Early Attempts at a WW1 Truce
Such was the death toll and the nature of the fighting in the first few months of the war, it was not long before there were humanitarian cries for the conflict to be stopped. Below there is an account of the request from the Vatican, followed by the resulting crackdown by the British generals to stop any truce from taking place.
Although it is the most famous truce, it is worth noting that the Christmas Truce of 1914 was not the first truce to take place during a war. Below we look at truces through the ages, specifically those which took place during The Peninsular War, The Crimean War and The Second Boer War.
The Western Front
Having declared war on Germany, Britain quickly made a formal alliance with France, a country with whom she long had an understanding through the entente cordiale, and in doing so The Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia was born.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire became part of the Triple Alliance of Central Powers, along with Germany and Austria-Hungary, after signing the Turco-German Alliance, in August 1914. The Triple Entente did not officially declare war on the Ottoman Empire until the 4th November, following the bombing of the Russian Black Sea ports.
The war on the Eastern front saw the central powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, fight against Russia and Romania. However, this article is specifically concerned with events that took place on the Western Front, where Germany fought against Great Britain and France, as well as Belgium, Portugal, the Dominion Forces of the British Empire (Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa) and, from April 1918, the United States of America.
The war on the Western Front began with an advance by Germany, using a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan to invade France via Luxembourg and Belgium. Although Germany was able to occupy Luxembourg without opposition on the 2nd August 1914, Belgium proved to be far more resilient than the German army had expected. Nonetheless, by the end of August, the Germans had swept through Belgium and had begun their march into Northern France, where they met with both the French army and an initial six divisions of the British Expeditionary Force.
Initially, the German army won a number of key battles, which allowed them to advance into France, gaining control of important industrial regions as they went and coming within 70 km of Paris. However, an Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne dramatically turned the tide, forcing the Germans back and setting the stage for four years of trench warfare along the Western Front.
A New Type Of War
Following the Battle of the Marne, in September 1914, both sides desperately attempted to outflank the enemy to the north in a series of manoeuvres, which became known as the “Race to the Sea”. This eventually resulted in a meandering line of fortified trenches, which stretched from the Swiss border with France in the south, all the way up to the North Sea in the north. This line of trenches would pretty much remain unchanged for the rest of the war.
Trench warfare had been born, a new type of war which was totally different to any before or since. The reason that both sides dug in along these defensive lines was mainly to do with the technology at that time. It just so happens that when the war broke out, the technological advances in firepower far outweighed the advances made in mobility. This meant that the defender now held a huge advantage over the attacker and so it made sense for an army to fortify their current position and defend it.
The trenches were dug by one of three common methods, known as entrenching, sapping, and tunnelling: Entrenching was when the men would dig downwards from the surface and although it was the most efficient way of digging, it was also the most dangerous as the men were exposed above ground to sniper fire.
Sapping was where one or two diggers extended the trench by digging away at the end of it. This was a safer way of digging than entrenching, but also a much slower process. Finally, tunnelling was similar to sapping, but was even safer, due to the fact that a “roof” of soil was left in place until the trench had been dug out.
The early trenches were simple and were packed with men fighting shoulder to shoulder. In addition to the trenches themselves, barbed wire was placed in front, in order to improve the defences. After a few months, these small, improvised trenches began to grow deeper and more complex, eventually becoming vast areas of interlocking defensive works. These trenches were now usually about 12 ft in depth and were able to resist artillery bombardments, as well as infantry assaults.
The area between the two sets of trenches was known as no man’s land and was typically between 100 and 300 yards wide. However, there were certain places on the Western Front, such as on Vimy Ridge, where the opposing troops only had as little as 30 yards of no man’s land separating them.
Although conditions in the trenches were dreadful, morale was actually still quite high at this stage in the war. Supplies at the front were still in abundance and many of the lower ranked soldiers found that they ate better than they would have done back home. That said, the number of deaths among the soldiers was certainly taking its toll.
