One of the most famous stories to come out of World War I is that of the “Christmas Truce” of 1914, in which German and British forces engaged in a spontaneous and unofficial ceasefire and spent the holiday fraternizing with each other. In the popular imagination, the Christmas Truce was a time in which enemies put aside their differences to sing carols, exchange gifts, and even play soccer, and represented a sentimental flowering of peace and goodwill.
How much of the popular legend around the Christmas Truce is true, and how much is myth? My guest will unpack that for us. His name is Peter Hart and he served as Oral Historian of the Imperial War Museum for 40 years and is the author of several books on military history, including The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. Today on the show, Peter gives us some background on the start of WWI, what led up to the Christmas Truce, and what life was like for soldiers in the trenches. We then discuss how the Christmas Truce began, and what happened during it (including whether the soldiers really played soccer together), what the leaders of the participating militaries thought of this unofficial ceasefire, how long the truce lasted, and how it ended. Peter explains that while the truce was certainly motivated partly by sentiment, it was primarily done for more practical and even strategic reasons. We end our conversation with why, even though the real Christmas Truce is a less romantic event than commonly conceived, it’s still a wonderful story about our shared humanity.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Peter’s books on Amazon, including Fire and Movement
- Peter’s Podcast: Pete and Gary’s Military History
- Documentary on the Christmas Truce featuring Peter Hart and Taff Gillingham
- Video from the Imperial War Museum on the Christmas Truce
- Photos of the Christmas Truce
- The Race to the Sea
Connect With Peter Hart
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. One of the most famous stories come out of World War I is that of the Christmas truce of 1914, in which German and British forces engaged in a spontaneous and unofficial cease fire and spent the holiday fraternizing with each other. In the popular imagination, the Christmas truce was a time in which enemies put aside their differences to sing carols, exchange gifts and even play soccer, and represented a sentimental flowering of peace and goodwill. How much the popular legend around the Christmas truce is true, and how much is myth? Well, my guest day will unpack that for us. His name is Peter Hart, and he served as oral historian at the Imperial War Museum for 40 years, and is the author of several books on military history, including The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War.
Today on the show, Peter gives us some background on the start of World War One, what led up the Christmas truce and what life was like for soldiers in the trenches. We then discuss how the Christmas truce began, what happened during it, including whether the soldiers really played soccer, what the leaders and the participating militaries thought of the unofficial ceasefire, how long the truce lasted and how it ended. Peter explains that while the truce was certainly motivated partly by sentiment, it was primarily done for more practical and even strategic reasons. We’re in a conversation with why, even though the real Christmas truce is a less romantic event than commonly conceived, it’s still a wonderful story about our shared humanity. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/Christmas truce.
Peter Hart, welcome to the show.
Peter Hart: Thank you very much. Looking forward to this Brett.
Brett McKay: So you are a historian who has spent his career researching and writing about World War I. And I wanted to bring you on the show, because it’s Christmas time, and I think a lot of people listening have probably heard about a singular event that happened in World War I, in 1914, where you had this temporary truce between the Germans and the British on the Western Front. And they started celebrating Christmas together and started singing Christmas carols and exchanging gifts. And it’s become this legendary story. So, I wanted to have you on to talk about what really happened. What’s true and what’s not. But I think before you can understand what happened with the Christmas truce, you need to have a bit of background on what World War I was like at this point. So, the war started in July 1914, and you have this collision between two opposing alliances, which included France and Britain on one side, and then you had Germany and Austria, Hungary on the other. When the war kicked off, how did people think it was gonna go? Did everyone think it would be over pretty fast, and what was the strategy of these opposing forces?
Peter Hart: Well, some people thought it would be fast, but a lot of the professionals didn’t… Especially the British ones, people like Kitchener, Secretary of State for War and senior officer Hague. They thought it would last years. But the French and Germans, they’re at the root of it, and they’re both aiming for a quick end to the war. And the reason they’re doing that is that they’re not sure they can survive a war of attrition. We’ll take the Germans first, they had something called the Schlieffen Plan, named after their Chief of Staff up to 1906. And he knew they couldn’t win a war of attrition. So, what he planned to do was to hold the Russians in the east and knock the French army out as quickly as possible, but that’s not really very easy. It’s a huge army. It’s pretty good, and they’ve got a load of fortresses along the Franco-German border. So, he planned to hold them in the south and launch a massive assault, violating the neutrality of Belgium and Luxemburg, and then drive into northern France, and that was the idea.
