16

enter image description here
British and German Soldiers photographed together during 1914 Christmas Truce. Source: The Daily Mirror, Friday January 8, 1915.

Question

What factors led to no courts-martial charges being pursued by British, French, Belgian and German commanders?


Background

As a follow-up to these questions about the Christmas truce of 1914 regarding football (soccer) games between WWI combatants and whether or not anyone on any side faced any consequences (charges / courts-martial) as a result of the unofficial 1914 truce, I became curious as to why no one seems to have been charged for violating explicit orders against fraternization.

Concerns about discipline

Early in the war, there were concerns about discipline in the frontlines with combatants entrenched so close together:

On December 5, 1914, British General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien sent a warning to the commanders of all divisions: “Experience ... proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a ‘live and let live’ theory of life...officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises."

[Source: Independent Institute - The Christmas Truce of World War I]

The Pope requests a truce

According to National Catholic Reporter on 7 December 1914, Pope Benedict XV:

pleaded with the belligerent powers to hold a Christmas truce, asking "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang," to allow for negotiations for an honorable peace.

The NCR report goes on to say:

The plea was officially ignored, but there were informal, haphazard and unauthorized truces along parts of the Western front.

The Independent Institute further reports:

Although German officials reportedly entertained the idea [of the Pope's request for a truce], the British did not. But the soldiers may have paid attention.

Warnings against fraternization

Possibly as a result of the Pope's request, and those "haphazard and unauthorized truces along parts of the Western front," stern warnings were issued to troops along the Western front against fraternization, with promises of courts-martial as a result should any such fraternizing occur:

By the time Christmas Eve arrived, so much interaction had occurred between the British and Germans that Brigadier General G.T. Forrestier-Walker had officially forbidden fraternization. In his book A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt, Judge John V. Denson quoted the directive. Fraternization “discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys offensive spirit in all ranks. ... Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices and exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.”

[Source: Independent Institute - The Christmas Truce of World War I]

After quoting Forrestier-Walker's order in his book (see above), John V. Denson goes on to say:

Later strict orders were issued that any fraternization would result in a court-martial.

The Christmas Truce

In spite of stern orders against fraternization:

On Christmas Eve, a hard frost fell. In his book The Truce: The Day the War Stopped, Chris Baker reported on the events of December 24, 1914. “98 British soldiers die on this day, many are victims of sniper fire. A German aeroplane drops a bomb on Dover: the first air raid in British history. During the afternoon and early evening, British infantry are astonished to see many Christmas trees with candles and paper lanterns, on enemy parapets. There is much singing of carols, hymns and popular songs, and a gradual exchange of communication and even meetings in some areas. Many of these meetings are to arrange collection of bodies. In other places, firing continues. Battalion officers are uncertain how to react... .”

Some officers threatened to court-martial or even to shoot those who fraternized, but the threats were generally ignored. Other officers mingled with enemies of similar rank. The Germans reportedly led the way, coming out of their trenches and moving unarmed toward the British. Soldiers exchanged chocolates, cigars, and compared news reports. They buried the dead, some of whom had lain for months, with each side often helping the other dig graves. At its height, unofficial ceasefires were estimated to have occurred along half of the British line. As many as 100,000 British and German troops took part.

[Source: Independent Institute - The Christmas Truce of World War I, emphasis added]

No consequences

However, no one faced any consequences for the unauthorized 1914 Christmas truce. Why?

Did commanders fear revolt among their own troops, or perhaps fear repercussions from back home?

One report I found on the Imperial War Museum's web site in an article on Voices of the First World War - the Christmas Truce includes this:

The high commands on both sides ordered an end to the truce when they heard of it. George Ashurst described how unpopular this made them:

"We got orders come down the trench, ‘Get back in your trenches every man,’ by word of mouth down each trench; ‘Everybody back in your trenches,’ shouting. The generals behind must’ve seen it and got a bit suspicious so what they did, they gave orders for a battery of guns behind us to fire, and a machine gun to open out and officers to fire their revolvers at the Jerries. ‘Course that started the war again. Ooh we were cursing them to hell, cursing the generals and that, you want to get up here in this stuff never mind your giving orders, in your big chateaux and driving about in your big cars. We hated the sight of the bloody generals."

Did the commanders consider this a prevailing attitude among the troops on both sides?

News coverage

In spite of censorship back home, news of the Christmas Truce was covered (see Daily Mirror example above, and another from the Daily Mail as included in this report from The Star, and this story on newspaper reporting of the truce from the British Newspaper Archive). Did the commanders fear a backlash from back home as a result of reporting? Was the reporting favorable towards the truce, and thus a factor to be considered? Was the public attitude surveyed or judged to be favorable, and thus a factor to be considered?

