Thursday 25 December 2014

The Christmas Truce

H de Buriatte [X550/1/81]

Friday 25th December 1914: The commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion has been speaking with our news desk, telling us something which, to our minds, is not only strange and noteworthy but quite wonderful in the light it throws on our human condition. The battalion is in front line trenches near Fleurbaix and last night, about eight o’clock, the Germans were heard singing in their trenches celebrating the fact that it was Christmas Eve.

There were numerous lights on their parapets apparently suspended from Christmas trees. A voice shouted from their trenches in English and could be heard quite distinctly: "I want to arrange to bury the dead. Will someone come out and meet me?" A number of dead bodies, naturally, litter no man’s land between the two front lines at any one time, sometimes more, sometimes fewer, depending on whether there has been an attack, or whether a raid or patrol has been intercepted or whether man have been killed in the dangerous nightly task of checking the barbed wire in front of their own trenches.

In the event the commanding officer despatched Second Lieutenant H. de Buriatte with three men under a flag of truce. In the middle of no man’s land they met with five Germans, the leader of whom spoke excellent English but was not an officer. He said he had lived in Brighton and in Canada. This German said they wished to bury about twenty four of their dead but would not do so at night as they were afraid that their artillery might open fire as they were jumpy about activity in no man’s land under cover of darkness. They could not stop their artillery doing this and it would not be fair to our men! As a result it was decided that no arrangement was made at the time.

Second Lieutenant de Buriatte struck up a conversation with the German, who gave him a postcard with the following information. The addressee was in the 12th Company, 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Brigade, VII Army Corps. The men also had the number 15 on their shoulder straps. The red band round their Caps was covered with grey cloth. This is astounding as such information is usually just the sort of thing that one side seeks to hide from another!

At ten o’clock this morning a German officer and two men, all of whom were unarmed, came out of their trenches with a white flag and were met by Captain H. C. Jackson and asked to be permitted to bury their dead. The Bedfords said they would not fire till 11.30 to give them time to go about their mournful task and this was done. The commanding officer of 2nd Battalion explained: “My men had already buried some of the dead last night. It was noticed that the German trenches were strongly held, there being a large number of men sitting on the parapet during the time the bodies were being buried. The men were a young lot from 19-25 years, well turned out and clean. I had given strict orders that none of my men were to go towards the enemy's lines without definite orders and that no one except those on duty were to be looking over the parapet. No Germans were allowed to come near our trenches. The German wire was closely inspected”.

During this time of unofficial truce, one of the 2nd Battalion’s Company Sergeant Majors was speaking to a German when an elderly officer passed. This German said they were very comfortable in a nice village behind but did not give the name! He seemed surprised that our troops were not an elderly Reserve class. The general impression was that the Germans had had enough and were anxious for the War to come to an end. Such events as this, we understand, have taken place all over those sectors of the front line held by or men, but not in those areas held by the French. The Germans’ behaviour seems extraordinary but the C. O. of the 2nd Battalion explains that a large percentage of the 15th Infantry Regiment seem to originate from Saxony. Apparently it is well known that the Saxons do not make very efficient or aggressive soldiers, in contrast to the swaggering Prussians or the murderous men from Württemburg. This reminds us that Germany was a group of different states – Bavaria, Westphalia, Prussia, Saxony, Württemburg and so on until formed together in a single nation state as recently as 1871.

The colonel of the 1st Battalion reports the receipt of Christmas cards from Their Majesties the King and Queen, which were distributed to all ranks of the Battalion as were brass tins containing chocolate or tobacco and other comforts – a present from Her Royal Highness Princess Mary. For them too it has been a quiet day, the Germans semaphoring over that they were not going to fire. No mention is made of any fraternisation with the enemy and so, presumably, there has been none.

We understand that fraternisation, such as that between 2nd Battalion and the German 15th Regiment has caused dismay in the upper echelons of the British Expeditionary Force. No doubt the top brass will feel it is something calculated to diminish the men’s martial spirit. In some cases, we believe, British units have engaged their enemies opposite in impromptu games of football in no man’s land!

No doubt there are two views to be taken of this. One view is that it is indeed to be deplored - a war for the very existence of civilization is under way. The Germans are the men who have committed acts of barbarism on civilians in both Belgium and France – mass murder, rape, looting and arson. Our men will need to be tough indeed to deal defeat to such a foe. The other view is that the men on both sides are just that – men, with all their faults and virtues – some, on both sides, will be very bad characters indeed, others will be full of decency, most will be somewhere in between, veering from one to the other at different times. Christmas marks the birth of our Saviour who died for all our sins, so a cessation of killing at such a time is a thing to be treasured – showing that there is still some spirit of peace abroad in the world. We invite readers to decide their own view for themselves.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/3/wd

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