by Evelyn McKechnie
The war that was to be ‘over for Christmas’, was not over by December 1914. The soldiers who joined up believing that, were now sitting in trenches hundreds of miles from home looking up into a bleak and cold sky. In fact, the Great War dragged on until November 1918.
The Christmas Truce in 1914 was not just one truce in one location, it was a series of unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front. In the week leading up to Christmas, British and German soldiers had been in a festive mood after receiving gifts and parcels from home. The Germans had placed small Christmas trees lit brightly with candles all along their parapets and sang Christmas carols.
The origins of the Christmas tree tradition as we know it, originally started in Germany in the 16th century. Devout Christians had decorated trees brought into their homes. So it is not surprising, the German soldiers were the ones to place Christmas trees on their trenches.
Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, is reputed to be the first person to place lighted candles to a tree. The story is that he was walking home one winter evening, and was in awe of the brilliant stars that were shining brightly between the trees. So in order to recreate the scene for his family, he placed a tree in the living room and put lit candles on its branches.
Soon everyone was joining in and eventually, soldiers ventured out into no man’s land. They exchanged tobacco, cigarettes, alcohol and food. They also took the opportunity to bury their respective dead lying out in the battlefield and some even had joint burials.
The British soldiers were sent a Christmas tin, it was known as the Princess Mary’s Gift tin. For those that smoked, it had one ounce of tobacco, packet of 20 cigarettes, a tinder lighter, a pipe, a Christmas Card and a photograph of the Princess Mary.
Those that did not smoke were also catered for – their tin contained sweets, normally acid drops, khaki writing case with a pencil, paper, envelopes and the same card and photo.
The Christmas Truce was seen as a moment of peace and humanity amidst the mass slaughter of soldiers unsurpassed in history.
‘I went out and found that they were willing to have an armistice for four hours, and to carry our dead men back half for us to bury. A few days previous we had had an attack with many losses. This I arranged, and then – can you imagine it – both sides came out, met in the middle, shook hands, wished each other the compliments of the season and had a chat. A strange sight between two hostile lines. They then carried over the dead. I won’t describe the sights I saw and and which I shall never forget. We buried the dead as they were.’
(2/Lt Wilbert Spencer, 2nd Wiltshires)
Those who took part in at Ploegsteert Wood were the 4th Division: the 1st Royal Warwickshires, 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, 11th Brigade 1st Hampshires, 1st Rifle Brigade, 1st East Lancashires, 1/5th London (London Rifle Brigade), the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, the 2nd Essex and the 1/2nd Monmouthshire.
Bruce Bairnsfather was a lieutenant with the 1st Royal Warwickshires acting as machine-gun officer. He sketched cartoons with great humour depicting the soldiers’ discomfort and misery. These sketches became very popular with the soldiers, especially his ‘Old Bill’ character with the huge walrus moustache.
Soon his drawings began appearing everywhere, on the walls of barns, trenches and dugouts all around the area of St. Yves.
Bairnsfather also recorded the Christmas Truce, even sketching the location where soldiers of both armies exchanged cigarettes and played football in December 1914.
The 1st Royal Warwickshires left Ploegsteert Wood for the cauldron of the Ypres Salient. Bruce Bairnsfather was suffering from the effects of chlorine gas when he was wounded by a shell explosion on 24th April 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres and invalided back to ‘Blighty’. He was later diagnosed as suffering from shell shock.
The Bystander magazine in London had heard about his cartoons and soon he was a regular contributor. He was commissioned to produce “Fragments from France”, cartoons which were published weekly throughout the Great War.
The Truce is ended
The truce was frowned upon by both the German and British High Command, soon, hostilities were resumed. There was never to be such a truce on a scale such as this ever again during the war.
A cross was placed at the Ploegsteert Truce by the Khaki Chums in 1999 to commemorate the Christmas Truce. It has the inscription, ‘Lest We Forget’.
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