LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 24, 2015) — In late December 1914, German and British soldiers on the western front initiated a series of impromptu, unofficial ceasefires. Enlisted men across No Man’s Land abandoned their trenches and crossed enemy lines to sing carols, share food and even play a little soccer. Collectively known as the Christmas truce, these fleeting moments of peace occupy a mythical place in remembrances of World War I. Yet new accounts suggest that the heartwarming tale ingrained in the popular imagination bears little resemblance to the truth.
In a new detailed study, "The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War," University of Kentucky history doctoral candidate Terri Blom Crocker provides the first comprehensive analysis of both scholarly and popular portrayals of the Christmas truce from 1914 to present.
From books by influential historians to the Oscar-nominated French film "Joyeux Noel "(2006), this new examination shows how a variety of works have both explored and enshrined this outbreak of peace amid overwhelming violence. A vast majority of these accounts depict soldiers as committing an act of rebellion acting in defiance of their superiors.
Like most people, Crocker believed much of the popular myth behind the truce. "I was looking into various First World War topics in connection with a paper I wanted to write, and stumbled across the story of the Christmas truce. I had been aware of it before, and believed many of the standard fictions about it, including the myth that the newspapers had censored the event. I started reviewing British newspapers to see if they referred to the truce, and when I discovered that the cease-fire had been extensively reported, I decided to look into the subject further. That’s when I discovered that everything I knew about the truce was wildly inaccurate."
By analyzing official accounts and private letters, Crocker reveals that the truce was not an insurrection, but a mere day off from the soldiers’ dark reality brought on by weather, curiosity, and a lack of personal hatred toward the enemy.
Furthermore, Crocker finds that truce participants describe the temporary ceasefires as acts of humanity and survival by professional soldiers deeply committed to their respective causes. The soldiers who participated in the Christmas truce were excited about the opportunity to fraternize with the German soldiers and also the opportunity to move about freely at the frontlines.
In addition, there is little to support the idea officers didn't approve of the events. "The one that I think people will find the most surprising is how many officers were just fine with it — that front line officers often participated and certainly did nothing to stop their men fraternizing. What is interesting is that the leadership from brigade and divisional headquarters, for the most part, took the line that, well, it’s already happening, it doesn’t appear to be doing any harm, the weather is terrible anyway, so let’s just let the soldiers have a few days off," Crocker said.
And there appears to be no facts to back up the thought that severe punishments followed the truces. Crocker was unable to find a single example of anyone punished for participation in the 1914 truce.
Maybe soldier Bruce Bairnsfather best described the way the soldiers and officers thought of the truce as "the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match." Although they participated in the truce, soldiers understood that the war would not be ending. The truce allowed a break from what had become a miserable few months and only the beginning of what was to come.
"The Christmas Truce," published by University Press of Kentucky, studies these ceasefires within the wider war, demonstrating how generations of scholars have promoted interpretations that ignored the nuanced perspectives of the many soldiers who fought. Crocker’s groundbreaking, meticulously researched work challenges conventional analyses and sheds new light on the history and popular mythology of the "War to End All Wars."
Terri Blom Crocker, of Georgetown, Kentucky, is a senior paralegal for investigations in the Office of Legal Counsel at UK.
University Press of Kentucky is the scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, representing a consortium that now includes all of the state universities, five private colleges and two historical societies. The editorial program of the press focuses on the humanities and the social sciences. Offices for the administrative, editorial, production and marketing departments of the press are found at UK, which provides financial support toward the operating expenses of the publishing operation.
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