The Christmas Truce
On November 29th – next Saturday – the Christmas lights in Glossop will be switched on and there will be a carol service and celebration in the town centre. As part of the service, the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in 1914 will be commemorated. The organisers of the service asked me to tell the story of the Christmas Truce.
The request caught me by surprise because I knew nothing about the Truce except that it happened, and in any case this is a long way from my storytelling repertoire (which comprises mostly Peak District folktales). However, a little research unearthed a remarkable letter written from the Front in Flanders by a private soldier from the Peak District – to be more specific, from Buxton, which is fifteen miles from Glossop. The letter is a first-hand account of the Truce, written to the soldier’s family at the end of December 1914, and it’s of high literary quality. So guess what I’m going to read at the service next Saturday in lieu of storytelling?
Here’s the letter in full.
That Christmas Armistice
A Plum Pudding Policy Which Might Have Ended The War
Written in the trenches by Private Frederick W. Heath
The night closed in early – the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches two hundred yards away. Fires in the English lines had died down, and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers’ Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.
Memory in her shrine kept us in a trance of saddened silence. Back somewhere in England, the fires were burning in cosy rooms; in fancy I heard laughter and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve. With overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost, I leaned against the side of the trench, and, looking through my loophole, fixed weary eyes on the German trenches. Thoughts surged madly in my mind; but they had no sequence, no cohesion. Mostly they were of home as I had known it through the years that had brought me to this. I asked myself why I was in the trenches in misery at all, when I might have been in England warm and prosperous. That involuntary question was quickly answered. For is there not a multitude of houses in England, and has not someone to keep them intact? I thought of a shattered cottage in — , and felt glad that I was in the trenches. That cottage was once somebody’s home.
Still looking and dreaming, my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. A light in the enemy’s trenches was so rare at that hour that I passed a message down the line. I had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice. there was no mistaking that voice with its guttural ring. With ears strained, I listened, and then, all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”
Following that salute boomed the invitation from those harsh voices: “Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.” For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity – war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn – a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired, except for down on our right, where the French artillery were at work.
Came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink. Under the early light we saw our foes moving recklessly about on top of their trenches. Here, indeed, was courage; no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty. But did we shoot? Not likely! We stood up ourselves and called benisons on the Germans. Then came the invitation to fall out of the trenches and meet half way.
Still cautious we hung back. Not so the others. They ran forward in little groups, with hands held up above their heads, asking us to do the same. Not for long could such an appeal be resisted – beside, was not the courage up to now all on one side? Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.
The Gift of Gifts
Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers (and no one is quite so simple as a soldier) that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans’ eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends for ever. Given a sufficient quantity of Christmas puddings, every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered.
And so we stayed together for a while and talked, even though all the time there was a strained feeling of suspicion which rather spoilt this Christmas armistice. We could not help remembering that we were enemies, even though we had shaken hands. We dare not advance too near their trenches lest we saw too much, nor could the Germans come beyond the barbed wire which lay before ours. After we had chatted, we turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.
All through the day no shot was fired, and all we did was talk to each other and make confessions which, perhaps, were truer at that curious moment than in the normal times of war. How far this unofficial truce extended along the lines I do not know, but I do know that what I have written here applies to the — on our side and the 158th German Brigade, composed of Westphalians.
As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely. Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery. So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.
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Human beings at their best and their worst…
I recently finished reading Ken Follett’s ‘Fall of Giants’, and it includes this historic scene. (Though, obviously, not this particular fellow’s letter…) Even in the midst of what seems like such a pointless war, people sometimes are capable of truly inspiring acts — not just heroics or bravery, but sheer compassion and good will.
(And, hey–writery-wise, that’s one heck of a letter to boot! Holy crud…)
Yes, Follett uses several eye-witness reports of the Christmas Truce and evokes the incident well.
Frederick Heath was born in 1888, the son of a coal merchant and ironmonger – a working-class, artisan family – so where he acquired the sort of education necessary to be able to write such a letter is a mystery to me. But it’s quite a piece of literature, isn’t it? Later in the War, Heath won the military cross, and later a bar on his MC, for acts of bravery (e.g. rescuing a downed airman from no man’s land under heavy fire). He obtained a commission and ended the War as acting captain. Although he resigned his commission in 1921 he served his country again during the Second World War, ending with the honorary rank of major. He died in 1962.
Your response to Heath’s letter is in a way reflected in the letter itself: “Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity, paradoxes of war”.
— and/or paradoxes of humanity… the dichotomy of being. Without darkness, we would not know the light.
But truly an inspiring find–and I’m glad you shared it!