Year of Publication

2016

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

History

First Advisor

Dr. Philip Harling

Abstract

The 1914 Christmas truce, when enemy soldiers met, fraternized and even played football in No-Man’s-Land, is frequently used to support the popular view of the First World War as a “stupid, tragic and futile” conflict, the ultimate “bad” war. The truce, which one historian describes as “a candle lit in the darkness of Flanders,” is commonly perceived as a manifestation of the anger that soldiers felt towards the meaningless war which they had been tricked into fighting. However, contemporaneous sources show that the impromptu cease-fire was not an act of defiance, but rather arose from the professionalism of the soldiers involved, the conditions of static trench warfare, the adaptation of the soldiers to their new environment, the foul weather on the Western Front, the absence of major battles, and memories of traditional celebrations of Christmas. The truce, in short, was caused by rain, mud, curiosity, lack of personal animosity towards the enemy, and homesickness, rather than by frustration and rebellion. Although the conventional narrative of the truce maintains that soldiers defied their 0fficers to participate in it, this was rarely the case: in fact, Lieutenant-Colonel Fisher-Rowe, commander of the 1st Grenadier Guards, wrote his wife that the Germans “say they want the truce to go on till after New Year and I am sure I have no objection. A rest from bullets will be distinctly a change.” No soldiers were punished for their participation in the 1914 truce, and no troops refused to fire upon their enemies afterwards. Newspapers published accounts of the armistice openly and many regimental histories later featured the event prominently.

An evaluation of sources from 1914 through 2013 that reference the truce demonstrates that the conventional narrative of the truce, like that of the war itself, took many decades to develop. This work examines the myths that have defined the truce over the past century, and contrasts them with the letters and diaries of British soldiers who participated in it, the reports of it in the official war diaries of the battalions involved, and the accounts of it published in the newspapers. By examining the support the soldiers felt for the war, as well as their willingness to return to fighting after the impromptu armistice ended, the book argues that the Christmas truce, which would seem to confirm the dominant view of the First World War, instead challenges the war’s popular narrative. A soldier involved described the temporary cease-fire as being “just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match.” The boxing match that was the First World War was in fact a deadly and tragic conflict, yet this soldier’s view of the truce broadly summed up the attitudes of participants toward the event, who remained determined to win the war, while enjoying a break from the battle.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.13023/ETD.2016.495

Included in

History Commons

Share

COinS