Bairnsfather's Christmas Truce, 1914

Posted on Monday 17th December 2012

This article has been extracted from In Search of the Better 'Ole by Tonie and Valmai Holt, and is reproduced here by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
Trench life was a great shock to Bairnsfather and he concealed his true feelings, as many officers did, under a puerile, public school approach to the war. It became a team game in which ritual patterns soon developed, so that preoccupation with routine dulled overt sensitivity to the horror all around.
Christmas 1914 saw a lull in the ‘game’, and Bairnsfather took part in one of the most extraordinary episodes of the Great War, an episode that might have brought him a court martial. It started on Christmas Eve. He tells the story himself.
The day had been entirely free from shelling, and somehow we all felt that the Boches, too, wanted to be quiet. There was a kind of invisible, intangible feeling extending across the frozen swamp between the two lines, which said ‘This is Christmas Eve for both of us – something in common.’
About 10 pm I made my exit from the convivial dug-out on the left of our line and walked back to my own lair. On arriving at my own bit of trench I found several of the men standing about, and all very cheerful. There was a good bit of singing and talking going on, jokes and jibes on our curious Christmas Eve, as contrasted with any former one, were thick in the air. One of my men turned to me and said:
‘You can ’ear ’em quite plain, sir!’
'Hear what?'
‘The Germans over there, sir; you can ’ear ’em singin’ and playin’ on a band or somethin’.

'Heads were bobbing about and showing over their parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced. A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet and looked about itself.'

I listened; away out across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices, and an occasional burst of some unintelligible song would come floating out on the frosty air. The singing seemed to be the loudest and most distinct a bit to our right. I popped into my dug-out and found the platoon commander.
‘Do you hear the Boches kicking up that racket over there?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he replied: ‘they’ve been at it some time!’ ‘Come on,’ said I, ‘let’s go along the trench to the hedge there on the right – that’s the nearest point to them, over there.’
So we stumbled along our now hard, frosted ditch, and scrambling up on to the bank above, strode across the field to our next bit of trench on the right. Everyone was listening. An improvised Boche band was playing a precarious version of Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles, at the conclusion of which, some of our mouth-organ experts retaliated with snatches of ragtime songs and imitations of the German tune. Suddenly we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again. A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a strong German accent, ‘Come over here!’ A ripple of mirth swept along our trench, followed by a rude outburst of mouth organs and laughter. Presently, in a lull, one of our sergeants repeated the request, ‘Come over here!’
‘You come half-way – I come half-way,’ floated out of the darkness.
‘Come on, then!’ shouted the sergeant. ‘I’m coming along the hedge!’
‘Ah! but there are two of you,’ came back the voice from the other side.
Well, anyway, after much suspicious shouting and jocular derision from both sides, our sergeant went along the hedge which ran at right-angles to the two lines of trenches. He was quickly out of sight; but, as we all listened in breathless silence, we soon heard a spasmodic conversation taking place out there in the darkness.
Presently, the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Maconochie’s and a tin of Capstan, which he had taken with him. The seance was over, but it had given just the requisite touch to our Christmas Eve – something a little human and out of the ordinary routine.
After months of vindictive sniping and shelling, this little episode came as an invigorating tonic, and a welcome relief to the daily monotony of antagonism. It did not lessen our ardour or determination; but just put a little human punctuation mark in our lives of cold and humid hate. Just on the right day too – Christmas Eve! But, as a curious episode, this was nothing in comparison to our experience on the following day.
On Christmas morning I awoke very early, and emerged from my dug-out in the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist. It was such a day as is invariably depicted by artists on Christmas cards – the ideal Christmas Day of fiction.
Walking about the trench a little later, discussing the curious affair of the night before, we suddenly became aware of the fact that we were seeing a lot of evidence of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over their parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced.
A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet, and looked about itself. This complaint became infectious. It didn’t take ‘Our Bert’ long to be up on the skyline (it is one long grind to ever keep him off it). This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by all our Alf’s and Bill’s, until, in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in no-man’s land.