His successor, a chap called Von Moltke, he was more worried about the Russians, so he sent more reserves to the Russian front, and he also slightly weakened the troops in the south. But the result was, that was the German’s best hope of winning the war. That was all they had really, it was… Hold the Germans back and knock the French out. The Russians, they planned to invade East Prussia, but that’s another story in that they were defeated at the Battle of Tannenberg. The French had their own fabulous theory, a Plan XVII. I’ve always wonder what plans one to 16 were like. But that’s based on the French belief in the attack. So they’re just gonna charge forward. They believe in the moral superiority of the attack, so they charge into, well Alsace-Lorraine basically. And it’s not quite as simple as that, that the plan is basically designed to knock the Germans out as quickly as possible.
So, both sides are sort of doing the same thing, and both plans fail. That’s the problem. But Joffre, that’s the French Commander in Chief, he reacts quickest, reorganizes. We get the Battle of the Marne, which where the Germans are utterly defeated, and in many ways that sort of decides the war. It’s just about when Germany will lose from then on. And it’s very strange the Great War. That battle in September 1914 does sort of set the scene. So, and from then on, that’s where you get the trench fighting developing and perhaps where we’re gonna talk next.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so I think when people think of World War I, they think of trench warfare, but trench warfare didn’t start right away. It kind of developed over the course of war and it kind of spread like a fungus almost.
Peter Hart: That’s a great analogy.
Brett McKay: So, how did trench warfare start? How did you go from charging at each other to burying, you know, digging out these trenches to fight each other?
Peter Hart: Well, like most things, it’s not quite as simple as we sometimes pretend. All of us. And the thing is, the French would dig in, the Germans would dig in when they had to early on. Even in August, there were trenches in the south. But it sort of occurs and what happens is, why do you dig in? Well, you dig in, you meet the enemy, and the fire fight begins. You have to take cover, otherwise you’d be dead. So, you use your own trenching tool to scrape a little bit of a hole and then, and then you know the fire, the German fire say doesn’t go away, so you join up the holes, you create a trench and gradually it builds up from there. And after a while, all the holes are all linked together to form a trench, and then you start to get… Behind it, you start to get communication trenches, then you get a support line for the reserves, and then a reserve line. And the trench system built up, and that’s how it happens. And it promoted, it spreads, that’s how it happened in one place, but it goes from place to place, because there’s something called the Race to the Sea, which is a great name for something, ’cause they emphatically weren’t racing for the sea in late September and October.
What they were trying to do is outflank each other, and if you can picture it, it’s like a game of leap frog. They sort of jump up, and each time they smash into each other, dig the trenches, and then try higher. Smash into each other again, and move for the north, smash into each other again until eventually they reach the North Sea, which is why it’s called The Race to the Sea. But that’s not what they were trying to do. And so when that grim business is finished. You got trenches stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea. That’s how it happened.
Brett McKay: So, you said there was trenches starting in August, but by what time was the clear… Like the Western Front that we know today. When was that established?
Peter Hart: Around about October. October, November. By November definitely. Once it gets through to the sea, it sort of… It takes a little while to fill in in some places. You understand what I mean?
Brett McKay: Sure.
Peter Hart: But yeah… It was a terrible business, ’cause they weren’t ready for it. Nobody was ready for it. The French, the British, the Germans, we weren’t ready for it.
Brett McKay: Well, ’cause I think a lot, when people were going into this war, they were still working under this assumption that war would be like battles in the 19th century, where you would charge at each other. And it wouldn’t be this war of attrition.
Peter Hart: Sort of… They certainly believed in the power of the offensive. They believed… They knew about the new weapons, but they believed that the machine guns, the artillery would mean that the defense couldn’t hold. And do you know what? In 1918, that’s true, the defense couldn’t hold. But in 1914, the defense could, because they could get into their trench, they could put barbed wire in front of it, they could put their batteries behind them, dig some more lines. And the power of the offensive fire just wasn’t enough. They weren’t enough guns, ’cause you needed thousands of guns to break through and they didn’t have them until 1917, ’18. The British certainly not. So, it’s a complex business, but once the trenches are there, it’s going to be painful.
Brett McKay: So give us an idea what of trench warfare was like. What was life like in the trenches?
