If I had a World War One military cap, I’d use it for a hat tip to the folks at Brigada.org. Thanks to them I got to see this year’s Christmas advertisement for the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. It was created in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the Christmas Truce, when Allied and German soldiers, nearly five months into the first world war, climbed out of their foxholes and, in the no man’s land between them, found a way to celebrate Christmas together.
The stories of the Christmas Truce of 1914 come from diaries and letters of soldiers on the front lines in Europe. The people who made the Sainsbury’s ad tell about the background for the video in their “Story behind Our Christmas Ad” below, quoting several of the first-hand accounts.
Following are excerpts of what the soldiers wrote a century ago, showing in stark terms how longed for, and how elusive, peace on earth is.
From a letter written by British Rifleman J. Reading to his wife—
I hope you all had a merry Christmas; let me tell you how I spent mine. My company happened to be in the firing line on Christmas eve, and it was my turn—with a non-commissioned officer and four others—to go into a ruined house and remain there until 6.30 on Christmas morning. During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: “Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.” At 4 a.m part of their Band played some Christmas carols and “God save the King”, and “Home Sweet Home.” You could guess our feelings. Later on in the day they came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them. Of course neither of us had any rifles. I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet that it seemed like a dream. We took advantage of the quiet day and brought our dead in.
(Bucks Examiner, January 8, 1915, quoted in Christmas Truce 1914: Operation Plum Pudding)
From Regimental Sergeant-Major George Beck’s diary—
Not one shot was fired. English and German soldiers intermingled and exchanged souvenirs. Germans very eager to exchange almost anything for our bully beef and jam. Majority of them know French fluently.
Passages from Beck’s diary are being published daily, 100 years after being written, at The diary of Regimental Sergeant Major George Beck, part of the Dorset History Centre site.
(Mark Casci, “Diary of Famous WWI Christmas Truce to Be Published,” The Yorkshire Post, August 17, 2014)
From the diary of German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch—
Soldier Möckel from my company, who had lived in England for many years, called to the British in English, and soon a lively conversation developed between us. . . . Afterwards, we placed even more candles than before on our kilometre-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination—the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake. It was a wonderful, if somewhat cold, night.
(Michael Jürgs, Der kleine Frieden im Großen Krieg [The Small Peace in the Big War], quoted in English in Luke Harding’s “A Cry of: Waiter! And the Fighting Stopped,” The Guardian, November 11, 2003)
From Fred Langton—
The following incidents will give you an idea of how some of our Tommies spent Christmas Day. The Scots Guards and the Germans opposite, by mutual consent, mixed freely with each other. They exchanged addresses, and promised to write to each other—a typical habit of Tommy’s. Two of the German officers took dinner with our two officers, and before they left arranged to play a football match on New Year Day. Six of the Worcesters had lunch in the German lines, and the same number of Germans had lunch in ours. Before parting, it was arranged that before firing recommenced on either side three volleys should be fired in the air. A week from now these men on both sides will be doing almost unspeakable things in order to kill each other.
(Yorkshire Post, January 2, 1915, quoted in Christmas Truce 1914: Operation Plum Pudding)
And from the Royal Engineers’ Lance-Corporal Henderson—
The alarm went about midnight, and we stood up till daybreak, when we found that our pals of the previous two days had tried to rush our position, but they got cut up as usual, and I believe the next morning the ground where we had been so chummy, and where Germans had wished us a merry Christmas, was now covered with their dead.
(published in The Hampshire Chronicle, January 30, 1915, quoted in Christmas Truce 1914: Operation Plum Pudding)