British and German soldiers nervous of the photographer in case of repercussions.

A strange sight, truly!
I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in the muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches.
It all felt most curious: here were these sausage-eating wretches, who had elected to start this infernal European fracas, and in so doing had brought us all into the same muddy pickle as themselves.
This was my first real sight of them at close quarters. Here they were – the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match. The difference in type between our men and theirs was very marked. There was no contrasting the spirit of the two parties. Our men, in their scratch costumes of dirty, muddy khaki, with their various assorted head-dresses of woollen helmets, mufflers and battered hats, were a light-hearted, open humorous collection as opposed to the sombre demeanour and stolid appearance of the Huns in their grey-green faded uniforms, top boots, and pork-pie hats.
The shortest effect I can give of the impression I had was that our men, superior, broadminded, more frank, and lovable beings, were regarding these faded, unimaginative products of perverted culture as a set of objectionable but amusing lunatics whose heads had got to be eventually smacked.
‘Look at that one over there, Bill,’ our Bert would say, as he pointed out some particularly curious member of the party.
I strolled about amongst them all, and sucked in as many impressions as I could. Two or three of the Boches seemed to be particularly interested in me, and after they had walked round me once or twice with sullen curiosity stamped on their faces, one came up and said ‘Offizier?’ I nodded my head, which means ‘Yes’ in most languages, and, besides, I can’t talk German.
These devils, I could see, all wanted to be friendly; but none of them possessed the open, frank geniality of our men. However, everyone was talking and laughing, and souvenir hunting.

On the edge of Ploegsteert Wood at Le Gheer. It was on ruined buildings in this area that Bruce Bairnsfather began his cartooning.

I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons.
We both said things to each other which neither understood, and agreed to do a swap. I brought out my wire clippers and with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange.
Whilst this was going on a babbling of guttural ejaculations emanating from one of the laager-schifters, told me that some idea had occurred to someone.
Suddenly, one of the Boches ran back to his trench and presently reappeared with a large camera. I posed in a mixed group for several photographs, and have ever since wished I had fixed up some arrangement for getting a copy. No doubt framed editions of this photograph are reposing on some Hun mantelpieces, showing clearly and unmistakably to admiring strafers how a group of perfidious English surrendered unconditionally on Christmas Day to the brave Deutschers.
Slowly the meeting began to disperse; a sort of feeling that the authorities on both sides were not very enthusiastic about this fraternizing seemed to creep across the gathering. We parted, but there was a distinct and friendly understanding that Christmas Day would be left to finish in tranquillity. The last I saw of this little affair was a vision of one of my machine-gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.
The Commander of the BEF, General Sir John French, heard about the Christmas Truce, as it became known, and although in retrospect his attitude mellowed, at the time he reacted firmly:
‘I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct and called the local commanders to strict account...’
Bruce Bairnsfather.

Bairnsfather captures the Christmas Truce in this cartoon.

Lieutenant Bairnsfather on his way to the Christmas Truce, December 1914, St Yvon.


'I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in the muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches.'

Bairnsfather with time on his hands in the winter of 1914.

Bairnsfather at work – one of his own cartoons.

'These devils, I could see, all wanted to be friendly; but none of them possessed the open, frank geniality of our men. However, everyone was talking and laughing and souvenir hunting.'

Young inquisitive replacement: 'Who made that 'ole?' Fed up old soldier: 'Mice!' The Germans felt the need to explain this when they used it in a manual on humour. 'It was not mice. It was a shell.'

Further Reading

In Search Of The Better 'Ole
(Hardback - 224 pages)
ISBN: 9780850527643

by Major and Mrs Holt
Only £19.95

Bruce Bairnsfather created one of the best-known cartoon characters of the First World War - 'Old Bill' and he drew what many consider to be the most enduring cartoon of all time - the 'Better Ole'.

Reprinted due to popular demand this biography was the first to be published about the man and his work.

During the First World War the contribution of Bairnsfather's work to the morale of the Nation, through laughter, is without question. Indeed these were those who thought he…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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