Shot at Dawn


Victor Silvester

Victor Silvester

Victor Silvester (1900-1978), after the war world famous dance orchestra leader, was a boy soldier and participated in the execution of five soldiers.

In an interview he gave just before his death Victor Silvester told how he was ordered to execute a man:

“The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy.
The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he tried to free himself from the ropes. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the man was still alive. Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man’s temple.
He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word ‘mother’. He could not have been much older than me. We were told later that he had in fact been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognised by the army at the time. Later I took part in four more such executions.”

Do the 850,000 ceramic poppies representing a soldier who died in WW1 include the 306 British soldiers shot at dawn?


Execution in the dunes

A few steps from the North Sea, on the beach near the hamlet of Oostduinkerke, Belgian soldier 2é Grenadiers Aloïs Walput is tied to a pole and shot by his fellow-men. The execution of this 21 year old war-volunteer took place on 3rd June 1918.

The picture was made a few seconds after the man died: two soldiers cut the body loose, an officer (the medical doctor?) takes the exact time, the spurred commander of the firing-squad looks on. It was the last of thirteen known cases wherein a Belgian court martial send a soldier to death.

During the Great War many soldiers were executed. The armies wanted to set examples to the troops. Do not walk away from our war – we shoot you if you do. The men were shot for desertion, mutiny, cowardice (even if it was caused by shell shock or other mental affections), and other breaches of discipline.

During the war the executions were kept silent. Robert Graves: “I had my first direct experience of official lying when I arrived at Le Havre in May 1915 and read the back-files of army orders at the rest camp. They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion. Yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons, answering a question from a pacifist, denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of His Majesty’s Forces” (in Goodbye to all That, 1929).

Execution WW1After the war all armies made their files on the executions top secret. Of course there were rumours and in a few cases the truth leaked through. Only these last years some of the archives have been opened and now, slowly, thanks to the efforts of independent researchers and journalists, the stories become public.

As a result of this political debates have been started in several countries. about reviewing the sentences. New-Zealand has already pardoned (through Act of Parliament) the soldiers it executed in WW1. The Canadian government has offered an apology and formally announced its regret for what happened. England announced in August 2006 that it will formally pardon (on moral grounds) all soldiers who were shot by firing squads.


In total British court martials had 306 soldiers shot at dawn. Among them were 25 Canadians, 22 Irishmen and 5 New-Zealanders.

Australia was the only country that did not want its soldiers (all volunteers) to be executed. The 129 Australians (including 119 deserters) that were sentenced to death during the war (117 in France) were not shot.

Between April 1917 and November 1918 American court-martials sentenced 24 American deserters to death. None was actually shot. Stragglers and deserters were often publicly humiliated.

From the German army about 150,000 soldiers deserted. Most of them fled to the neutral Netherlands and to Denmark and Switzerland. From those who got caught no more than 18 were executed (compare this to the 10.000 deserters Germany shot in the second worldwar).

In the French army more than 600 soldiers were put to death. Little known is the French decimation (the shooting of every tenth person in a unit) of the 10e Compagnie of 8 Battalion of the Régiment Mixte de Tirailleurs Algériens. During the retreat at the beginning of the war these French-African soldiers refused an order to attack. They were shot on the 15th of December 1914 near Zillebeeke in Flanders.

Star   Frank Hurley, “the mad photographer”   Star

Click to start the slide-show

The Shell-Shattered Area of Chateau Wood, Flanders
(Picture by Frank Hurley, 1917)

Marching German Army
German Army Marching – postcard 1914

Close to a Consensus on the
Origins of the Great War

By Rob Ruggenberg

Don’t be fooled: there is no such thing as an historical consensus on the origins of the Great War. But there is something close to it.

This happened before. Shortly after the war most historians agreed that Germany, together with Austria-Hungary, were responsible for for the outbreak of this massive world conflict. Even the famous German historian Karl Kautsky came to this conclusion when he edited the official publication of German Foreign Office documents on the origins of World War I, and later in his 1919 book Wie der Weltkrieg entstand (How the World War arose).

But this view soon changed dramatically. In the 1920’s historians from all over the world reached a sort of mutual agreement on a revisionist interpretation in which none of the great powers was held responsible.

