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