Christmas Trees in the Trenches, 1914

It would all be over by Christmas, thought the lads signing up to fight in the Great War in the summer of 1914.

By the time Christmas came, the war was far from over, yet the unofficial Christmas truce between the German and British soldiers over the holiday period produced what must be one of the strangest Christmas experiences ever seen. Hostilities weren’t put on hold everywhere along the Western Front, but in some places on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day soldiers on both sides met each other in no man’s land, mainly in order to bury their dead soldiers who had been laying in the open since the battles of the previous week.  Between the two sides there was talking, singing carols, and, famously, games of football.

A statue commemorating this moment appeared in Liverpool’s Bombed Out Church last week. It was on show for a week and now it’s moved, appropriately, to be displayed in Flanders in Belgium.

A letter from one of the soldiers who was there was published in The Dundee Courier in the new year of 1915. It vividly describes the horror, the mud, the social awkwardness of chatting with the enemy, the Christmas trees the German soldiers had erected in their trenches, and the laughter that lightened the most extreme of situations.

“Burying Dead in No Man’s Land.”

Broken Bodies of Friend and Foe Are Reverently Laid in Shallow Graves.

British and German Soldiers Chat During Armistice.

Reuter has received the following letter from a subaltern at the front:-

“Christmas Day dawned on an appropriately sparkling landscape. A truce had been arranged for the few hours of daylight for the burial of the dead on both sides who had been out in the open since the fierce night fighting of a week earlier. When I got out, I found a large crowd of officers and men, British and German, grouped around the bodies, which had already been gathered together and laid out in rows. I went along those dreadful ranks and scanned the faces, fearing at every step to recognise one I knew. It was a ghastly sight. They lay stiffly in contorted attitudes, dirty with frozen mud and powdered with rime.

The digging parties were already busy on the two big common graves, but the ground was hard and the work slow and laborious. In the intervals of superintending it, we chatted with the Germans, most of whom were quite affable, if one could not exactly call them friendly, which, indeed, was neither to be expected nor desired. We exchanged confidences about the weather and the diametrically opposite news from East Prussia.

The way they maintained the truth of their marvellous victories was positively pathetic. They had no doubt of the issue in the east, and professed to regard the position in the west as a definite stalemate. It was most amusing to observe the bland innocence with which they put questions, a truthful answer to which might have had unexpected consequences in the future.

On charming lieutenant of artillery was most anxious to know just where my dug-out, “The Cormorants”, was situated. No doubt he wanted to shoot his card, tied to a “whistling Willie”. I waved my hand airily over the next company’s line, giving him the choice of various heaps in the rear. Time drew on, and it was obvious that the burying would not be half finished with the expiration of the armistice agreed upon, so we decided to renew it the following morning. At the set hour everyone returned to the trenches, and when the last man was in the lieutenant and I solemnly shook hands, saluted, and marched back ourselves.

They left us alone that night to enjoy a peaceful Christmas. I forgot to say that the previous night – Christmas Eve – their trenches were a blaze of Christmas trees, and our sentries were regaled for hours with the traditional Christmas songs of the Fatherland. Their officers even expressed annoyance the next day that some of these trees had been fired on, insisting they were part almost of a sacred rite.

On Boxing Day, at the agreed hour, on a prearranged signal being given, we turned out again. The output of officers of higher rank on their side was more marked, and the proceedings were more formal in consequence. But while the gruesome business of burying went forward there was still a certain interchange of pleasantries. The German soldiers seemed a good-tempered, amiable lot, mostly peasants from the look of them.

One remarkable exception, who wore the Iron Cross and addressed us in slow but faultless English, told us he was Professor of Early German and English Dialects at a Westphalian University. He had a wonderfully fine head. They distributed cigars and cigarettes freely among our digging party, who were much impressed by the cigars. I hope they were not disillusioned when they came to smoke them. Meanwhile the officers were amusing themselves by taking photographs of mixed groups.

The digging completed, the shallow graves were filled in, and the German officers remained to pay their tribute of respect while our chaplain read a short service. It was one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed. Friend and foe stood side by side, bare-headed, watching the tall, grave figure of the padre outlined against the frosty landscape as he blessed the poor, broken bodies at his feet. Then with more salutes we turned and made our way back to our respective ruts.

Elsewhere along the line, I hear our fellows played the Germans at football on Christmas Day. Our own pet enemies remarked that they would like a game, but as the ground in our part is all root crops and much cut up by ditches and as, moreover, we had not got a football, we had to call it off.

That night the frost turned abruptly to rain. The trenches melted like butter on the fire, and all was slime and water instead of good, hard surface. A shuffle of company lines has now given me a captain as stable companion at “The Cormorants”, a gay young soul, with a penchant for building improvements. He constructed a top-hole fireplace inside with a real chimney and an up-to-date sloping fire-back, and utilised the last hour of the armistice to make the roof seaworthy with an ingenious arrangement of derelict waterproof sheets. We had a homely evening, and towards midnight were blissfully rejoicing in our dry spot amid the welter of mud.

Suddenly a horrible crackling like two or three clips of cartridges firing off made us jump. It was not a German infernal machine, as our first intuition told us, but merely a centre prop of the dug-out and the beam it supported had given way. The roof sagged threateningly three inches from our heads. A hasty retreat with a few valuables was beaten, and a digging party put on to clear off the earth to save a complete collapse. In the course of the next night the carpentry part was made as firm as a rock, but the waterproofing was a farce, and we never knew a dry moment till we were relieved. It was a lesson in trying to be too comfortable, but as usual, when things seem quite hopeless all we could do was to indulge in shrieks of laughter.
January 1, 1915.

A Happy New Year to you! We are awakened in the middle of the night by a frantic outburst of musketry. We instinctively thrust out a hand towards our boots and gazed apprehensively at the door, expecting every moment the arrival of a messenger to summon us instanter to the trenches to repel a furious attack. But nothing happened, and presently we relapsed into slumber. This morning we heard it was merely a mutual feu-de-joie to celebrate the New Year.”

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