This interpretation held that the war was the result of a conflict between imperialist states. It was preceded by a naval race, a great increase in armaments and rivalry between world empires for control of markets.

There was, it was argued, little to choose between the policies of the great powers. War broke out because everyone misjudged the consequences of the crisis created by the assassination of the Austrian Arch-Duke in Sarajevo.

In this version Austria-Hungary, for its unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia, and France and Russia, for their hasty decisions to mobilize, were judged to be the powers most responsible for starting the war. Germany and Britain attempted to find a compromise but were drawn into a conflict which neither imagined would last more than a few months.

The conclusion was: the Great War was a kind of accident and all the parties involved were victims. This view became a standard vision and thousands of older studies breath this interpretation. Until the 1960’s…

In 1961 this view of the origins of the war was challenged by the German historian Fritz Fischer. To the chagrin of other German intellectuals, who preferred the theory that the other countries involved in World War I were at fault, Fischer concluded that the Germans under the Kaiser had expansionist goals in the war. Fischer argued that leading groups in Germany – including the Kaiser – sought a war which would establish German control over much of Europe.

In his book “Griff nach der Weltmacht (Grab at Worldpower, translated as “Germany’s Aims in World War I”), Fischer insisted that Germany deliberately encouraged the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to declare war on Serbia and actively sought war with France, hoping to repeat the victory of 1870, before dealing with Russia. Britain’s small army could be ignored because the decisive engagements would be over within a few months.

Fischer based his material on documents he had found in the German Democratic Republic DDR and in other archives. He had studied the so called September plans and pointed out that there was a continuancy in German war planning. Fischer soon got support. In 1964 German historian Sebastian Haffner pointed out (in his book The seven deadly sins of the German Empire in the First World War) that there had been an crucial change in German foreign policy in 1890 when the Kaiser pushed prime-minister Otto von Bismarck out of his way. Bismarck wanted to make Germany powerful, but in a peaceful way. His successors also strived for German power, but in a way that could not avoid war.

Haffner explained that in the peace system of the 19th century there was a balance of power inside Europe. Outside of Europe England ruled. Bismarck never attacked this system: he just wanted to fit the new German empire into it. Bismarck’s successors wanted to turn the system over and replace it by something else. They wanted a balance outside of Europe and Germany ruling inside.

In 1969 Fischer published another book – Krieg der Illusionen (War of Illusions) – in which he argued that Germany systematically had aimed at war since 1912. In 1992 he threw oil on the fire with the book “Hitler was Not an Accident”.

His view of the origins of the Great War has not gone unchallenged. Fischer’s books have been the subject of numerous discussions over the years (and they still are), with Fischer sticking to his conclusions, even as some opponents claimed he took historical quotes out of context. Fischer died in December 1999.

Today most historians agree with the general outlines of the Fischer thesis. The leaders of the German Empire and of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire both were guilty. The guilt of the people of these nations exists in that they took little notice of the politics of their leaders. But then, this is a fault that these people had – and have – in common with the people of all nations.

Canadian leading military historian prof. Terry Copp, adds that the ‘new consensus’ must seem ironic to those who lived during the First World War and are still alive today, “because it presents the origins of the war much as the people of 1914 understood them”.


“America should have minded her own business and stayed out of the World War. If you hadn’t entered the war the Allies would have made peace with Germany in the Spring of 1917. Had we made peace then there would have been no collapse in Russia followed by Communism, no breakdown in Italy followed by Fascism, and Germany would not have signed the Versailles Treaty, which has enthroned Nazism in Germany. If America had stayed out of the war, all these ‘isms’ wouldn’t today be sweeping the continent of Europe and breaking down parliamentary government – and if England had made peace early in 1917, it would have saved over one million British, French, American, and other lives.”

