Christmas Truce of 1914

“There had been no official declaration of a universal truce. In fact, commanders had gone out of their way to forbid any stopping of the fighting. And yet more such truces–hundreds of them–were arranged that Christmas morning all along the Western Front. Some truces were arranged by posting a sign suggesting a cease-fire. Others came about through shouted negotiations between lines or simply because soldiers wandered into No Man’s Land and weren’t shot.

“These truces were arranged so quickly that high-ranking officers could do little to prevent them. Lieutenant Colonel Charles McLean was making his daily tour of the trenches when he spotted some of his men clambering over the top and wandering toward the enemy. He ran along the trenches, shouting for his men to return, but they ignored his instructions” (69).

Photo of British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914.

British and German soldiers fraternizing at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914.

The quotations in this blog post are from Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy. This is a chapter book published by Scholastic for elementary school-age kids. Murphy does a fine job of detailing how the 1914 Christmas Truce came about and putting it in context of World War I as a whole. He provides many vivid photos and drawings depicting life in the trenches, the war’s devastation, and the fraternization that happened during the truce. (Parents and caregivers should be aware that one photo depicts dead horses and another, human corpses.)

“The soldiers mingled in the blasted area between the lines. Small gifts were presented to the enemy, such as jam, cigars, cigarettes, chocolate, coffee, sausages, nuts, tea, and newspapers. Many soldiers exchanged souvenirs, including regimental badges and buttons cut off their uniforms. One of the most highly prized items was a Pickelhaube, the spiked helmet that was still in use by the German army early in the war….

“Many strange and unusual things were observed that day. Bruce Bairnsfather was amazed when he saw ‘one of my machine-gunners…cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up his neck'” (76).

I first learned about the Christmas Truce from an animated TV program that used to air on PBS every December. Simple Gifts included six stories about Christmas. My favorite of these was always “December 25, 1914,” which is based on a letter from the Western Front by British Army Captain Sir Edward Hulse. Unfortunately, as far as I know, Simple Gifts is no longer aired and is not available commercially. But all of the segments are available on YouTube. Watching “December 25, 1914” at this time of year has become one of our family traditions.

“The idea of a truce during war wasn’t new or unusual…. During the American Civil War, numerous truces were arranged to bury the dead and to remove the wounded from the battlefields. Most such truces were approved by the officers for a limited amount of time and for very specific reasons. The Christmas Truce of 1914, however, was unique. While some senior officers went out of their way to ‘look the other way,’ most officers worked hard to put an end to it. The fact that the men under them defied these orders is extremely unusual. In addition, the truce lasted much longer and involved many more soldiers than any other previous truce” (69-72).

Some historians dispute this claim that the Christmas Truce was unique. Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, in an article adapted from their book Christmas Truce, give examples of informal or spontaneous cease-fires in several other wars, but concede that the December 1914 truce was “undoubtedly the greatest example of its kind.”

“The more friendly contact [the soldiers] had with the enemy, the less anger they felt toward them. After describing in detail how neighborly the enemy across from him was, German captain Rudolf Binding concluded his diary entry with, ‘Truly, there is no longer any sense in this business'” (50-51).

“[General] Smith-Dorrien fired off an angry message to his commanders: ‘I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is [fraternization] to be allowed between the opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly [meetings]'” (82).

Another excellent work about the truce is folksinger John McCutcheon’s ballad “Christmas in the Trenches,” which tells the story through the eyes of Francis Tolliver, a fictional British soldier. Several different performances of this song are available on YouTube. This one includes an introduction in which McCutcheon describes meeting German WWI veterans who participated in the Christmas Truce.

“In another section, the order to fire on the British nearly caused a mutiny. ‘When the order to fire was given,’ a German officer told Ethel Cooper years later, ‘the men struck…. The officers… stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer, ‘We can’t–they are good fellows, and we can’t.’ Finally, the officers threatened the men with, ‘Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!’… We spent that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky'” (86-87).

“A genuine friendship developed between the English and German soldiers in Ploegsteert Wood. Because an inspection by a high-ranking officer meant the men would have to demonstrate a fighting spirit by firing at the enemy, both sides took to informing the other of such visits. Lieutenant J. D. Wyatt recalled the day when ‘a message came down the line to say that the Germans [expected] that their General was coming along in the afternoon, so we had better keep down, as they might have to do a little shooting to make things look right!! And this is war!” (89).

