Monday, December 15, 2014

Common Decencies of Ordinary Men: Christmas Truce Part II

Jay Winter, one of the preeminent historians of the First World War, has said, “The importance of that moment [the Christmas Truce] was that it indicated something about the humanity of soldiers, the preservation of which was so difficult over the course of fifty months of killing.”  Winter says that the Christmas Truce of 1914 gave evidence of “the common decencies of ordinary men.” 

As we remember that very special Christmas, it’s a wonderful thing to celebrate those men and let their words be heard once again.  Several years ago, the organization The Christmas Truce: Operation Plum Pudding, worked to locate, transcribe, and share actual letters of soldiers who participated in the Christmas Truce.  The letters were sent home to loved ones, and a number of them were then published as letters to the editors of local papers.  This avoided military and government censorship, as the Christmas Truce was an incident in the war that politicians and generals wanted to suppress.    

I’ve taken an excerpt from the letter of Private Heath, which was found and transcribed by Marian Robson, and reformatted it as poetry.  The letter was written on the Western Front and published in the North Mail on January 9, 1915 (it can be read in its entirety at this site).   

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….

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….
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.
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….

(The original letter was transcribed by Marian Robson; the line breaks are my invention). 

For those wanting to know more, the web site of the U.S. National World War I Museum offers exceptional background on the Christmas Truce, including a video narrated by historian Jay Winter. 


  1. Hi Connie

    I am enjoying and learning from your blog. I'm certain you will have come across this already, however, I think, it stands repetition.

    Very best


  2. So glad you posted the link to Blackadder - I love the show, and although I've seen it before, this last "over-the-top" episode still gives me chills. Even Blackadder has generated controversy in this centenary year, most famously when education secretary Michael Gove attacked the show claiming "left-wing academics" were using Blackadder "to feed myths" about World War One. Check out this link --

    It's a more thoughtful discussion by historians about the ways in which Blackadder is simply one retelling of the war that needs to be viewed as an interpretation. What's interesting to me is that there is little discussion of the ways in which all accounts of experience are interpretations, or that the war wasn't a monolithic event that was experienced in One Way.

    I like Blackadder Goes Forth, the Sainsbury Christmas Truce ad, the poetry of the Great War, the art of Paul Nash, and all the various ways in which we're invited to remember the war and discuss how we remember it.