Winston Churchill (according to the New York Enquirer – in 1936)

See: The Balfour Declaration of 1917

The various impacts of a short peace on the minds of soldiers

Demystifying the Christmas Truce

German and British soldiers fraternize – Christmas 1914  

By Thomas Löwer
(Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany / Juniata College, Huntingdon, PA, USA)

“But, however, looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.”[1]

The English soldier Bruce Bairnsfather looked back on an event in which he had taken part. This small excerpt shows quite clearly that something extraordinary and unexpected must have happened. Bairnsfather talks about the Christmas Truce, which happened in 1914. After almost six month of war, soldiers fighting for the Entente powers and soldiers fighting for the “Mittelmächte” met in No Man’s Land and celebrated Christmas together.

The soldiers exchanged gifts, sometimes addresses, and drank together. Often the truce started with a request to bury the dead comrades lying between the trenches (picture on the right).

The Christmas Truce was a small peaceful episode in a cruel environment. Certainly, Bairnsfather’s statement is a bit too generalized because it did not occur along the whole frontline. Mostly English and German soldiers took part in the Christmas fraternization, but also in some cases French, Belgian, Austrian and Russian soldiers took part.[2]

In the following years the Christmas Truce was mystified as an act of humanity in an inhuman war. Jorgensen and Harrison-Lever published a picture book for children with the Christmas Truce as the background.

In this book (picture on the right) a young soldier sees a nice colored small bird which was captured in barbed wire. He decides to leave his trench to free the bird, and no enemy shoots at him. The publisher’s text on the back introduces this book with the words:

“Early on Christmas morning the guns stop firing. A deathly silence creeps over the pitted and ruined landscape.

A young soldier peers through a periscope over the top of the trench. Way out in no-man’s land, he sees a small red shape moving on the barbed wire. A brightly coloured robin is trapped. One wing is flapping helplessly.”[3]

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was mystified in another way. Not only was the soldiers’ humanity emphasized in retrospect, but the war was combined with an element of sport. Stories about a football match between German and English soldiers were quite common. Many war diaries report a football match occurring during the 1914 truce, but whether or not a match was really played is unclear. Historians are still debating if a match was really played or if the soldiers just dramatized the truce.[4] Contrary to in 1914, it is certain that a match between German and English soldiers occurred in 1915.[5]

Truce Appeals

From one perspective, the Christmas Truce was not unexpected. Several neutral powers tried to convince the warring nations to keep peace during Christmas and to show the minimum of Christianity. The most successful attempt to arrange a truce was the Pope’s appeal.[6] He appealed the European powers to keep peace at Christmas, which might have helped to arrange a treaty to end the war. Not surprisingly, the nations would only have accepted peace if they were not disadvantaged by it.[7] Not all nations agreed to a truce: Russia, for example, refused, because the orthodox Christmas is almost two weeks later than the catholic and protestant Christmas, making an official truce impossible.[8] On the other hand the truce came totally unexpectedly. Both headquarters forbade a truce and fraternizations and threatened those who ignored their orders with hard punishment.[9]

That it was not viewed well in the headquarters shows how the truce worked. It was not a happening ordered by the authorities, but a truce made by the average soldier. The view on the whole topic is the view at the bottom of the hierarchy, of the people who were only mentioned as numbers in causality reports. Therefore, in most World War I monographs, the Christmas Truce is ignored. One exception is Ekstein in his book Rites of Spring. Contrary to the common way, his approach to World War I is cultural historical.

The Propaganda War

This paper approaches the Christmas Truce within the context of the Propaganda War. It asks if the propaganda of the warring states influenced the soldiers who took part in the truce, and if so, in what ways. If the soldiers were influenced by the propaganda, did they change their opinion about their opponents in the trenches? Maybe the soldiers bought the propaganda and saw the evil the propaganda had claimed in their opponents.

To point out what impact the propaganda had on the soldiers, the first part investigates the different stereotypes which were created by the different propaganda departments. This part is mainly based on secondary literature, such as the Read’s book Atrocity Propaganda 1914-1919. International Propaganda and Communications and Roeter’s book The Art of Psychological Warfare. Primary sources written by propagandists round out this section.

The second part will juxtapose how the soldiers adopted the propaganda or made their own opinions about their enemies. This part is very much based on primary sources. Letters of soldiers who took part in the truce will give information about their personal attitudes. Furthermore, both major books about the truce, Weintraub’s Silent Night and Brown’s Christmas Truce, are used.

