The Christmas truce of 1914 will generally conjure up images of opposing British and German soldiers walking calmly across No Man’s Land, exchanging gifts and playing football. These images have become reinforced via personal memoirs, dramatizations, films and most recently of all, television adverts. Today’s blog post in memory of the unofficial ceasefires which occurred during the Christmas period of December 1914 will use unit war diaries, from WO 95, to reflect upon the events that occurred on Christmas Day 1914, some of which were very contrasting.
One of the quickest ways to check if a battalion that you are interested in was involved in a truce would be to consult their unit war diary. Arranged into monthly folders, these diaries record the day-to-day activities and experiences of each unit of the British Army, where they survive. Researchers should beware, however that the level of detail recorded in a war diary can vary, and in some cases may suggest that little was happening. This is the case for the 1 Battalion, Norfolk Regiment, with their diary entry for Christmas Day being left entirely blank. With the entries previous to and after that date being recorded in only very basic detail, the first impressions therefore are that this battalion was not involved in any ceasefire activities.
Moving up to Brigade level, however, reveals a far different impression of what happened to the 1 Norfolk battalion on this day. Each battalion would belong to and report to a Brigade. The Brigade would have a Headquarters, who would also keep a war diary. Likewise, researchers can carry on moving through the level of command, moving from Brigade to Divisional level and so forth, all in the hope of gaining more information on your unit of interest, as well as gaining a greater perspective on the activities and events going on around them.
So, the diary entry for the 15 Infantry Brigade Headquarters on Christmas Day, 1914 reveals that at about ’2 p.m. a German officer unarmed walked towards the Norfolk trenches’ (WO 95/1566/1). So straight away, we have discovered more information about the experiences of the 1 Norfolk battalion by moving up to the Brigade level diary. The entry confirms that between ’200 and 400 British and German troops, including officers conversed and sung hymns together’, which lasted for an hour and a half.