We’ll get to the one thing everyone knows about in due course. However, before we do that, I’d like to set it in its proper context.
German East Africa
And that means going first to the situation in Africa. A couple of days ago, General Tighe reported that the Umba Valley was now free of German guerillas, and the white inhabitants of Kenya and Uganda have had a stress-free Christmas in response. Today, he launches a small raid on the German border post at Jasin to further increase the security of the region. At Longido, a company of the 2nd Loyal North Lancs are celebrating being the only British troops to occupy German-governed territory anywhere in the war.
Meanwhile, the British fleet sends a wireless message to Konigsberg: “We wish you a Happy New Year, and hope to see you soon.” Mindful of his manners, Captain Looff soon replies. “Thanks for the message. If you wish to see us, we are always at home.” It’s all very jolly.
There’s plenty of fighting between Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary on this front. No swapping of cigarettes here. The squabbling over the mountain passes in the Carpathians continues; and the Russians win two victories elsewhere to secure their situation, at Tarnow in Galicia and the River Bzura in Poland.
However, there are also a few vague and isolated references to occasional fraternisation between Austrian and Russian troops. Neither of the sides being English-speaking, it’s hard to track down any hard information about the events.
To the south-west, even the Italians are busy. The recently-formed state of Albania has been in a bad way since the outbreak of war. Now Italy wishes to, ahem, preserve Albanian neutrality. They’ve decided that the best way to do this is, er, to occupy the Albanian port of Valona (now known as Vlore). They claim to be responding to Greek aggression, but this is the first open sign that Italy (or at least, a very few people at the top of the pile) is in a deeply truculent mood.
And on we go to the Caucasus, where we find panic spreading at Russian headquarters as the Ottomans continue advancing through the snow. By the time some of their units reach shelter, they’ll have left 90% of their ration strength behind, disabled or dying from frostbite and exposure. Though Enver Pasha can’t possibly appreciate it, his grand plan is already starting to unravel.
And there’s more offensive action between Britain and Germany today. The Royal Naval Air Service launches a major seaplane bombing raid on the German port of Cuxhaven, which also has Zeppelin facilities. A seaplane tender has carried them across the North Sea, and the air raid is successfully carried out with the safe return of all crews, despite the low cloud and fog. (Some of the planes don’t quite make it back, but it’s still an important moment.) The Germans respond with an unsuccessful attempt at bombing the British fleet, which withdraws safely in late afternoon.
Truce on the Western Front
So to the blokes in the trenches. The vast majority of the line is completely quiet. A few particularly dedicated gunners still send over the morning and evening hate, but for the most part even Prussians are happy to live and let live for today. Many Germans have been putting out candles on their parapets and singing Christmas carols. Some sectors have already arranged truces to bury the dead. Others come out of their trenches on their own initiative.
This is often where football gets mentioned. At the risk of being a wet blanket, it didn’t play nearly as extensive a part in the truce as popular culture has often wanted to suggest. (The well-regarded amateur historian Taff Gillingham has been doing a lot of tireless work in the last few months, trying to track down contemporary primary source material that mentions football; check him out for the full picture.) There may not have been organised matches with eleven players a side, jumpers for goalposts and Captain Blackadder being the victim of a terrible offside decision. However, there are enough references to kickabouts (often with improvised substitutes for a ball) to say that yes, some British and German soldiers played football together.
What it isn’t is a major experience of the truce, that a lot of men were able to share. There is one other experience with a far greater claim to that; and now we return to the reason for many of the truces being arranged. The most common shared experience seems to me to be that of both sides burying each other’s dead together. German chaplains give funeral services over the bodies of British soldiers. British padres give funeral services over the bodies of German soldiers. And the men gather together to pay their respects to the fallen.
This is a theme that I’ll be returning to time and again. There are a lot of things widely believed about the First World War that are in some way inaccurate or exaggerated. This is often where the “revisionist” historians come in, to give a more nuanced view. A lot of the time I find myself agreeing with their assessment of some particular incident while completely disagreeing with the conclusion they often go on to draw from it. The myth-busting is often packaged with an attempt also to revise the general perception of the war as pointless and futile, what we might light-heartedly call the Sheffield-Gove view.
What I find every time I read a revisionist re-evaluation of some facet of the war has always been that it only serves to increase the tragedy and the futility of the whole thing. The truces are a reasonable example; there’s better ones to come. The image of men finding common ground by burying each other’s dead is, to me, a far more affecting one than the often-exaggerated football match stories. The truth is more than adequate, without needing to invent things that didn’t happen.