Some interesting reactions

I did find some interesting opposition to the truce, both among combatants who would later become much more prominent in history, as well as this anecdotal letter from a Scotsman to the Aberdeen Daily Journal:

While many readers may have welcomed the news that for a day or so, anyway, their sons were not in harm’s way, the Truce did not sit well with everyone. In a letter to the editor published in the Aberdeen “Daily Journal” on January 9, 1915, an irate Scotsman writes:

“I am surprised and disappointed to think that British soldiers would have agreed to shake hand with murderers and thieves. Was all this done with the concurrence of their officers and will it be mentioned in Sir John French’s next dispatch? I doubt not. In the same issue of your paper where the handshaking is mentioned we read report of the French Commission appointed to investigate acts committed by the enemy in violation of international law that ‘outrages on women and girls have been of unprecedented frequency’ and ‘the soldiers and officers’ finished off the wounded and mercilessly killed the un-offensive, sparing neither women nor children’. Fie on ye, Scotsmen! There is not much of the boasted Highland Pride left in you when you would sell it for a German souvenir.”

[Source: Collectors Weekly - The Christmas Truce of 1914]

Among those who would become more prominent later in another world war, we find similar sentiments:

“Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he told his fellow soldiers. “Have you no German sense of honor?” - Adolf Hitler, Source: To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1915, Adam Hochschild, Mariner Books, Reprint edition, 2012.

And this report:

On December 22 [just prior to the truce], Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, sent a similar message to the Royal Navy: “Any white flag hoisted by a German ship is to be fired on as a matter of principle.” - Source: Austin Stewart, Straight from the Front: First-hand Accounts of the Christmas Truce of 1914

And then there is this:

French platoon commander Charles de Gaulle also denounced the few incidents of fraternisation with the enemy as “lamentable”. - Source: The Conversation: It was German soldiers who made first move in the Christmas Truce.


Question Summary

In another question here I have sought to understand if any kind of informal polling or surveying of public opinion took place at the time of the Christmas Truce of 1914, with some indication that some unscientific or informal newspaper or magazine polls may have taken place in that time frame without specifically addressing or seeking answers on this specific topic. Thus, it is possible commanders may have been somewhat aware of both public sentiment back home, as well as general sentiment among the troops in the trenches.

Were either of these (public sentiment, troop sentiment) possible factors in decisions to not pursue any formal charges in response to violations of orders in the Christmas truce of 1914? Did commanding officers leave any journals or relate any information in books or interviews later regarding this decision to not file or press any charges?

(Note, I am aware of two British cases of courts-martial arising from a second much smaller Christmas truce a year later, Captain Miles Barne was acquitted, and Captain Iain Colquhoun was just reprimanded, but those cases were not related to the 1914 truce.)

8

First, for clarity, it is worth noting the commanding officers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in December 1914:

The Christmas Truces and fraternization need to be looked at in a broader context. As indicated by the OP, fraternizations had been going on sometime before Christmas and it was these which led to the warnings from Brigadier General G.T. Forrestier-Walker and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien cited by the OP.

At this point, it is worth quoting a more complete version Smith-Dorrien's orders: (my highlighting)

Experience of this and every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a “live and let live” theory of life. Understandings—amounting almost to unofficial armistices—grow up between our troops and the enemy, with a view to making life easier. …The attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy.…Such an attitude is, however, most dangerous, for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks.…Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices…and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.

Smith-Dorrien had seen trench warfare in the Second Boer War so he was speaking from long experience. Note that there is no specific mention of anyone being court-martialed at this point (5th of December). His orders are cited in full in Peter Hart's Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914), after which the author comments:

It is interesting to note the understanding tone taken in this order: this was not the knee-jerk reaction of high-command of popular imagination.

Then, on 18th December 1914 at Ploegsteert Wood,

British and German troops agreed to permit one another to rise out of their trenches in order to bury their respective dead and collect the wounded. This was not particularly unusual, it had happened before

No action appears to have been taken over this truce; high command, if they even knew about it, probably considered it acceptable if no fraternization had taken place.