Major Murdoch McKenzie Wood: “‘If we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired. For a fortnight that truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again'” (98).

Related resources

In the spirit of the Christmas Truce, these are some of my son’s favorite anti-war songs:

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (Eric Bogle)
Bring ‘Em Home” (Pete Seeger)
Draft Dodger Rag” (Phil Ochs)
Mrs. McGrath” (Irish traditional, sung here by Bruce Springsteen)
Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (Pete Seeger)
War” (Edwin Starr)
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (Pete Seeger)

Photo credit
Ministry of Information, First World War Official Collection, Imperial War Museum, Catalog # Q11745. © IWM (Q 11745). Used with permission under IWM Non-Commercial License policy.

Civil War songs

Our budding Civil War fifer (see previous post) asked me to highlight some of his favorite Civil War songs. Here they are:

Battle Cry of Freedom was probably the most popular Union song. A 1916 recording is available courtesy of UC Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. Wikipedia notes that there was Confederate version as well: While northern troops sang “The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah! / Down with the traitors, up with the stars,” the Confederates substituted “Our Dixie forever! She’s never at a loss! / Down with the eagle and up with the cross.”

Print showing images for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Dixie" and other Civil War songs

“The Songs of the War,” 1861

John Brown’s Body commemorates militant abolitionist John Brown and his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, with a tune that was later recycled for Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Ralph Chaplin’s labor movement anthem “Solidarity Forever,” as well as various parodies.

Dixie was originally a pre-Civil War song of blackface minstrels that became the unofficial Confederate anthem, with its call “In Dixie land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” Leo is partial to the Union version, which features lines such as: “Away down South in the land of traitors, rattlesnakes and alligators… Where cotton’s king and men are chattels, Union boys will win the battles…” etc.

Marching Through Georgia commemorates General Sherman’s 1864 march from Atlanta to Savannah, which helped to break the back of the Confederate economy. When Leo and I were learning this song, we replaced “darkeys” with “people” in the lyrics, and it was an opportunity to talk about how soldiers fighting to end slavery didn’t necessarily treat Black people with respect.

Goober Peas refers to the boiled peanuts that many Southern troops subsisted on later in the war, when supplies grew short.

Image of soldiers marching and singing "Glory Hallelujah" ("The Battle Hymn of the Republic")

Detail from “The Songs of the War,” 1861

When Johnny Comes Marching Home was popular on both sides of the Civil War. As Claire noted in last post, Leo has been learning this on the fife. The same tune has been used for the Irish antiwar song “Johnny I hardly knew ye.” (Check out both the traditional Irish Rovers version and the Pogues-style Dropkick Murphys version.) Wikipedia used to say that “Johnny I hardly knew ye” was written in the early 18th century in response to the Kandyan Wars in Sri Lanka, and that “Johnny Comes Marching Home” was derived from it. But new research shows that “Johnny I hardly knew ye” was actually first published in 1867. It’s a good lesson in the imperfections of Wikipedia and of reference sources more broadly.

More Resources
American Civil War Music (1861-1865) is a compendium of hundreds of songs organized by year, from 1861 to 1865, with recordings and lyrics. It’s compiled by Benjamin Robert Tubb, whose main page, Public Domain Music, includes many other compendia, grouped by song era, style, or composer.

Civil War bugle calls features reenactor Jan Berger demonstrating a couple dozen bugle commands, such as “Forward,” “Halt,” “Attention,” “Commence Firing,” etc.

20th Maine Civil War Fife & Drum Corps gives a spirited rendition of “The girl I left behind me,” which was used as a Civil War marching tune. Leo’s fife teacher says that most fifes were played at an extra high pitch so they wouldn’t be drowned out by the drummers.

“The Songs of the War,” engraving by Winslow Homer, published in Harper’s Weekly, 23 November 1861. Image captions: The bold soldier boy, Hail to the Chief, We’ll be free and easy still, Rogues march, Glory Hallelujah, The Girl I Left Behind Me, Dixie. Winslow Homer Collection, Print Department, Boston Public Library.

