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The True Story of the Christmas Truce (Hardback)

British and German Eyewitness Accounts from World War I

WWI Greenhill Books Greenhill: WWI Greenhill: 20th Century 1914 Military

Edited by Anthony Richards, Translated by Eva Burke
Greenhill Books
Pages: 256
Illustrations: 16 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781784386146
Published: 1st September 2021

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‘One of them shouted “A Merry Christmas English. We’re not shooting tonight.” . . . [then] they stuck up a light. Not to be outdone, so did we. Then up went another. So, we shoved up another. Soon the lines looked like an illuminated fete.’ Rifleman Leslie Walkington

On Christmas Eve 1914, a group of German soldiers laid down their arms, lit lanterns and started to sing Christmas carols. The British troops in nearby trenches responded by singing songs of their own. The next day, men from both sides met in No Man’s Land. They shook hands, took photos and exchanged food and souvenirs. Some even played improvised football games, kicking around empty bully-beef cans and using helmets for goalposts. Both sides also saw the lull in fighting as a chance to bury the bodies of their comrades.

In some parts of the front, the truce lasted a few hours. In others, it continued to the New Year. But everywhere, sooner or later, the fighting resumed. Today, the Christmas Truce is seen as a poignant symbol of hope in a war that many people regard as unnecessary and futile. But what was the real story of those remarkable few days?

In this fascinating new book, historian Anthony Richards has brought together hundreds of first-hand reminiscences from those who were there – including previously unpublished German accounts – to cast fresh light on this extraordinary episode.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

On Christmas Eve, 1914, in trenches along the Western Front, some German soldiers laid down their arms, put up lights and started singing carols. Soon, the British soldiers did the same. This armistice lasted into Christmas Day and beyond, with a spontaneous meeting of the combatants in No Man’s Land. Gifts were exchanged and even football matches were played, and a legend was born. This book attempts to cut through the myths to tell the true story of the Christmas Truce.
The event has become almost mythological over the years and Anthony Richards reveals that even during the First World War itself some people doubted it had happened. As this excellent book reveals, there wasn’t one single truce but a series of small truces along different parts of the frontline, of varying duration. Drawing on newly discovered and translated German accounts of the Truce, we are able to get an insight into the other side of the story.
Anthony Richards sets the scene of the first few, arduous months of the First World War, when the harsh winter and other factors had forced both armies into trenches, leading to a kind of siege mentality. Eventually, the mutually awful living conditions would lead to a feeling of empathy -“live and let live” - between the German and Allied forces, and much fraternisation.
Soldiers on both sides received parcels of food and clothing at Christmas and their subsequent letters home, printed here, are poignant and revealing, as are the firsthand reports of the impromptu services and mutual goodwill on Christmas Day. Richards explores how the Christmas Truce was enacted in different places along the Western Front, including how both sides were soon helping the enemy bury their dead. However, the Truce was not recognised everywhere, and in some places the possibility of it was dismissed out of hand by one side or the other. It is also interesting that the Christmas Truce was viewed with suspicion by the senior commanders of both sides, and as an affront to the patriotic nationalism expected from the armies, resulting in official attempts to prevent future reoccurrence. As for the legendary organised football match, sadly this likely never happened, save for a few “rough kickabouts”. Richards also examines the causes and legacy of the Christmas Truce.
Full of riveting reminiscence from both German and British soldiers, this book is concise and well-researched. The legacy of the Christmas Truce will live on as one of the better events of the First World War. As the diary entry of a German officer succinctly noted at the time -“[We] were as happy as children at play”.

NetGalley, Wyn Lewis

About Anthony Richards

Anthony Richards has worked at the Imperial War Museum for more than twenty years, where he is responsible for the document and sound archives. A qualified archivist, he has contributed to many publications and media projects based on personal written testimony of the two world wars, including articles for The Telegraph newspaper, the Royal Mail Stamp Yearbook, and the ITV series The Great War: The People’s Story (2014). He is also the author of The Somme: A Visual History and In Their Own Words; (both IWM, 2016) and Documents That Changed History (IWM, 2018).


About Eva Burke

Eva Burke grew up in Vienna and then Zug, Switzerland. She graduated from Brandeis University, Massachusetts with a BA and MA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Studies. She translated Screams of the Dying (Greenhill Books) and I Somehow Survived (Greenhill Books). She lives in London with her husband, four children and three grandchildren.

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