Peter Hart: Murder, murder. Absolute murder. We’re sat here in the comfort of our homes. And I’m looking outside now. It’s cold, probably below zero out there. It’s raining a bit, no snow. But picture it then. If I stand for a bus, I’m bald. I stand for a bus and I stupidly forgot me hat, wait for about 10-15 minutes, my head starts to hurt. I start to feel really cold and miserable. Now, imagine in 1914, December 1914. Up to your knees in freezing cold water and slushy mud. You cannot get out of it, there is no wood to have duck boards to get you above the water. The trenches are too shallow. If you get above the water, you get shot by the other side. Both sides have snipers. You’ve got artillery shells crashing down. You’ve got a dull, repetitive diet. Endless bully beef. It’s just awful. And can you imagine being in the line in those circumstances? Just sitting there with your legs in water, freezing cold water for hour after hour after hour. For days. Oh, I can’t… And people being killed around you as well, just… Your best mate can be killed, shot through the head and… Terrible.
Brett McKay: No, and this was like, it was the same for the Germans, too. They were suffering just as much as the British.
Peter Hart: They were suffering as well. They were better organized. And because of the nature, they were generally on the defensive by then. And so they generally were on the high ground. So, drainage, and water drained down onto the British so to speak. But, yeah they were suffering. It’s just as cold, just as muddy, just as awful. The weather’s just the same for both sides. The Germans were slightly better organized, but that’s it.
Brett McKay: And how close were they? Like how… What was the distance between both sides of the trenches?
Peter Hart: Oh, it varies a lot. But often two to 300, 400, 500 yards at this stage of the war.
Brett McKay: That’s not very…
Peter Hart: Quite a distance between.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s not too far.
Peter Hart: Still close. In the Second World War, that would be close.
Brett McKay: Okay, so another interesting thing about World War I is… Later on in the war, most of the countries were using conscription to fill its ranks. But at the very beginning of the war, both sides, they were using professional soldiers. These are guys who joined the military because they wanted a career in the military. What were those guys like? And how did they approach warfare? And how was that different from later on when you had people coming in who were draftees?
Peter Hart: Well, the French and Germans had conscription, but I know what you mean, they had career soldiers as well within that system. The British was entirely regulars with a few territorials, and even they were volunteers. But to look at the British regular soldier. They were well-trained, excellent shots. They were what I would describe as hard-bitten. They weren’t soft men. They’d often had a lot of experience. Some of them even dating back to the Boer War, which after all, was only in 1901-2, which is not that far before 1914.
They were very good shots. They had minimal experience of sort of modern technology. So often, there were gaps in how they used machine guns. And generally the army weren’t great at using their artillery in 1914. But I think we’re more interested what the actual men were like. And I think hard-bitten is my choice of words. Tough, tough. Hard swearing, hard living. That’s the kind of men they were. A lot of banter, a lot of humor. They would laugh at things that you and I would probably… Send us screaming… Away. They would just laugh. And we always call it… You have to… Laugh or cry. And they weren’t gonna cry.
Brett McKay: Yeah so there’s a lot of gallows humor. Jaded, cynical. And they’re kind of detached. It almost seems like.
Peter Hart: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And how is that different from, say soldiers later on from Britain, where they were draftees?
Peter Hart: Well, in some ways, they all start to move towards that. But certainly when you get the volunteers who weren’t regular soldiers, in other words, the ones who joined up for the war, they tend to have a brighter sunnier attitude until they meet the reality of war. And then they start to drift into the same way, it takes a bit longer, that’s all. But they do start off with the idea that, where the Americans tend to put it “Where’s that God damn shooting match?” That’s what they famously said when they arrived in 1918. And everybody’s keen and enthusiastic. They think they’ll show the Hun, sort of thing. And the Germans are competent soldiers. And they’re very painful to meet. And eventually everybody gets a bit down. Everybody becomes depressed by it. It’s a terrible war all the way through. Start to finish.
Brett McKay: Well, you see that dynamic of the difference between the veteran soldiers and the new guys in All Quiet on the Western Front. That’s from a German perspective. But if you’ve seen the movie, yeah you see these young kids coming in. They’re all excited and idealistic. And then you have these veterans, and they’re just like, “Meh… Nuts, this is dumb.” [chuckle]
Peter Hart: Cynical old pros. And that’s what they are. They’re cynical old pros. When we say old… I mean, I’m 66. These people, old proud regulars, can be anything from 22 to 30. The young ones would be 18. There’s a big difference. That’s what it was like.