The Pictures of the Enemy

That a truce in the trenches between the opponents could happen is more impressive if the Propaganda issues and common stereotypes are also focused on. On both sides, the propaganda was used to create the worst picture of the enemy. The Entente, as well as the Mittelmächte, maintained large Propaganda organizations. On both sides, intellectuals supported the stereotypes with countless publications about the rightness of going to war and to underline the others’ guilt. The German side saw in England a nation of shopkeepers who would do anything to keep their position in the world as the number one trade nation. The German Jew Ernst Lissauer created the Hymn of Hate against England, and received the Roten Adlerorden from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II for this patriotic act. In his poem he claimed England to be Germany’s worst enemy.

French and Russian they matter not; A blow for blow, and a shot for a shot; We love them not, we hate them not… We have but one and only hate, We love as one, we hate as one, We have one foe and one alone. He is known to you all, he is known to you all! He crouches behind the dark gray flood, Full of envy, of rage, of craft, of gall, Cut off by waves that are thicker than blood… We will never forgo our hate, We have all but a single hate, We love as one, we hate as one We have one foe, and one alone – England [10]

This extremely anti-England poem was not only extraordinarily popular in Germany but it was also part of the German lessons in school. The German self-image is evident in the article, “The Kaiser and His People,” published in the Atlantic Monthly and written by Harvard Professor Kuno Francke (picture on the right).

According to Francke, Germany was a country with: “people brimming over with physical and intellectual vitality, flushed with military and industrial success, eager for activity in every field of enterprise and in all parts of the globe.” Furthermore, he takes all blame away from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. The German Kaiser was not a cruel Hun, he had “Richard Wagner’s Parsifal and the Nietzschean Superman combined in him.” [11]

German Views

England, as Germany’s opposite, is portrayed as “nettled by German business smartness, alarmed by German naval strength, trying to isolate and check and hem in the upstart of every move.”[12] The poem by Lissauer and the article published by an American Professor of German origin portray the picture of an England which is only interested in its own economic well-being and which uses the moment to destroy a common concurrent. To avoid Germany’s competition with England for the best trade routes, England went to war. It was not to protect Belgium as claimed by the English officials, but to annihilate a concurrent.

The German view of the French had been fixed since the Franco-Prussian War. Francke described the German attitude toward France in his article:

“France unwilling to forget her national humiliation, unequivocally refusing to acknowledge the settlement of 1870 as final, incessantly preparing for the day of revenge, persistently attempting to form threatening alliances against her hated foe.”[13]

From the German point of view, France was a cowardly nation without a backbone. It needed a couple of allies to go to war against Germany. Therefore, France decided to go to war only with the help of England and Russia.

Both sides, the Franco-British and the German, accused each other of using an illegal kind of warfare. Since the second conference of The Hague, the use of flat-nosed bullets was illegal. Especially the German side tried to prove that their enemies used this kind of bullets frequently (picture on the right).[14]

On the allied side, the Germans were presented as Huns. This portrayal is based on a historical curiosity. The German Kaiser Wilhelm II compared the German soldiers he sent to China with Huns in a speech held in Bremerhaven on June 27, 1900.[15] The German people, with Kaiser Wilhelm II at the top, were seen as militarism personified. In particular in England, Germany was pictured as the Teutonic enemy and the hatred was so fierce, that a play about the resistance of an English family during a German invasion was the most popular play in 1909.[16]

France and England both underlined the brutality and inhumanity of the German nature. According to the allied propaganda, war prisoners were ill-treated, tortured and under-fed. German soldiers were purported by the allied forces to rape women and cut their breasts off. The hands of small boys were cut off to satisfy the Germans’ sadism and to prevent their service in the enemy’s forces. Furthermore, German soldiers were said to have burned civilians and babies alive.[17] Germany was also accused by France and England of taking hostages as human shields to prevent allied attacks.


Allied intellectuals also supported their governments’ justification of the war. The Academie de Science of France condemned the “pillages and executions approved by the leaders, the massacres of the wounded, of women and children.”[18] Fifteen of the sixteen French universities (Lille was occupied by Germany) asked in a manifest who was to blame for the war, who violated the Belgian neutrality and who destroyed the library in Louvain.[19] The French intellectuals questioned the status of Germany as a civilized country.

