Ten Facts About The Christmas Truce

1. It was instigated by the Germans

In the lead up to Christmas, German soldiers on various parts of the British sector of the front were seen to be placing lanterns on their Trenches, in some cases Christmas Trees, and reports of carol singing were also received. Then on Christmas Day wooden signs could be seen on the German parapet saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and then German soldiers emerged into No Man’s Land, calling for a Truce. Many British soldiers were initially suspicious of this, but gradually the Truce spread. In some cases it lasted a few hours, in others it lasted several days. Thousands and thousands of men on both sides took part.

2. It was largely on the British sector

Despite some recent films, the Truce really only took place on the British sector of the front. Whether this was because British soldiers felt some natural affinity with the Germans due to shared history and culture is difficult to say. On the French front there was little desire for fraternisation, and while there were some isolated examples of a Truce, most were related to burying the dead after recent fighting.

3. No Football was played

Again, despite cinema and a recent supermarket advert, evidence shows that there were no football matches in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day 1914, between British and German troops. The nature of the battlefield, with shell holes and barbed wire, made such a match difficult anyway, but footballs were used for physical training when out of the trenches, and it is unlikely if any were available. Letters from the time show a desire to play matches, but the only example that comes anywhere near is on the front of 1/6th Cheshires where what was described as a ‘kick about’, featuring more than 100 soldiers of both sides, took place. So no organised match, and Germany did not win!

THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE, 1914 (Q 11745) British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium
THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE, 1914 (Q 11745) British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914, front of 11th Brigade, 4th Division. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205247304

4. Peace on Earth? It was about burying the dead

For many soldiers in the front line area there was a practical reason for a Truce: to bury the dead. On the British front in Flanders there had been some local attacks on 19th December 1914, and the unburied bodies of the dead were lying out in No Man’s Land. The smell was terrible, and soldiers wanted to bury their comrades, so one of the most common activities that day was not to share your rations with Fritz, but to find and bury your dead.

5. Did they swap gifts with each other?

In many cases soldiers did give each other gifts once the Truce was active. Opposing soldiers swapped cap badges and buttons, food and drink, and some took photographs of each other, as at this stage of the war personal cameras were not banned. The 1/6th Cheshires cooked a pig in No Man’s Land and offered to share it with their German counterparts. German soldiers brought a barrel of beer to the men of 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, for which they gave plum puddings in return. But the beer was of poor quality to the hardened Welsh regulars so it was not a popular present!

6. The Truce was not universal

Not every German unit wanted a Truce, and not every British unit agreed to participate. British soldiers had witnessed many examples of the Germans implementing ‘ruse de guerre’ (tricks of war) during the campaign from Mons to Ypres, and as such they did not trust the motives for the Truce. Some units were proud of their martial reputation and did not want to be seen to fraternise, and even in sectors where there was a Truce, some soldiers did not take part: having lost mates or family members in the war, as well as the diet of anti-German propaganda that had started on the outbreak of war, they perhaps had little inclination for it.

THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914 (Q 50721) British and German officers meeting in No-Man’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205026891

7. Men Died on Christmas Day 1914

Along the British front on 25th December 1914 more than seventy British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed or died of wounds. Of these 32 are commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial, Ploegsteert Memorial or Menin Gate, and have no known grave. With shelling, random sniper and machine-gun fire, for many soldiers Christmas Day 1914 was a typical period of trench warfare with the usual losses.

8. There were many remarkable coincidences

Men of the London Rifle Brigade who took part in the Christmas Truce were Territorial soldiers from the City of London. Before the war many waiters in London hotels were German, and a large proportion of men’s barbers were German too. One veteran recalled meeting a German soldier who used to cut his hair, in No Man’s Land that day; a few months before he had been the man’s client, now they were enemies.

THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914 (Q 50720) 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). Burying those killed in the attack of 18 December. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205025418

9. Famous people who witnessed the Christmas Truce

Among those who took part in the Christmas Truce was wartime cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, who drew the famous ‘Old Bill’ cartoons of the period. He was photographed by one of his men in No Man’s Land that day, and wrote about it in his best-selling book ‘Bullets and Billets’ published in 1916. Nature writer Henry Williamson, most famous for his 1928 classic ‘Tarka The Otter’ was in the Truce at Ploegsteert. Having German ancestors, he felt some kinship to the enemy he met that day, and it was a life changing moment for him: one German soldier told Williamson that he was fighting for King, Country and Freedom, something he could not square that with the fact that supposedly he was fighting with the British Army for the same thing. Later in life Williamson used to get very morose on Christmas Day, thinking back to the Truce and the terrible loss of life in the war.

10. It was a remarkable day

While aspects of the Christmas Truce have been exaggerated, and there may have been no football, it was a truly remarkable day. Soldiers who were enemies stopped fighting and met each other on the battlefield. They obeyed a basic human instinct, rather than just follow orders. As the majority involved were professional soldiers they may have seen it as a rare opportunity to have a day off. Others would have been curious to actually meet a German, as it was likely few ever had. Whatever the reason, it was an event unique to 1914. While the odd battlefield truce, and a small scale one at Cambrai in the winter of 1917/18 took place, there was nothing on this scale ever again: whatever innocence remained in 1914 was lost in the great battles of the war on the Somme and at Passchendaele.