Brett McKay: Okay, so war starts in July. By August, you had trenches starting to form. By October, well-established. December comes around, and there’s this idea that both sides would kind of pull back on fighting for the winter because the days are getting shorter, the weather wasn’t great for fighting. It was time to regroup.
Peter Hart: And that had been the case, for instance, throughout Napoleonic warfare. Throughout history, there had been a campaign season and then there’d been a rest season, where you recuperate, because of the bloody weather. That’s why.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s how warfare has been for most of human history. They fought when the weather was good.
Peter Hart: It was. Not in 1914. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Right. So a lot of people thought there was gonna be this pullback, but then the British and French make this massive push during December.
Peter Hart: Now, that’s attributing more influence to the British than is wanted. It’s the French. The French launch a huge push. They really do. They launch hundreds of thousands of men forward in the Champagne and Artois regions. One of the offensives is backed by 700 guns, which is more than the British have got in total. And they launched those assaults in late December. We, the British, only launch one brigade, the 8th Brigade, forward in an attack on Messines Ridge, which is near Ypres, which is in Belgium. And that attack only involves about two or three battalions, and it’s a complete and utter failure. This represents the relative role of the British and the French on the Western Front in 1914. The British are incredibly insignificant. The French have something like 90, 96 divisions. And the British… Well, when they started, they only had four. But by this time, it’s become 20 or so. I’m not too sure of the figures. I’ve always been really bad at statistics. But no, the British forces were negligible in comparison to the French.
Brett McKay: But they got wiped. They got… It was a disaster for them.
Peter Hart: Oh, the two battalions who went forward. One was the Gordon Highlanders, and I can’t remember what the other one was. But they got absolutely smashed. It was really part of a diversion to divert attention away from the French, who in turn were mainly doing it to try and pin German troops to the Western Front to allow the Russians a bit of leeway on the Eastern Front. So it was all… There’s reasons for things. But it was a cruel business. And the French keep smashing into the Germans throughout this period.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It just seemed that the British weren’t equipped to hold the line.
Peter Hart: They haven’t worked out… What would eventually win the war is something called the all arms battle. That was light years away, though. They just didn’t have the firepower. All they really had was their rifles, which they were very good with. But you could only fire 15 shots a minute, and you only carried 150 or so. So what use is that? And very few machine gun. No hand grenades, no trench mortars. They were just lacking in the basic means they need, the firepower they need to make a successful attack. And of course, underpinning all that, a lack of artillery. We just didn’t have enough artillery. And actually, we didn’t have enough shells. It’s just the perfect storm. The French were better off, but the British attacks were just total failures.
Brett McKay: So what was morale like at this point?
Peter Hart: Oh, morale was low. It’s just… And those lads who were killed are just lying in no man’s land. There’s accounts of one crawling back in two or three days later, just in a terrible state with maggots and things. Oh dear. Just awful.
Brett McKay: Well, so then Christmas Eve arrives, and there’s something in the air along the trenches there. The British headquarters, the generals, they were afraid that the Germans were planning an attack on Christmas Eve. But that didn’t happen. So what happened instead?
Peter Hart: Well yeah, one of the British generals, Smith-Dorrien, issued a thing saying, “We mustn’t have live and let live. You’ve gotta keep on your toes. You’ve gotta keep… Because the Germans could attack. The Germans tend to do what you don’t want them to do.” They were afraid of an attack. But what happened instead is that the Germans… And it’s generally the Germans that started. They started singing Christmas carols, Silent Night, things like that. They put up lights, Christmas sort of lights. They put up Christmas trees. And this isn’t everywhere. I need to make sure we understand, collectively, that this is just in places on the British front. It’s not everywhere. But this sort of is happening. And people are thinking, “Is this a trick?” And the British start to respond. They start singing backwards and forwards. So one side would sing a carol, and the other lot would sing a carol. They’d even applaud each other across no man’s land ’cause they can hear. It’s not that far. And it’s spontaneous. It’s not planned by anybody. And it isn’t everywhere. It’s quite amazing, really.
Brett McKay: But doesn’t it happen… It happens at different places along the front, correct?