Then came the largely spontaneous Christmas truces, mostly starting on Christmas Eve and ending 24 some hours later (but longer in some areas). Fighting a war the troops may have been, but both German and British soldiers were sent Christmas packages, letters and even Christmas trees with the full knowledge (though not universal approval) of their respective military superiors. For the British,

There was even a special gift, commissioned for every soldier, originating from Princess Mary

while one German officer commented with evident disdain on the treats organized for German soldiers:

This Christmas-gift stunt, organized by novelty-mongering, snobbish busybodies in a glare of publicity, creates such an unsavoury impression here that it fairly makes one sick. The fact that they make their appearance with a thousand packages of bad cigars, indifferent chocolate, and woollies of problematical usefulness, sitting in a car, seems to make them think they have a right to have the war shown to them like a leather factory.

Meanwhile, General Haig was writing his diary entry for 24th December:

Tomorrow being Xmas day, I ordered no reliefs to be carried out, and troops to be given as easy a time as possible.

Clearly, neither British nor German troops were expected to ignore Christmas. This may not have been approved of by all members of the respective High Commands, but these gifts were coming with the evident approval of their political and / or royal superiors.

Under such circumstances, the top officers may well have felt that court-martialing the thousands of men who took part in the Christmas truces was not a viable course of action. Also, there would have been the logistical problem of charging so many soldiers; as most of the truces seem to have been spontaneous, seeking out just the ring-leaders would have been difficult.

Another point to consider is that many truces started with a request by one side to remove and bury the dead lying in no man’s land. This then led to fraternization (exchange of cigarettes etc.) in many cases. Even detached and aloof senior officers would have realized that court-martialing soldiers under such circumstances would have damaged and possibly even led to mutinies.

And what of the C-in-C of the BEF? Sir John French, cited by Theresa Blom Crocker in her master’s thesis ‘A remarkable Instance’: The Christmas Truce and its Role in the Contemporaneous Narrative of the First World War (pdf):

wrote in 1919 that, although when the truce was first reported to him he “issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct,” he later realized that he had overreacted. In fact, French believed that, “had the question of the agreement upon an armistice for the day been submitted to me,” he might very well have agreed to it, as he always “attached the utmost importance to the maintenance of that chivalry in war which has almost invariably characterized every campaign of modern times in which this country has been engaged.”

Note here the emphasis was on preventing recurrences rather than punishing what had already happened.

On official responses reported in newspapers, there were none initially. Letters from soldiers were published alongside the usual official reports (or propaganda) from the front. Then, on 7th of January 1915, there was a report in The Times (my highlighting)

informing readers that, by Army order, “fraternizing and especially every approach to the enemy in the trenches, is forbidden, and in the future every infraction of this Order will be punished as treason”.

By mid January, the letters had dried up and it was almost as if the Christmas Truces had never happened. This was probably exactly what the British High Command wanted. In Germany, the Christmas truces were never even reported.


Sources:

The Famous Christmas Truce of 1914 (pdf)

The Christmas Truce of World War I

Michael Howard, The First World War (2002)

Combler les trous de la memoire

Fraternisations et trêve de Noël, décembre 1914-janvier 1915

First-hand Accounts of the Christmas Truce of 1914

WWI Christmas truce: haunting recollections of the short-lived peace

  • 2
    Lars, +1 for sure, thanks! However, I must disagree slightly with only two minor items in your bullet-point analysis... that the consequences may have been ignored due to the 'spirit of Christmas' and the (mostly) very short durations. Refer to the very last Note in the Q wherein is mentioned the two courts-martial cases of Capts. Miles Barne and Iain Colquhoun for much shorter duration Christmas truces a year later in 1915. Though one was acquitted and one only reprimanded, the upper brass did file and press charges for short Christmas truces in 1915. Otherwise, great analysis, thanks! – Kerry L Dec 4 '18 at 16:33
  • 1
    Suggestion: Maybe just add a footnote to those two bullet points with a caveat that feelings about those two factors may have been true in 1914, but changed a year later, in order to preserve discipline and perhaps to try to ensure further truces did not happen again as had happened before? (This is just a supposition on my part). – Kerry L Dec 4 '18 at 16:54
  • 1
    @KerryL Thanks for your feedback. I think feelings had changed by Christmas 1915. Also, I get the impression that the High Command was caught off-guard by the 1914 truces and was thus slow to respond. The 'Christmas spirit' bit is hard to explain, but it's also hard to imagine that the fact that it was Christmas did not influence some senior officers to (at least) some extent. I'll be editing the post (but it'll have to wait a few hours at least) to express things more clearly. In the meantime, any further comments you have would be welcome :) – Lars Bosteen Dec 5 '18 at 1:34
  • 1
    I’m just sorry my Q isn’t generating the traffic needed for you to get all the upvotes you deserve :-/ – Kerry L Dec 5 '18 at 2:32

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.