1914 Christmas truce 'planned by thousands of German soldiers'

By Tony Paterson in Berlin

24 December 2003

Independent

The Christmas truce of the Great War in 1914 was started by a "peace movement" of German soldiers who won over their trenchbound British foes by lobbing chocolate cake at them instead of hand grenades, a new book claims.

The interpretation of the events on the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914 is made by Michael Jürgs whose book, The Small Peace in the Great War is the first to be written about the ceasefire from a German perspective.

The book has received wide publicity in Germany where its findings have been welcomed, not least because they help to dispel the stereotype of the German soldier as a ruthless fighting machine.

"This is the friendly Hun from next door," wrote Markus Hesselmann in Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. "It's about German front line soldiers not obeying orders and making peace by leaving their weapons behind."

Jürgs compares the actions of German soldiers in 1914 to those of the country's peace movement opposing the Iraq war. "There were not merely one or two incidents of peace on the Western Front in 1914," he writes. "In reality there was a spontaneous peace movement which ran for hundreds of kilometres and thousands took part," he adds.

His book reveals that German troops began preparing for the truce well in advance. Several days before Christmas, soldiers from a Saxon regiment lobbed a carefully packaged chocolate cake across no- man's land into the British trenches. A message was attached asking whether holding a one-hour ceasefire that evening might be possible, so that the troops could celebrate their captain's birthday.

According to Jürgs, the British stopped firing, stood on their trench parapets and applauded as a German band struck up a rendition of "Happy Birthday". Jürgs quotes from the diary of Kurt Zehmisch, a German lieutenant who describes how thousands of German Christmas trees delivered to the front line helped to bring about the ceasefire. "It was pure illumination - along the trench parapets there were Christmas trees lit up by burning candles," Zehmisch writes. "The British responded by shouting and clapping."

What followed was a bout of unprecedented fraternisation between enemy forces that has never been repeated on an equivalent scale: German Fritzes bearing candles, chunks of cake and cigars met British Tommies carrying cigarettes and Christmas pudding in no-man's land. The two sides exchanged presents, sang songs and played football, using tin cans for makeshift balls and spiked Pickelhaube helmets for goalposts.

Jürgs says the Germans were able to take the initiative because many had been in Britain as "guest workers" before the war and, unlike most of the British, had a command of the enemy's language.

The truce collapsed shortly after Christmas 1914 when news of the ceasefire reached the horrified high commands and strict military discipline was reinforced. Jürgs writes that in one area, Ploegsteert forest in Belgium, the ceasefire continued until the end of February 1915.