Peter Hart: Well, the French and Germans have just been hammering hell out of each other, and feelings are still slightly raw. It does happen in some places, but it isn’t such a widespread thing as on the British front. Definitely not.
Brett McKay: And then the other thing, besides singing carols, they started talking to each other.
Peter Hart: They do.
Brett McKay: What a lot of people don’t know about what Europe was like during World War I, is that a lot of Germans had lived in London.
Peter Hart: Had, yeah.
Brett McKay: So they knew English.
Peter Hart: They were waiters, pork butchers. There was many reasons. And some of the banter was, “Two pints of beer, waiter.” That kind of shouting things across. You know, “I want a haircut.” ‘Cause some were hairdressers. The usual banter shouted across no man’s land, and they were shouting back. But a lot of them… Of course, hardly anybody English could speak German. But a lot of them who’d lived in London and Manchester and Birmingham, they could speak English. So there was quite a bit of banter going on over that night, Christmas Eve.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show.
Alright, so Christmas Eve, the Germans sing carols. They start talking to each other, put up Christmas lights.
Peter Hart: Lights up, yeah.
Brett McKay: And then the next day is Christmas. And this is the day that the British traditionally celebrate Christmas. Did the good spirits from the previous night carry over to Christmas Day?
Peter Hart: In some places, yes. And it’s an amazing process of what happens. It’s… Some of the Germans show themselves above the trenches. And it would be quite bad to just shoot someone who’s being friendly. I can’t explain it, if you don’t understand that you’re probably not human, if you know what I mean. But it’s just not natural to shoot someone who’s singing carols and waving at you from the other side of the trenches. And it’s this… Gradually, people show more of themselves. Both sides start doing it. People start almost walking into no man’s land. There are some terrible accidents, which nobody likes to remember. There was certainly one chap who was shot, ’cause he went too far and somebody shot him. Somebody, perhaps, who wasn’t taking part in the truce. And this sort of thing happened in some places.
But in many places, they just spontaneously start talking, moving into no man’s land. Just a few at first. But then gradually, there’s more and more confidence that the truce will hold. There is no formal truce. It’s crucial to remember that. But that no one will start killing each other. And they start going into no man’s land and meeting. There isn’t a lot of barbed wire at this time. And the ground isn’t torn to bits, the ground is basically farmland. There’s not enough shells to tear it to bits, so it’s not shell holes everywhere. It’s grass, mostly. And they start to celebrate Chris… They give each other impromptu gifts, they just started chatting to each other, especially those Germans, obviously, who could speak English, small gifts were exchanged. And there’s some wonderful things. I mean, in one place is the Saxons. The Saxons, shout that they’ve got a barrel of beer, and they drag a barrel of beer into no man’s land and invite the British to join them. And I’m unaware of any British soldier who’d refuse that offer. And that… It’s the sort of thing that goes on. Of course, it could have been a terrible trap, but it wasn’t.
It was good-spirited, and the men met in no man’s land. Perhaps we’ll talk about the motivations everyone had. Whether it was just peace on earth and goodwill to all men, or whether there were other motivations behind it. But the point was, that this was an opportunity for these men to… Well, they’re curious about the Germans, this is their chance to go and see them. The Germans are curious about the British, they can go into no man’s land. They can see their enemies, they can meet them. And it’s just an amazing thing that happens. There are other motivations. As I say, we’ll talk about them.
Brett McKay: And just to be clear again, this is not official. The leaders of both sides didn’t know this was happening.
Peter Hart: They knew up to the level of, say, brigadier. I know I had an account of one brigadier who sees it happening, sort of. And basically their viewpoint is you can’t just gun people down who are having a truce. So what they do is, he goes back to report, and when he comes back, there’s even more in no man’s land. And so this is one of the motivations. He dresses in a private’s uniform, pulls an overcoat on, and goes into no man’s land. Because one of the reasons of officers at a middling level, majors, captains, even colonels, is that they can go out and have a look at the German positions. They could see what the… So, it’s not peace on earth to all men, it’s going out and having a look at that, and see what they can find out about the German trenches. But it’s also, the reason that they have to do it is to stop the Germans getting too close to our trenches and doing the same to us. This isn’t all peace and love. Definitely not.