A Request from the Vatican
In the months leading up to Christmas 1914, the war would claim almost one million lives and a war that initially the fighting nations believed would be over in only a few weeks now appeared to have no end in sight. With the loss of life increasing, early attempts at a truce were made by each side, but to no avail.
A call for peace had also come from the Vatican, with Pope Benedict XV suggesting that there might be a Christmas truce in December. However, an official cease fire had quickly been dismissed.
Pope Benedict was elected pontiff on the 3rd September, 1914, only a month after the war had begun. As early as the 1st November, 1914, he issued an encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, appealing for peace:
The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society?
In early December, 1914, after the horrors of the First Battle of Ypres had taken place, the pope then called for a truce at Christmas, pleading that the nations “cease the clang of arms while Christendom celebrates the Feast of the World’s Redemption”. Unfortunately, this plea from Rome was ignored. Instead, the generals of both sides looked to strongly discourage any notion of a ceasefire over the Christmas period.
Crackdown by the Generals
The British generals had long been wary of the possibility of fraternising occurring between the enemy soldiers, due to the very nature of trench warfare and the fact that the opposing troops were in such close proximity for long periods of time. On the 5th December 1914, as Christmas was approaching, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien sent out a stark warning to the senior officers in the British army:
It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of troops exists. Experience of this and of every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a “live and let live” theory of life… officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises… the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy… such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.
Smith-Dorrien then went one further by instructing the Divisional Commanders to impress on the subordinate commanders:
the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit… friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited
Truces Through The Ages
Although by far the most well known unofficial war-time truce, the Christmas Truce of 1914 was by no means a one-off. Other informal truces and small armistices have taken place through the ages, when the opposing troops were in close proximity for prolonged periods of time.
Below are some other lesser-known war time truces that took place prior to the Christmas Truce of 1914:
The Peninsular War (1808-1814)
The Peninsular War, which actually formed part of the Napoleonic Wars, was a military conflict between France and the allied powers of Spain, Portugal and Great Britain. Originally, Spain was allied to France, and had allowed Napoleon to send his army through Spain to invade Portugal. However, once his troops were in place in Spain, Napoleon usurped the Spanish king and put his brother, Joseph, on the throne.
During the war in Portugal, the French and British lines were so close at times that they were forced to get water at the same river, which separated them. Due to this, both sets of soldiers came to an understanding, where they would not fire on one another when fetching water. This then led to incidences of the enemy exchanging gifts and even playing cards around campfires.
The British commander, the Duke of Wellington, was apparently well aware that these activities were taking place between the British and French troops and was quite outraged. He attempted to put a halt to any such type of fraternising, by making it punishable by death for any soldier to have any contact of this sort with the enemy.
The Crimean War (1853–1856)
The Crimean War was a war fought by Russia against France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire, between October 1853 and February 1856. The conflict began over the rights of the Christian minorities in the Holy Land, where the French promoted the rights of Catholics, while Russia promoted those of the Orthodox Christians. However, the main reason for the war, which Russia eventually lost, was the simple fact that Britain and France did not want to see Russia seize new territory at the expense of a declining Ottoman Empire.
A first hand account of the Crimean War, which was published in the New York Times, in April 1883, tells of fraternising between Russian and French soldiers, in the valley of Tchernaya, which had become a sort of neutral ground between the armies.
Communications were soon established between them by signals at the advanced posts. A French sentry would tie his pocket-handkerchief on his bayonet, and a Russian sentry would leave a bottle of vodka, or brandy, at the end of his beat. In the evening a comrade not on guard would go to the spot, and, taking the bottle, would put a couple of loaves of white bread in its place.
This system of white flags gradually developed into a long practice of short armistices under flags of truce.
The Second Boer War (1899-1902)
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was not even the first time that a football match was played between enemy soldiers. That particular honour goes to a game reportedly played between the British and the Boers, during the Second Boer War.
Sunday truces were already commonplace during the war, because the Boers abstained from fighting due to religious reasons. Furthermore, a truce also took place on Christmas Day and Boxing Day in 1899, at Mafeking.
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