After the First World War’s initial opening phase of movement ended, the belligerents on both sides of the Western Front dug in to shelter from modern weaponry. What began as hastily-prepared rifle pits were formed into continuous lines of trenches across France and Belgium that stretched from the English Channel in the north to Switzerland in the south. Trench warfare on an unprecedented scale had begun.
The enduring image of the First World War comes from the Western Front: Opposing trench lines separated by the devastated interim space of mud, corpses, and shell craters that was no man’s land. The subterranean defenses of these vast systems being fought over ferociously by soldiers who were cut down by rifle, machine gun, and artillery fire. While there are countless instances where this did indeed happen, it does not tell the whole story.
The war’s appalling casualties, the majority of which were young white men, would have been far worse if it were not for informal, tacitly agreed ceasefires that occurred sporadically throughout the war on the Western Front. These unofficial truces were known as the “live and let live system.”
The most comprehensive study of unofficial truces between opposed armies is historian Tony Ashworth’s Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System. Ashworth writes:
Essentially, the term live and let live denoted a process of reciprocal exchange among antagonists, where each diminished the other’s risk of death, discomfort and injury by a deliberate restriction of aggressive activity, but only on condition that the other requite the restraint.
Ashworth goes on to explain that there was a marked difference between quiet and active sectors:
The “profound difference” between the quiet sector and the active sector was, therefore, the exchange of peace, according to the rules of live and let live on the former, and the exchange of aggression according to the rules of kill or be killed . . . upon the latter.
British military historian Gary Sheffield briefly explains the live and let live system and acknowledges the Christmas Truce of 1914 as the most widely-known instance of it:
Trench life was made more bearable by informal truces and tacit agreements that developed between opposing sides. The most famous example of this occurred on Christmas Day 1914, when some British and German troops fraternised in No Man’s Land. Truces were usually far less spectacular, typically taking the form of refraining to bombard the enemy positions when hot food was being brought up — if you prevented him from eating his breakfast in peace, he would do the same to you, and no one would gain.
Just as trench warfare itself varied in intensity, violence, and even quietude, so too did the Christmas Truce of 1914. The truce was almost as variable as trench warfare itself. On Christmas Eve, in some sectors British soldiers heard German troops singing carols, and saw lanterns and small trees decorating trench parapets. In other areas of the front line, friendly greetings, jokes, insults, and other messages were shouted out across no man’s land. On Christmas Day some soldiers met in no man’s land and traded gifts, took photographs, played football, made repairs to trenches and dugouts, and buried the dead. Elsewhere, truces were ignored, casualties occurred, and some feared that rumors of convivial fraternization would undermine combat motivation.
Some units in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) recorded the events in their respective war diaries. The diary entry for the 15th Infantry Brigade Headquarters on Christmas Day 1914 states that at “2 p.m. a German officer unarmed walked towards the Norfolk trenches.” Another war diary entry reveals that between “200 and 400 British and German troops, including officers, conversed and sung hymns together.”
Thomas William Brightwell, who enlisted with the Norfolk Regiment, BEF, on August 26, 1914, wrote a remarkable letter to his sister in Calgary, Alberta, Canada: “You say you wondered how I spent my Xmas Well [sic] I shall never forget that Xmas Day as long as I live.” Brightwell goes on to describe his experience of the 1914 Christmas Truce in detail:
I spent it in the trenches it was a sharp frosty Night Xmas Eve when day light came I was all white with frost just like Father Xmas The Germans were singing all night in their trenches carols and parts of English songs what they knew of them, we were only 200 yards from them, about 10 a.m. they signaled to us that they wanted to talk to us they sent one man towards and we sent one to meet him and he said that they wanted a 3 days truce he said if you dont [sic] fire on us we will not fire on you we agreed the Germans started getting out of their trenches so we got out as well and shook hands with each other they gave us cigars and cigeretts [sic] and we gave them some of ours they were pleased they would have given us anything we exchanged pipes and knives and sang songs and played football with them some of them could speak English so we managed to understand each other — it looked alright seeing Germans and English chasing a hare about with big sticks we buried a poor French soldier who had been lying for weeks in front of our trench the Germans helped to dig the grave and one German and one Englishman lowered him down to rest. They were good chaps they kept their word and were very little trouble to us after that. I reckon you will hardly credit this I couldn’t myself I had to pinch myself to see if I was awake, it was a treat to walk about and not to be fired at . . . 
Some soldiers who participated in the Christmas Truce of 1914 received courts martial as commanders on both sides of no man’s land attempted to assert their control over the rank-and-file. On subsequent years, warnings were issued prior to the holiday to officially pre-empt any convivial fraternization on the scale of 1914. In 1916, for instance, a light artillery barrage was ordered for Christmas Day. Authorities feared losing control over their armies if unsanctioned truces were to spread. They were likewise concerned with the prospect of grassroots rebellions taking place on the home front amongst the citizenry. In his book about the Christmas ceasefire, Stanley Weintraub writes:
The impromptu truce seemed dangerously akin to the populist politics of the streets, the spontaneous movements that topple tyrants and autocrats. For that reason alone, high commands could not permit it to gain any momentum . . .
In a letter home, Henry Errol Beauchamp Platt wrote that before Christmas 1915, soldiers had been warned against any sort of truce, despite some abortive attempts by the Germans to initiate one: “The troops had been carefully instructed that there must be no truce this winter as there was last, but Fritz thought otherwise and in many places stood right up on the parapet.” Because of the reassertion of top-down control from command and another year of trench warfare, informal truces on the scale of Christmas 1914 were prevented. Platt goes on to write that there were casualties as well:
We shot a couple of them and they disappeared opposite us, except for one foxy chap who kept shoving up a red hat. A lot of our chaps collected and unfortunately one of them exposed himself too much and a ricochet bullet hit him on the head . . . Later in the day poor old King Nash was shot in the head and died instantly.
Charles Henry Savage experienced Christmas in the line in 1915. Although casualties were light, soldiers on both sides of no man’s land were too busy fighting the elements to devote much time to fraternization:
This front was really very quiet and when we came out of the line shortly before Christmas we had had surprisingly few casualties. Both Germans and Canadians were so busy fighting the common enemy mud that they had very little time to devote to each other.
Internecine conflict has been devastating for people of white European heritage. The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a striking example of how in-group affinity — an affinity based on common racial, cultural, and moral ties — can overcome tremendous top-down pressures. Although the truce has been romanticized in many ways, it did indeed occur. And even though steps were taken by command to discourage fraternization and tacit ceasefires on the scale of the inaugural Christmas Truce, the live and let live system persisted throughout the war.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 remains a potent symbol of reconciliation during one of the most devastating periods of intra-racial conflict in history. The heroic and martial characteristics of white people should only be used against our true enemies when necessary, and our altruism should be reserved exclusively for the benefit of our own people.
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 Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare 1914-1918 The Live and Let Live System (London: Pan Books, 2000), 19.
 Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities (London: Review, 2002), 151-152.
 Desmond Morton, When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian soldier in the First World War (Toronto: Random House, 1993), 241-242.
 Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas truce (Toronto: Plume, 2002), xvii.
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