The other thing is, that it enables people… If you’ve been crouched in a muddy hole, freezing cold, with snipers, pinging bullets or machine gun bullets pinging just six inches above your head, it lets you go into no man’s land, stretch your legs, have a look round. And what else can you do? You can start to improve your own trenches. No one’s shooting at you, so you can dig some drainage, you can put a better parapet in. Parapets are sort of low walling in the front end of a trench. Parados, a low wall behind your trench, help your protection for later on. You can work on dugouts, you can dig communication trenches back. What else can you do? You can bury the corpses in no man’s land. That was a big thing they were doing. Why do you want to bury corpses in no man’s land? Why wouldn’t you? The smell, but just, it’s just awful. Some of them are your comrades. And some of them are your enemy, but they’re there. Just bury the corpses, and this was one of the joint things that they did in no man’s land. These are far more important than some of the things that people fixate on.
Brett McKay: Yeah, one thing people fixate on is they played soccer, some places played soccer. Did that actually happen?
Peter Hart: Well, I used to think that it was unlikely. What I know, there’s a chap called Taff Gillingham, who’s done much work on this and I respect his work. And he has found that there were definitely two kickabouts. And when I say kickabouts, I mean, it’s like me and you went in your backyard and kicked a ball about with, say, four or five other people joining in. It’s not a game, it’s not got a referee or jumpers for goalposts, or anything like that. It’s just a kickabout. And there does seem some evidence that the were some minor games. Basically, Frielingen and… Well, we don’t need to know where they were, if you see what I mean. But there were a couple of games, the Norfolk Regiment and the Cheshire regiment, where the Cheshire troops attached to the Norfolk’s. And they certainly seem to have played, and there are reports published in the newspaper saying they played a match, that’s at Wolvertem in Belgium. I say the name, but I don’t know where it is either. And that’s corroborated. Taff Gillingham has found corroboration. And there’s another account, as I say, about Frielingen, and that’s got a couple of German accounts. So, I think there were a couple of kickabouts, but they are not football matches. I think it’s clear… I think what I’m saying is quite clear there.
Brett McKay: It sounds like Americans throwing a football around, like if you were tossing an American football…
Peter Hart: Yeah, exactly right. So, if you had an American football and a few of you were just tossing it about. Probably not a real football, probably something else. A sandbag filled with a bit of something. That’s what I think it would be.
Brett McKay: Okay. And also they took pictures with each other. That’s why we know this thing actually happened. It wasn’t just like this made up thing…
Peter Hart: Oh, there are lots of great pics… There’s famous ones. One looks exactly like Paul McCartney of The Beatles. [chuckle] It’s an absolutely spitting image of him. So, a famous one of… And there’s loads of other ones of great pictures of them in no man’s land. And there never was any doubt that this happened. It happened for sure. But one thing is, it didn’t happen everywhere. And the units that had been in most action, which are basically the first corps, which is under the command of General Sir Douglas Haig. And the second corps, under General Horace Smith-Dorrien, there wasn’t so much truce making on their front. And that’s partly because they’d had a lot more fighting and were less… Less likely. They’re less trusting. And also perhaps more military. More likely to shoot rather than… And there are accounts of people who say, “The Germans put up Christmas lights and we shot them out.” That kind of thing. So, this is not universal along the British lines. It is in places and probably in less places than… It’s probably the exception rather than the rule. Still important though and still an amazing thing.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think you made the point well is that, okay, there was some peace on Earth, good will for men going on here. How can you not have that when you hear Germans singing Silent Night across the trench? The truce also served a practical war purpose as well.
Peter Hart: Yeah. I’d sum it up. I say, for the vast… And this, as in everything, when you sum something up, you’re going to over-simplify. But, for the vast majority of those who participated, it was a matter of convenience. It was actually convenient to them to have a truce. It made their lives easier. There was a load of slightly maudlin sentiment as well that we all have around Christmas. I do. I’m sure you do. It’s not even maudlin, it’s just sentiment, isn’t it? But I want to make clear, it doesn’t mark some deep flaring of the human spirit. It doesn’t. It’s not people rising up against the war. It’s not anti-war emotions taking root amongst the ranks. It enables them to celebrate Christmas, which matters to everybody… Well every one of the Christian religion or in the countries that celebrate Christmas, in a freer and more jovial, safer environment. And that was after the most awful hell on earth they’ve been enduring. So it was better. It let them satisfy their curiosity about the Germans and it let them carry out the vital construction works. The trenches and everything I mentioned earlier. And it was never going to last. Can I compare it to a break in reality? Not the dawn of a brave new world. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: Yeah. So we’ll talk about it. How did the truce end?
