January 6th, 1915: Enemies unite to bury dead during peaceful interlude
JOE JOYCE

FROM THE ARCHIVES: The first Christmas of the first World War is remembered mainly for the outbreak of peace and a football match that was played over the trenches. This contemporary report of the Christmas ceasefire to bury the dead was written by a British army lieutenant and distributed by the Press Association.

A TRUCE had been arranged for the few hours of daylight for the burial of the dead on both sides, who had been lying out in the open since the fierce night fighting of a week earlier. When I got out I found a large crowd of officers and men, English and German, grouped around the bodies, which had already been gathered together and laid out in rows. I went along those dreadful ranks and scanned the faces, fearing at every stop to recognise one I knew.

It was a ghastly sight. They lay stiffly in contorted attitudes, dirty with frozen mud, and powdered with rime. The digging parties were already busy on the two big common graves, but the ground was hard and the work slow and laborious. In the intervals of superintending it, we chatted with the Germans, most of whom were quite affable, if one could not exactly call them friendly, which, indeed, was neither to be expected nor desired . . .

They spoke of a bottle of champagne. We raised our wistful eyes in hopeless longing. They expressed astonishment, and said how pleased they would have been had they only known, to have sent to Lille for some. “A charming town, Lille. Do you know it?” “Not yet,” we assured them. Their laughter was quite frank that time. A tiny, spruce little Lieutenant, spoken of, because of his manifest chagrin, as “Der Kleine” by his comrades, attached himself to me, and sent his Bursche back for a bottle of Cognac, and we solemnly drank “Gesundheiten”. He was an amiable little soul really . . .

They left us alone that night to enjoy a peaceful Christmas. I forgot to say that the previous night – Christmas Eve – their trenches were a blaze of Christmas trees, and our sentries were regaled for hours with the traditional Christmas songs of the Fatherland. Their officers even expressed annoyance the next day that some of these trees had been fired on, insisting that they were part almost of a sacred rite.

On Boxing Day, at the agreed hour, on a pre-arranged signal being given, we turned out again.

The output of officers of higher rank on their side was more marked, and the proceedings were more formal in consequence. But while the gruesome business of burying went forward there was still a certain inter-change of pleasantries. The German soldiers seemed a good-tempered, amiable lot, mostly peasants, from the look of them. One remarkable exception, who wore the Iron Cross, and addressed us in slow but faultless English, told us he was Professor of early German and English dialects at a Westphalian University . . .

The digging completed, the shallow graves were filled in, and the German officers remained to pay their tribute of respect while our chaplain read a short service.

It was one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed. Friend and foe stood side by side, bare-headed, watching the tall, grave figure of the padre outlined against the frosty landscape, as he blessed the poor broken bodies at his feet. Then, with more formal salutes we turned and made our way back to our respective huts . . .

Elsewhere along the line I hear our fellows played the Germans at football on Christmas Day. Our own pet enemies remarked that they would like a game, but as the ground in our part is all root crops and much cut up by ditches, and, as moreover, we had not got a football, we had to call it off.

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