Not If The Generals Have Their Way.
Killing Continues on Christmas Eve.
Special to The Great War Project.
(21-24 December) As Christmas approaches, many soldiers on both sides of the Western Front are reminded of the Christmas Truce of 1914, a year previous.
British, French, and German soldiers spontaneously came out of their trenches to celebrate Christmas with songs and soccer games.
But the Christmas Truce of 1914 is not to be repeated in 1915, if commanding officers have any say in the matter.
“As Christmas Day approached,” writes historian Adam Hochschild, “all British units were given strict orders that there be no repeat of the spontaneous fraternization of he previous year.”
“Nothing of the kind is to be allowed on the Divisional front this year,” one British Infantry Brigade was informed five days before the festive season was to begin, reports historian Martin Gilbert.
Orders are that “the Artillery will maintain a slow gun fire on the enemy’s trenches commencing at dawn, and every opportunity will as usual be taken to inflict casualties upon any of the enemy exposing themselves.”
Gilbert reports that “these orders were, in the main, obeyed.”
But there are instances of the same impulses that sparked the Christmas Truce a year earlier.
Gilbert cites the reporting of historian Lyn Macdonald, “In the trenches close to Plugstreet Wood a tremendous voice entertained the trenches of both sides with a selection from La Traviata,, stopping abruptly in mid-aria as if a door had been slammed shut.”
“Near Wulverghem [Belgium]” Gilbert reports…
“the Germans set up a tree on the parapet of their front trench on Christmas Eve ablaze with candles.”
Writes Macdonald, “For a few moments the tiny pinpoints of flame flickered uncertainly in the dark until a British officer ordered rapid fire and the Tommies shot it down.”
According to historian Gilbert, “Christmas Day was no different.”
He cites the writing of a British corporal of the Royal Artillery. “We hailed the smiling morn with five founds fired fast, and we kept up slow fire all day. Those were our orders.”
“Some batteries sent over as many as three hundred shells. It was a Christmas present to Fritz, they said. But I do believe myself that it was intended to discourage fraternizing.”
“The shooting and shelling continued that day,” writes Gilbert. One lieutenant witnessed a private killed, a shell severing his femoral artery. The officer described the incident.
“Stretcher-bearers attempted to deal with this mortal wound by using a tourniquet but this caused the poor chap pain.” Another medical officer ordered the tourniquet removed so he “could die in peace.”
The medical officer had apparently been “about to risk his own life by coming to us across the open – there were no communications trenches left – but the CO [Commanding Officer] ordered him to stay where he was at battalion HQ.”
“It was just as well. We couldn’t afford to lose a Medical Officer in a fruitless effort to save life. He couldn’t possibly have arrived in time.”
“Thus died Private W.G. Wilkerson on Christmas Day,” reports Gilbert. The private is buried at a cemetery at Ypres in Belgium.
“Near him lie 4,500 other dead.”