer lies in our changing attitudes towards the First World War. The myth of the 1914 armistice is based upon the belief that the soldiers who took part in it shared our attitudes, hated war as we hate war, and rebelled against that conflict as we are certain we would have rebelled against it.

As a result, we have projected our modern sensibilities onto the soldiers who participated, and believe we understand their motives.

Accounts written by participants demonstrate that the widespread cease-fires and fraternization that took place were entered into by a largely professional army composed of men who supported the war and felt no personal antagonism toward the opposing side.

To continue to insist on an interpretation that is contradicted by the experiences of those who took part in it misrepresents the attitudes of the soldiers who fought in that war.

Bruce Bairnsfather, who was in the trenches that day, described the truce as "the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match."

The boxing match that was the war was a deadly and tragic conflict, yet the spirit in which the Christmas Truce was undertaken did reflect the attitudes of the soldiers who took part in it: determined to win the war, but at the same time very glad to take a break from the battle.