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
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.

Five Fun Festive Facts for Christmas

Are you a Christmas connoisseur or a New Year know-it-all? Why not test your elf-like skills this Christmas and indulge in a little festive trivia to impress at the dinner table…

1. Did you know that the very first Christmas market took place all the way back in 1298?

Vienna is the place where the December market first saw the light.  Little did they know that the European Christmas Markets would become a tradition that is still going strong centuries later.

2. Austrians pull out all the stops when it comes to celebrating New Year.

At the stroke of midnight all church bells throughout Austria ring and in major cities people see in the New Year by dancing in the streets to the tune of the famous Blue Danube Waltz.

3. Delicious warm Glühwein is ever present at the European Christmas markets. 

It is made using red wine, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and lemon or orange zest.  And did you know you can keep the mug as a souvenir?!

4. Turkeys are safe in Germany at Christmastime! 

A roast goose is the traditional dish served and is often filled with apples, dates, chestnuts, onions, and/or prunes.  It is also common to stuff the goose with a meat or dough filling.

5. In Italy Christmas gifts are not exchanged until the day of Epiphany on January 6th

Children hang up their stockings, so that ‘la befana’, an old lady, can bring them presents and her arrival is celebrated by eating traditional sweet Christmas cake known as panettone.
 
For a fun-filled festive experience try one of our Christmas Market or Festive Breaks.  We have a superb collection of fully escorted tours and short breaks to choose from. Visit www.leger.co.uk
 
 

Florence: artistic treasures, amazing architecture and a rapidly-melting

The final city visit on our tour of the Italian Riviera, Tuscany and Rome was the Renaissance city of Florence, a city that was mentioned quite a bit in my art history lessons.

It was a warm and sunny day as we travelled into Florence, or Firenze as it’s known locally, heading firstly to a viewpoint high above the city. Florence sits in the valley of the River Arno and is surrounded by hills and mountains, and it was from the hilltop location of Piazzale Michelangelo that we were given an excellent view over the whole city with the rich terracotta dome of the cathedral’s mighty Duomo dominating the panorama. This is the shot that appears on many postcards so it’s the one to take for your album! Below us the River Arno ran past the pastel-coloured buildings and under the famous Ponte Vecchio which we could see over to the left.

Michelangelo's statue of David stands in the centre of Piazzale Michelangelo, looking over the city
Michelangelo’s statue of David (well, one of them) stands in the centre of Piazzale Michelangelo, looking over the city

At Piazzale Michelangelo, along with many people taking photos and posing for pictures for their album, there was a replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David, one of the masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture. Apart from that, the square itself wasn’t much to look at – but we were there for the view and that was incredible! Once everyone had the photographs they wanted we headed down towards the centre to meet our guide who would introduce us to her city.
Florence was once surrounded by high defensive walls and towers, and the Tower of the Mint, (Torre della Zecca) which we walked past on our way into the city was part of those walls. This tower was once connected to a string of buildings which were powered by water, and one of these was the Florence Mint (Zecca fiorentina) where the city’s golden florins were made.
Torre della Zecca – Tower of the Mint
Torre della Zecca – Tower of the Mint

Our guide led us past the Mint Tower and along Via dei Malcontenti, a narrow street sandwiched between cream-coloured buildings. This was apparently the road that criminals were led along to the public gallows, and so it was given the name Malcontenti – ‘malcontent’ meaning unhappy.
After a while, after passing the Franciscan church of Santa Croce with its grand marble façade and weaving our way through the narrow streets of the city, we came out at the Piazza della Signoria, dominated by the huge bell tower; the belfry of the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace). This is the city hall of Florence and it was in front of the building that I spotted another reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, the most famous statue on the square. The real one, created in 1504, used to stand here but it was removed and placed in the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze.
The belfry of the Palazzo Vecchio
The belfry of the Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria…

 
Michelangelo's statue of David No.2
… and another ‘David’!

