“There, the night before we had been having a terrific battle and the morning after, there we were smoking their cigarettes and they smoking ours.” This was the slightly bemused verdict of a British Tommy on one of the most extraordinary and poignant events of World War I: the Christmas truce of 1914. Up and down the lines on the Western Front, men from both sides stepped from their trenches and laid aside their countries’ differences for a short time.
I took this as the inspiration for my short story, ‘Bertie’s Buttons’, which appears in my book French Collection: Twelve Short Stories. I’ve posted about the inspiration behind individual stories in the book.
Throughout the war, it wasn’t uncommon for unofficial truces to take place to allow soldiers to collect their dead or injured comrades or just as a respite from the ghastliness of the fighting. What set the Christmas truce apart was the scale on which it took place. Around 100,000 British and German troops were involved. Fraternisation between German and French troops did take place, but was less common.
The first truce took place on Christmas Eve in the Ypres area of Belgium. German soldiers put candles and Christmas trees on top of their trenches and sang carols. British troops responded by singing English carols and shouting greetings. Eventually, men scrambled up onto No Man’s Land and exchanged presents, cigarettes and food.
They also swapped souvenirs, such as hats and buttons. I was particularly taken by the account of a British soldier who took a fancy to a German officer’s buttons, snipped off a couple with wire cutters and then gave the German two of his own. No prizes for guessing where the title of my story comes from!
One of the enduring images of the Christmas truce is that of the football matches reputed to have taken place between opposing sides. However, historians have cast doubt on just how widespread these were. The state of the ground in No Man’s Land probably didn’t lend itself to organised games, but spontaneous kick-about games may well have occurred.
The army top brass became increasingly concerned about the truces and their obvious potential repercussions on fighting morale. Some generals expressly forbade friendly communication with the enemy. An unofficial press embargo was broken in England a week later with first-hand accounts from soldiers. Tighter censorship in France meant that the story leaked out more slowly. Coverage in Germany was very limited and generally disapproving.
In subsequent years of World War I, the number of Christmas truces declined considerably, partly because of explicit orders forbidding them and partly because hostilities became more entrenched. However, the unofficial everyday truces continued in places.
My story takes the form of a letter home from Bertie Connolly to his parents, in which he describes what happened on Christmas Eve. Here’s a short extract:
We stood around for a bit, smoking and taking the occasional pull from the bottle. A couple of their men spoke English but no one said much. We were just a group of lads hanging about. We could have been anywhere. That’s what struck me. These Fritzes were ordinary people with parents, sisters, brothers, wives, sweethearts back home. Just like us. Exchange uniforms and you wouldn’t have noticed the difference. And yet up till now we’d been trying to thump each other into the ground. It made me think.
After a bit it was getting dark and cold and we shook hands and went back to our own lines.
On 12 December 2014, a Christmas Truce Memorial was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, England. The photos are reproduced by kind permission of my friend, the author Louise Charles, who visited the memorial recently.
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