The war curriculum

We homeschooled Leo for about four months when he was eight years old. School had been good for him in kindergarten and first grade, but second grade started off rough and by spring he was so beaten down that we decided to pull him out. We scrambled to put together a homeschooling plan that would let him recover but also challenge his mind and engage his heart. Knowing Leo’s fascination with all things military, I came up with the idea of building a curriculum — or at least a large part of one — around war.

The basic idea was to use war as a unifying thread to help Leo connect with a lot of different subject areas — and at the same time help him move beyond the “guns are cool!” mind-set to develop a fuller and more varied set of perspectives on war. We read historical novels set in different wars: rural Illinois during the Civil War (Across Five Aprils), Mexico in 1836 (In the Shadow of the Alamo), and Korea during World War II (When My Name Was Keoko). We learned songs exploring war from many angles, such as patriotism (“Battle Cry of Freedom”), satire (“Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major”), protest (“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”), and lament (“Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye”). Leo filled out home-made geography worksheets tracing where armies marched and solved math problems involving numbers of soldiers and weapons and quantities of provisions. His interest in ballistics led him to David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work to learn about the physics that makes guns fire and missiles launch. A Wikipedia article on “Combat Medic” led into a discussion of first aid basics and the workings of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Claire’s mom, who joined us as one of Leo’s homeschool teachers, showed him photos of his relatives who fought in the Civil War and introduced him to Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”

The following excerpts from our homeschooling log show some of the range of what we covered:

Leo wanted to make a new costume based on a Revolutionary War uniform. First, we found a website that features color drawings of uniforms from many different units on both sides in that war. Leo picked out one that he liked and we printed out the drawing. He identified certain pieces of clothing that he already had and others that he would need in order to make the costume. We then walked over to the thrift store a few blocks from our house, and Leo found a tan shirt and a red jacket that would work for the costume. Back at home, I found an extra martial arts belt (white) that I cut in half for Leo, and loaned him my sewing kit. Without any help except with pinning, he then sewed one of the halves into a loop to be worn across one shoulder. (The next day he sewed a similar loop from the other half and sewed the two loops together to make an X in the back.)
* * *
Using online and print sources, we looked at war propaganda posters from World War II — mostly U.S. and Japanese, plus a couple of German ones. We discussed the images in the posters, the purposes of wartime propaganda, and how the people in the war were depicted differently by the different sides, with a special emphasis on racial stereotyping.
* * *
Leo attended a home school learning center for a full day. He and two other kids created a museum featuring weapons from several different historical eras, from the Stone Age to modern times. (They made the weapons out of K’Nex.)
* * *
We looked at maps of Mexico, Texas, and the United States in the nineteenth century. I showed Leo how large Mexico had been before the Texas War of Independence, and how much territory Mexico lost in that war and in the War with the United States that followed. We counted all of the states in the U.S. that used to be part of Mexico, and talked about how many of them still have lots of people of Mexican descent living in them, and how their local cultures (foods, etc.) still have a lot of Mexican influences. We also looked at how the United States grew from the time of Independence through the end of the war with Mexico.
* * *
While I was brushing my teeth this morning Leo asked, “Dad, why did the United States and the Russians start a Cold War?” That led into a short discussion about the differences between capitalism and communism.

The war curriculum was an attempt to expand our child’s thinking about war, not channel it in one direction. It offered space for Leo to appreciate the loyalty of battlefield comrades who risk their lives to protect each other, but also imagine what it might feel like to be driven out of your home by soldiers. To be dazzled by the power of military equipment, but also moved by Eric Bogle’s song about a soldier who has his legs blown off at Gallipoli. To learn about some of the many reasons people go to war, and to think about which of them are worth fighting for and which are not.

The curriculum also gave us many opportunities to talk about how social differences and divisions shape people’s lives. In the Shadow of the Alamo, for example, compares the situations of the impoverished farmers who were conscripted into the Mexican army and the landowners’ sons who became their officers. Along with the soldiers themselves, the book also shows how women and girls traveled with their sons, husbands, and fathers as camp followers, and faced lots of hardship and suffering in the process.

Our experience with homeschooling was brief, as Leo returned to a school setting in the fall. But it helped us think much more actively about we can help our child learn and help make many different subjects engaging for him, including history. In future posts on this blog, I expect to write about a number of the specific resources we used.