The square was buzzing with a great atmosphere – apparently it’s one of the most popular meeting spots for locals and tourists alike. Across from the city hall was the contrasting sight of designer stores being browsed by well-dressed shoppers and people strolling around trying to eat their colourful ‘gelato’ before it melted in the warm sunshine. Being a girl who doesn’t like shopping (yes, weird, I know!) I opted instead to join the gelato speed-eaters.
Frantically trying to keep the ice cream in its cone, I walked over to the large equestrian statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici standing just beside the city hall. Cosimo was famous for, amongst other things, the creation of the Uffizi which adjoins the Palazzo Vecchio and is now one of the most famous museums in the world, housing one of the greatest collations of art – most of it from the Renaissance period. Works by some of the greatest Italian artists are held here: names such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Giotto, again, names I remembered from the A-Level art classes of my school days. This was one place I would’ve loved to visit to bring to life all those paintings I’d studied in my text books… to see early works by Giotto; Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Bacchus; all images I still remember. But it was time to move on.
The statue of Cosimo I de' Medici stands proudly on Piazza della Signoria
The statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici stands proudly on Piazza della Signoria

Our guide escorted us along the busy pedestrian street of Via die Calzaiuoli, home to many designer and high street names, a pizzeria here and there and quite a few places to buy those all important ice creams. The sweet smell of crepes and waffles led us along the alleyway until it opened up to reveal the breathtaking Piazza del Duomo. A couple of hours earlier we’d seen the huge domed roof of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore from the hillside across the river. Now we were up close, and it was truly magnificent.
Arriving at Piazza del Duomo – the magnificent Giotto's Tower
Arriving at Piazza del Duomo – the magnificent Giotto’s Tower and the Duomo

Right in front of us was the huge structure of Giotto’s Bell Tower. The column stands at almost 300 feet high and amongst its green, pink and white marble and displays intricate scenes. At the top, our guide advised us, the tower has 7 bells. We decided not to join the queues waiting to climb the 400+ steps to the top for a closer look and instead took her word for it.
Giotto's Tower up close: the beautiful green, pink and white marble
Giotto’s Tower up close: the beautiful green, pink and white marble

 
Look at the detail!

The Dome itself, designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi, is equally impressive. More than 600 years after it was constructed the ‘Duomo’, as it’s known, still remains the tallest building in Florence. The cathedral is also the 4th largest in the world – the first is St. Peter’s in Rome, the second, St. Paul’s in London and the third, Milan’s Duomo.
The magnificent 'Duomo'
The magnificent ‘Duomo’

A short walk through the network of bustling passageways took us to the oldest bridge in Florence, the Ponte Vecchio. I’d seen photos of this bridge spanning the River Arno and always thought it looked rather plain, so I wanted to visit it for myself and find out why this well-known landmark is so popular.
The Ponte Vecchio was once the only bridge across the River Arno and the only bridge in Florence that wasn’t destroyed by Germans during WWII. Since the 13th century there have been shops on the bridge. Originally they housed fishmongers, greengrocers, butchers and tanners – the waste from which created a rather unpleasant smell in the river, so much so that in 1593 it was ordered that only jewellers and goldsmiths would be allowed to have shops on the Ponte Vecchio, making the bridge a much cleaner and attractive place to visit. Today, the bridge is still lined with jewellery stores attracting hundreds – probably thousands – of visitors each year.
The Ponte Vecchio – the oldest bridge in Florence
The Ponte Vecchio – the oldest bridge in Florence

Approaching the bridge I saw the familiar sight of the construction and, even ‘in the flesh’, it struck me how ordinary it looked – a jumble of mustard and reddy-coloured buildings which looked as if they’d been stuck onto the main structure. As I got closer I could see just how ramshackle it appeared. Once on the bridge, however, it was a different story. The place had a great atmosphere and was brought to life by the crowds of people gathered around the stalls and the wares of the gold and silver smiths which twinkled in contrast to the dilapidated appearance of the bridge’s exterior.
Colourful 'add-ons' cling to the bridge
Colourful ‘add-ons’ cling to the bridge

 
Ponte Vecchio, on the inside
Ponte Vecchio, on the inside

So, I can now say that I’ve visited Florence’s oldest bridge. It hadn’t contradicted my view of it as a rather plain and uninspiring landmark and I think there are much more impressive places to visit in the city, but I’d seen it for myself. The visit to Florence had given me a good overview of the capital of Tuscany, a brief history of the city and some of its landmarks, and of the sights I’d like to return to – namely the Uffizi Gallery.
Leaving the Ponte Vecchio and walking back along the Arno river, our visit to the Renaissance city had come to an end; another place to tick off my ‘must visit’ list… and another place I’d have to return to, one day.
 
 
Have you been to Florence? Share your stories and comments with us here!