Peter Hart: Well, it ends gradually. [chuckle] And it ends, in some places, it’s just Christmas Day, and there’s places where they put a flag out with Merry Christmas on, fired three shots in the air, put another banner up saying thank you. The German captain on the other side, he did the same. Both sides saluted each other, got down in their trenches, and then they started shooting at each other again. And that’s how it happened in some places. Some, they ended on Boxing Day. Some, it was more than three, four, five days. There’s even the reports of it going nearly up to the new year. But there’s many ways it ends. What could stop it? Well, I’ll tell you what could stop it. If the artillery open up. Now the artillery are behind their lines, they’re not involved in the truce, are they? If they open up, then bursting shells will soon end the truce.
Other things that could stop it is you get a change over of battalions. The British changed their battalions every, well they try and do it every three days but at this time of the war was not quite so much. But if you change over battalions you get new people coming in. They might not be quite so keen on a truce. They may have had different experiences. So that could… They hadn’t shared the moment if you like, of Christmas and they’re coming in, say on day after Boxing Day. Well, it’s all reverting to type… They’re not inclined to compromise. In some cases, a malevolent individual would just shoot someone on the other side and that would lead to very bad feelings and a very swift end to the truce. And there were a couple of reported occasions of that. That’s people who’ve had their brother killed perhaps and they’re just not willing to take part in the truce and so the truce ends.
I think… And this is the key part I want to make, this is why I’m saying this isn’t a sea change in attitude. Most of them went back to war very willingly. They would have rejoiced if the war was over but only if they’d won it. They stood fast. They were alongside their friends, their comrades. They were willing to accept their orders from their sergeants, their officers. They were still willing to kill Germans. It was never going to lead to peace on earth.
Brett McKay: Right. ‘Cause you got three more years of war.
Peter Hart: Well, you have. And the average British soldier is more than willing to shoot down the Germans the moment the truce was over. There are no particular accounts of people having difficulty with that. ‘Cause they were soldiers, of course that was what they were trained to do. If you think about it, and I don’t want to be the… None of the reasons for the British… We’re focusing on the British here. Belgian and a good part of Northern France was still occupied. The Germans were just being as aggressive as before as far as they were concerned. The German and French were in a war of national survival and we were allied to the French. The truce really had changed nothing, and in the end, it means nothing in a permanent thing. It’s a transitory thing, and it’s an emotional thing, and it doesn’t last long.
Brett McKay: And I think a point you make and other historians have made about this is that you think like, “How can these guys go from killing each other to giving each other gifts and playing soccer, kicking the ball and going back to killing each other?” And I think one point that’s made is that these soldiers, on the British side especially, they were these hard-bitten cynical guys. For them, war was almost a business. It wasn’t personal. It’s just like, “That’s what I do. Its what I’m supposed to do so I’m gonna do it.”
Peter Hart: They were perfectly willing to shoot down pretty well anyone they were ordered to shoot. This is just what soldiers are. Professional soldiers are. Two… A year before they’d stood ready to intervene in Northern Ireland. In Ireland. Professional soldiers are professional soldiers. Professional soldiers are also the sort who if they get the chance to take it easy for a couple of days at Christmas, they will. These two emotions aren’t contradictory. It’s very much part of the same character set. Professional soldier, “Can I take it easy for a bit? Yep, I will. Can I go and satisfy my curiosity about what the Germans are up to? I will. Can I improve my own personal comfort? I can. Can I celebrate Christmas?” “So I get the tin from Princess Mary. Princess Mary sent a gift tin out. That’s great but even better is to go out to the Germans and exchange bits of it for what they’ve got.” It suits. And then of course, when it’s over, they just revert to type. They go back to shooting. Go back to killing. It’s sad. It’s not some sort of moral epiphany. It’s just war still.
Brett McKay: What did the generals think when they caught word that this was happening?
Peter Hart: Well, they didn’t like it, but they took it quite well. There was no particular punishments. As I said, a brigadier general was caught up in it. They knew what was going on. You can’t open fire on the Germans without opening fire on yourself, and I’m sure the German leaders also thought that vice versa. It was just something that happened. They made damn sure it never happened again, though. They issued warnings in the next few years, and generally they’d open fire with the artillery, ’cause that’s a point I made earlier. If the artillery is firing, there’s gonna be no truce, and the artillery are a mile and a half behind the lines, most of them.
