Many of the soldiers who fought each other in the Great War recognised that they were all in the same grim situation. A spontaneous code of behaviour, sometimes even a code of honour, developed on both sides. The following extracts from letters and memoirs show how easily the men might have been friends instead of enemies, had it not been for the war they they were ordered to fight.
31 December 1914:
Dear Mother I haven't much news to tell you except an extraordinary thing which happened on Christmas Day. To begin with on Christmas Eve all the German trenches were lined with little lights, which we afterwards discovered were Christmas trees. Well next morning we heard them singing & shouting in their trenches, and about midday they began lifting hats on sticks & showing them above the trench, then they showed their heads, & then bodies & finally they climbed out of their trenches into the open! Of course one couldn't shoot them in cold blood like that, tho' one or two shots were fired, and after a bit we also scrambled out of our trenches, & for an hour both sides walked about in the space between the two lines of trenches, talking & laughing, swapping baccy & cigarettes, biscuits etc. They were quite friendly and genuine, & our Col. who talks German had a long conversation with them, & asked them how they were & everything & you would never believe we had been fighting for weeks. After about an hour their officers shoo'd them back to their trenches, & we came back to ours, but for the rest of Christmas Day & night, & all next day, 26th, I don't suppose 2 shots were fired hardly by either side. Wasn't it weird?
your loving son, Ted
31 December 1914:
On New Year's Eve we exchanged the time having agreed to fire some shots at midnight. The night was cold. We sang, they applauded (our lines were only some two hundred feet apart). We played the mouth organ, they sang to our music, and then we applauded. I called over to ask if they had some musical instruments, on which they produced a set of bagpipes (they were a Scots Guards regiment, with short kilts and bare legs). They played their poetic tunes and sang. At midnight both sides fired shots in the air. Our artillery too fired a few rounds; tracer bullets, usually so lethal, soared like harmless fireworks. Men were waving torches and cheering. We had prepared grog and drank a toast to Kaiser Wilhelm and the New Year.
10 July 1918:
Dear Mother ...All patrols - English and German - are much averse to the death and glory principle; so, on running up against each other in the long wet rustling clover, both pretend that they are Levites and the other is a Good Samaritan - and pass by on the other side, no word spoken. For either side to bomb the other would be a useless violation of the unwritten laws that govern the relations of combatants permanently within a hundred yards of each other, who have found out that to provide discomfort for the other is but a roundabout way of providing it for themselves: until they have their heads banged forcibly together by the red-capped powers behind them, whom neither attempts to understand....
Charles Sorley, British soldier
There were Germans walking about within rifle range. Our men appeared to take no notice. I privately made up my mind to do away with that sort of thing. These people evidently did not know there was a war on. Both sides apparently believed in the policy of live-and-let-live.
Senior British officer
We go out at night in front of the trenches. The Germans are also out, so it is not considered etiquette to fire.
I was having tea with A company when we heard a lot of shouting and went to investigate. We found our men and the Germans standing on their respective parapets. Suddenly a salvo arrived, but did no damage. Naturally both sides got down and our men started swearing at the Germans. All at once a brave German got on to his parapet and shouted out We are very sorry about that; we hope no one was hurt. It is not our fault, it is that damned Prussian artillery.
December 25 1916:
The Army has orders to shoot at sight should the Hun want to fraternise and come across. Sgt. Hepple says a Hun suddenly stood head and shoulders above the parapet, took a drink from a bottle, held it out towards the sergeant, and got down again.
William St. Leger, British soldier
27 December 1917:
Not even in deepest national bitterness have I ever ceased believing that the hate and enmity between the Europeans is, finally, a deception, a mistake.
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