10 Facts You Did Not Know About Dunkirk

Here are 10 facts you did not know about Dunkirk…
1. The BEF were a Mix of Regulars and Territorials
Most of those who were in the Army in WW2 were conscripts, but the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1939/40 was unusual in that it was largely a volunteer army. Regular soldiers were predominantly volunteers, and some had served for many years. A large proportion of the BEF were Territorial Army (TA) units and these were all volunteers: often referred to as ‘Saturday Night Soldiers’ as their role in the armed forces during peacetime was part-time. The size of the BEF in 1940 was estimated at over 300,000 men.
2. The Dunkirk Perimeter was Massive and Covered Two Countries
As the Allies pulled back across Northern France, a decision was made to defend the Dunkirk area to allow men to be evacuated. The defensive perimeter set up, largely along the lines of canals and waterways, which offered a natural barrier, extended more than 10 miles inland from the beaches and across 25 miles from Dunkirk town to Nieuport, in Belgium. The thousands of men defending these were therefore spread across both French and Belgian soil, in an area as big as the Ypres Salient battlefields of WW1.
3. It Was Not All About The Beaches
Of the 338,000 Allied soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk only a third of them were taken off the famous Dunkirk Beaches. While the popular myth remembers the beaches, most men were evacuated via the less glamorous ‘Mole’. This was a stone jetty that extended along the harbour mouth. The far end was wooden. The water either side of The Mole was deep so it meant that large vessels could come in, moor up and load very quickly. Ships were sunk here by bombs from German dive bombers, but it was a very effective method in getting the majority away. The Mole survived WW2 but was lost in a storm in the 1970s, although the stone sections remain.

4. Not All the Little Ships were Little
More than 700 private vessels were requisitioned as part of Operation Dynamo. Many people believe that they were all small boats but the fleet of so-called ‘Little Ships’ included some quite large vessels. For example, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company provided 10 of its 16 ships, which included substantial steam powered ones like the Mona’s Queen which weighed in at over 2,700 tons. This company’s ships alone rescued more than 26,000 men from Dunkirk, giving an insight into the importance of their role. Many Little Ships were lost and the wrecks of some can be seen on the Dunkirk Beaches to this day.
5. Lorry Piers Were Used to Get Men to the Boats
For the men who were evacuated off the beaches there were problems in that very few could swim. How to get them through deep water and onto a ship? An idea was developed to line up Lorries across the beach at the low tide, side by side, and put planking over the top. This turned the line of Lorries into an improvised pier at high tide, enabling those unable to swim to walk over the Lorries and board a ship out to sea. Many of the more than 100,000 men taken off the beaches used this method.
6. The Indian Army Was at Dunkirk
Britain relied heavily on the Commonwealth in WW2 but few Commonwealth troops took part in the 1940 campaign. However, several Indian Mule Companies were in France at this time, being used to re-supply the British Army. These men were evacuated via Dunkirk, but en-route passed the old Indian Army memorial at Neuve-Chapelle, from the First World War. Several Indian soldiers were killed making the sacrifice at Dunkirk truly multi-national.
7. The RAF were in the Skies Above the Beaches
Many of the soldiers at Dunkirk believed that the RAF had been pulled back to Britain to defend the mainland, and they had been ‘abandoned’ to their fate at the hands of the Luftwaffe. Recent research has shown that RAF squadrons were very active over the Dunkirk Perimeter, giving vital cover to the men on the ground. They were also flying sorties inland to attack the German’s Lines of Communication and troop movements.
8. The Medics Could Not Leave
There were many thousands of wounded at Dunkirk, some from defending the perimeter, some wounded in the evacuation, and many brought in having been wounded earlier in the Battle of France. A significant number were evacuated out via The Mole, where they could be more easily taken aboard ships on stretchers. However, some were so badly wounded that they could not be moved at all and a large number of personnel from the Royal Army Medical Corps volunteered to stay behind to care for them. This meant they were subsequently taken prisoner; most were not released until 1945, so spent five years as a prisoner of the Germans.
9. Many French Stayed Behind
One of the wartime myths of Dunkirk in occupied France was that British soldiers refused to evacuate their French Allies. This was used by the Nazi backed Vichy Government to demonise Britain. The reality was that nearly 140,000 French, Belgian and Polish troops were evacuated in Operation Dynamo. In addition over 40,000 French soldiers stayed behind at Dunkirk to keep the perimeter intact to the very last moment that the final evacuation took place. Their sacrifice helped save the British Army and should never be forgotten.

10. We Are Not Sure How Many British Soldiers Died at Dunkirk
As the British Army Retreated in May 1940, operational War Diaries and military papers were lost and destroyed. In the confusion of the retreat many soldiers got separated from their units, and when the final reckoning of casualties was made the War Office stated that 2,972 officers and 66,008 men were killed, wounded or missing from 10th May 1940 until the last day of evacuation in June 1940. This equated to about 1 in 3 of the BEF. The problem was that it was not known when many of these men died, or how many had actually died at Dunkirk. The cemeteries there have over 1,000 burials from the Dunkirk period, but many graves show dates of death as 10th May 1940 to a date in mid-June.  So we will probably never know what the true cost of the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ was.
Find out more about the real Dunkirk and visit the beaches yourself alongside an expert guide on our Dunkirk and Fortress Europe tour.