Brett McKay: And is that why the truce never happened again during the war?
Peter Hart: It’s my belief. There’s reports of very small things, but I’ve never gone into that. It never really recurred. And the war went on. Sadly went on for another four dreadful years, and they were dreadful years. If it had all ended in Christmas 1914, I can assure you I’d have been delighted. But it didn’t, and the reason it didn’t was because their nation-states were still at war, and the regular soldiers were still the servants of the nation-state.
Brett McKay: Alright, so, the Christmas truce, it remains very alive in popular culture. Every Christmas you hear about it. Why do you think it resonates so much still?
Peter Hart: Well, it resonates so much partly because people don’t know the real story, which we’ve just been talking about. It isn’t quite as sentimental and lovely as people think is it. But it still is a wonderful story. It is still. To me, it shows that even though they reverted to killing each other, it just shows that the Germans weren’t any different from the British. The British weren’t any different from the Germans. When it comes down to individuals, when it comes down to people, these people didn’t have a grudge. It was their nation-states that had a grudge, and they were the servants of the nation-states. Sorry to repeat that, but that’s what it is.
But the actual finding almost friendship, about finding a mutual, mutual suffering with the other side and just for a day or two stopping fighting, I think it’s a wonderful story. And although with my severe historian hat on, I will pour cold water on some of the more fanciful things. So they didn’t play football, a proper game of football. It wasn’t peace and love. The war couldn’t have ended then because they were damn well all intent on carrying it on. So that wasn’t gonna happen, but it is still a sign that there is a basic humanity, a shared humanity. And an event like Christmas did provide a sort of release for human emotions, and that’s what I would celebrate just like everybody else does. So even the cruel hard historian has a soft center when it comes to that kind of thing. So I too. I do podcasts about it. I did a TV show about it. I’ve got a chapter in my book about it. It is, to me, it’s an important thing.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s a very human story. It’s like this shows…
Peter Hart: It is.
Brett McKay: How contradictory humans can be.
Peter Hart: It does. It does.
Brett McKay: Well, Peter, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Peter Hart: Well, I’ve got a regular podcast. It’s slightly irreverent, but it’s called Pete and Gary. It’s with a friend of mine called Gary Bain. It’s sort of two people, as if down the pub, talking about military history. It’s called Pete and Gary’s Military History podcast. It’s available on livinghistorytv.com. It’s available on all podcast providers. We don’t have the listenership you do, but we’re still pleased with what we do and that’s out on a weekly basis. And I wrote a book called Fire and Movement that’s available on Oxford University Press. And Fire and Movement is the story of the whole 1914 campaign. Something that I found when I was writing it, it was just so interesting. And so many of the things I thought happened didn’t really happen as I thought, and for me, it was a learning experience. And that’s what’s best for a historian, any historian, is when you’re set about doing something, you’re paid for it, ’cause we’re all paid for things, but the other thing is that you learn and it’s exciting to write it and that overwhelms commercial intent, or it certainly does with me.
Brett McKay: Well, Peter Hart, thanks for your time. It has been a pleasure.
Peter Hart: Cheers.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Peter Hart. He’s the author of several books on World War I, including The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Make sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/christmastruce where you can find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another year of the AOM podcast. We’ll be taking next week off from posting new shows to celebrate the holidays as well as catching up on all the backend to-do’s that go into running the website business. We will be rebroadcasting some classic episodes from the AOM archives. Make sure to check those out. Big thanks to my wife, Kate, for editing the podcast. She does so much to make sure that each episode is as concise and as sharp as possible. Besides editing the podcast, she writes articles, edits articles, and does a lot of the back-end day-to-day stuff to make sure the business just keeps running. Also big thanks to Creative Audio Lab in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. They are the sound engineer team that we use to make sure that each episode sounds as good as possible, so big thanks to them. Thanks so much. And if you’re in need of editing services or sound engineers, check them out: Creative Audio Lab. Kate and I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. We really appreciate your support. Thank you for the letters, e-mails, sharing the show with friends and family members. Thank you so much. It means a lot. I’m looking forward to sharing more great insights with you from some of the world’s most interesting people next year in 2022.