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A Centenary Reminder of the First Christmas Truce

∫ Originally published in The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915.

∫ Originally published in The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915.

My daughter shared a video with me (see below)  and I was surprised and touched by the genuine warmth of it.

It shows the fighting factions of the English and German soldiers of the first world war coming together out of the trenches on Christmas Eve 1914.  In a wave of neutrality, they share hand shakes, gifts and even a game of foot ball.  (Yes, the real football)

The 3 minute long video made by the giant supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is paying tribute to the 20 year partnership it has with The Royal British Legion.  The advertisement is called Christmas is for Sharing.  It made its debut on British Television, Thursday November 13th, 2014.   It also pays tribute in the centenary year marking the anniversary of the first winter outbreak of the first world war.

After watching the video, I began to think about the real first Christmas truce. In the first five months of the Great War, the Germans had already fallen back to defensive positions in the Aisne Valley after their initial push through Belgium into France.  The French and British troops stopped the German troops before they could gain a foot hold into Paris.  After several months of fighting where neither side advanced, both allied and axis sides took up defensive positions in the trenches.  This stalemate characterized the front line, which was now precariously close to either side only separating the trenches by a mere 30 to 40 yards.

∫ British and German troops meeting in no man's land during the unofficial truce (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector) British and German troops meeting in No-Mans's Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). (Credit From Wikipedia)

∫ British and German troops meeting in no man’s land during the unofficial truce (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector)
British and German troops meeting in No-Mans’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). (Credit From Wikipedia)

As the first Christmas approached, there had already been several peace initiatives to stop the fighting.  One was called the Open Christmas Letter and there were others.   Due to the close proximity of the trenches, as Christmas approached, fraternization became commonplace.  After months of trench warfare, many soldiers began to take on a “live and let live” policy allowing enemy soldiers to escape from flooded trenches or to carry away their own dead without retribution. Many soldiers would hold joint services for the dead.

The first documented unofficial truce took placed on December 11th and a second official truce did take place on Christmas Eve 1914.  As in the video, each side began singing Christmas carols as well as the Germans decorating their trenches with Christmas trees and candles.  As artillery and gunfire fell silent, soon soldiers would cross into “no man’s land” or the territory between the trenches to share hand shakes and stories as depicted in the film. Many soldiers would share food, buttons, hats, tobacco and alcohol in exchanges and gifts.

Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported how the first interpreter he met from the German lines was from Suffolk where he had left his girlfriend and a 3.5 hp motorcycle. Hulse went on to describe a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!” (from Wikipedia)

∫ A cross, left in Saint-Yves (Saint-Yvon - Ploegsteert; Comines-Warneton in Belgium) in 1999, to commemorate the site of the Christmas Truce. The text reads: "1914 – The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget" (Photo credit Wikipedia)

∫ A cross, left in Saint-Yves (Saint-Yvon – Ploegsteert; Comines-Warneton in Belgium) in 1999, to commemorate the site of the Christmas Truce. The text reads: “1914 – The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget” (Photo credit Wikipedia)

The football match as depicted in the film was from original accounts of the day. Mike Dash, who we interviewed a few weeks ago, reported that “there is plenty of evidence that football was played that Christmas Day—mostly by men of the same nationality, but in at least three or four places between troops from the opposing armies”. In a book published by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton called Christmas Truce, they concluded that no serious football matches could have taken place in ‘no man’s land’, but impromptu games such as ‘kick-about matches’ could have taken place.

Near the end of the video, after the game of football, the soldiers are summoned back to their posts by the sound of returning gunfire.  The young British soldier sometime during the game, secretly placed a bar of chocolate in the German Soldier’s pocket, which he later discovers. In a stroke of advert genius, The chocolate bar will be available to buy for £1 up to Christmas Day, with all profits donated to The Royal British Legion. The Belgian Milk Chocolate bar is a limited edition candy made of the same period packaging manufactured in Ypres, Belgium.

∫ The Belgian Milk Chocolate bar is a limited edition candy made of the same period packaging manufactured in Ypres, Belgium.  It will be made available at Sainsbury's until Christmas and proceeds will benefit The Royal British Legion. (Photo credit The Telegraph)

∫ The Belgian Milk Chocolate bar is a limited edition candy made of the same period packaging manufactured in Ypres, Belgium. It will be made available at Sainsbury’s until Christmas and proceeds will benefit The Royal British Legion. (Photo credit The Telegraph)

There was an official report by Lieutenant Johannes Niemann who reported that he “grabbed [my] binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy.”

Update:

Paul McCartney fans said the new Sainsbury’s Christmas advert looks too much like the  pop video Pipes of Peace  shown on MTV in 1983. McCartney spent two weeks at number one and in the video recreates the famous Christmas Day truce in 1914.

MailOnline has compared images from the two films so you can decide for yourself, with the McCartney video at the top and the Sainsbury’s advert at the bottom of each frame. (from MailOnline)

Resources

WATCH: First World War Christmas ‘truce’ recreated in poignant Sainsbury’s festive advert (UK Express)
The Telegraph
Christmas Truce (Wikipedia)

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