The 1914 Truce in Context
It wasn’t, in fact, a bolt from the blue,
Instead the 1914 Truce was part of a pattern,
That both preceded that Christmas and continued beyond:
There were ‘cushy’ sectors, involving ‘laissez-faire’,
‘Rest and let rest’, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’,
‘Mutual obligation element’,
‘Tacit truces’, ‘mutual understanding’,
‘Compromise, and be mighty glad to be alive’,
Running along the British front line on the Western Front.
There were respected rituals during the day:
Breakfast bacon and ration party truces,
When as Ian Hay wrote in 1915:
‘It would be child’s play to shell …ration wagons
and water carts…but on the whole there is silence…
if you prevent your enemy from drawing his rations…
he will prevent you from drawing yours.’
In addition, both sides faced General Winter:
A German officer commented in 1914:
‘Friend and foe alike go to fetch straw from the same rick
to protect them from the cold and rain and to have some sort of bedding
to lie on – and never a shot is fired.’
Sometimes, defused rifle grenades were tossed into trenches,
Containing messages, sometimes weather truces
Led to salutations, conversations and jokes,
(‘”Waiter!”… fifty Fritzes stuck their heads up…”Coming Sir.” ’);
Sometimes, a deliberate policy of positive inertia
Was recognized and reciprocated,
Sometimes night patrols would studiously avoid each other.
Weaponry, even when used, could also send messages:
Rifle and machine gun fire might be aimed too high,
Hand bombing led to a signaled, invitational
And deliberate misplacing of explosives:
‘their trenches…no more than ten or fifteen yards from ours…
was a good insurance against strafing on either side.
The mildest exchange of hand grenades or bombs…
Would have made life intolerable.’
Heavy artillery took a different line:
Here messages were sent by the fact that often,
The same spot would be shelled at exactly the same time each day:
‘Twelve little Willies at noon to the tick,
Got our heads down, and go them down quick,
Peaceful and calm was the rest of the day,
Nobody hurt and nothing to say.’
‘Nobody hurt and nothing to say’:
I have compiled this prose-poem from ‘Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System’, by Tony Ashworth (Macmillan, 1980); his conclusion is that:
‘Altogether it does not seem unreasonable to assert that live and let live occurred in about one-third of all trench tours made by all divisions within the BEF. Such was the scale of this undertone of trench warfare.’
This ignored and forgotten history is something to talk about in centenary year.
Live and Let Live
When you’ve been out ‘ere as long as I ‘ave,
You get to know the ropes and have a laugh,
Keep’ yer ‘ead down aint enough for Fritz,
You’ve got to show you can live and let live.
When Fritz has his breakfast, let ‘im be,
Then he’ll let you ‘ave your bacon an’ yer tea,
But if you shells ‘im when ‘e’s having grub,
He’ll pay ya double back and there’s the rub,
An’ when yer out at night lookin’ for straw,
If you sees Fritz then give ‘im some, and more,
Then he’ll do the same and ease yer bed,
Instead of aimin’ for yer ‘ead.
An’ when it rains and raids is off,
Send Fritz a joke and make ‘im laugh,
And when he fires and aims too high,
You shoot ‘im back but in the sky.
Live and let live, that’s our way,
That way we live another day.
“Eh? What’s that? My best memory?
Of this whole long ruddy war?
It aint the medals. It aint the glory.
It was No Man’s Land. That first Christmas.
In the snow. Playing Fritz at football.”