The propaganda and the common stereotypes influenced a lot of the soldiers. In particular, young soldiers coming from school or university were extremely affected by the propaganda. On both sides, the young soldiers inspired by patriotism went to war.[20]

Picture: German soldiers in their trenches, Christmas 1914

In his book Rites of Spring Ekstein uses an interesting approach to why the Christmas Truce could happen over this backdrop of hate. After six months of war, a lot of reservists were at the front, who had a life besides the war. He considers this an essential reason for the truce. Elder soldiers with the responsibility for a family more often took part in fraternizations and were more open minded than their younger comrades, who were poisoned by hate.[21] Opposite to their younger comrades elder soldiers had more life experience and were not so easy to convince through propaganda. They had little enthusiasm to go to war, whereas young people, especially students, went with a high amount of nationalism and patriotism. Most young soldiers had a transfigured picture of the war.

Truce Offer Sometimes Rejected

There is no doubt that the propaganda of both sides influenced the soldiers’ attitude toward their enemies. On both sides, the offer of truce was refused. The reason for the refusal was their beliefs in the other’s guilt and in their just cause. A lieutenant from the German “Landwehr” wrote in a letter that

“ such a proposal in the past would have been accepted with pleasure, but at the present time, when we have clearly recognized England’s real character, we refuse to any such agreement. Also we do not doubt that you are men of honor, yet every feeling of ours revolts against any friendly intercourse towards the subjects of a nation which for years has, in underhand ways sought the friendship of all other nations, so that with their help annihilate us, a nation also which, while professing Christianity, is not ashamed to use dum-dum bullets; and whose greatest pleasure would be to see the political disappearance and social eclipse of Germany.[…] But all the same you are Englishmen, whose annihilate we consider as our most sacred duty. We therefore request you to take such action as will prevent your mercenaries, whom you call soldiers, from approaching our trenches in future.”[22]

Neither did the German philosophy student soldier Karl Aldag change his opinion about his English opponents. Although he had a great Christmas with his comrades in the trenches and a truce on New Year’s Eve to bury the dead, he noted that English soldiers were ”only mercenaries.”[23]

“The Only Truce They Deserve”

Similar feelings existed on the other side of the trenches. Captain Billy Congreve from the 3rd division noticed that the Germans did try to make a truce for Christmas.

We have issued strict orders to the men not to on any account allow a truce, as we have heard rumours that they will probably try to. The Germans did. They came over towards us singing. So we opened rapid fire on them, which is the only truce they deserve.”[24]

Bruce Bairnsfather described the Germans he met during the truce as “unimaginative products of perverted kulture” and as “these devils, […], all wanted to be friendly; but none of them possessed the open, frank geniality of our men.”[25] In his diary he labeled the Germans mostly as Huns.

Drawing made by Bruce Bairnsfather, Christmas 1914

The infantry Captain J.D.M. Beckett portrayed Germans as “very simple-minded creatures, and were much elated over alleged victories in Russia.”[26] In his letter which Beckett wrote about the meeting with the Germans he described them as arrogant and self-confident.

The Westminster Rifleman P.H. Jones wrote in his letter that, when the Germans came over toward their trenches, “this was all very well, but we had heard so many yarns about German treachery that we kept a very sharp look-out.”[27] The British lieutenant of the Cameronians emphasizes that trickery by the Germans was a common fear. He was warned not to allow the Germans to come too close to their trenches. Because the Germans did nothing without purpose, they feared the Germans would inspect the British trenches.[28]

Captain Sir Edward Hamilton from the Scots Guards wrote to his mother on December 28 1914 about his experiences of the truce. Although this letter shows a great understanding of each other – one German soldier gave him a letter for his English girl – both sides still stuck in their old patterns.

They think that our Press is to blame in working up feelings against them by publishing false “atrocity reports.” I told them of various sweet little cases which I have seen myself, and they told me of English prisoners whom put they have seen with soft-nosed bullets, and lead bullets with notches cut in the nose; we had a heated, and at the same time good-natured argument, and ended by hinting to each other that the other was lying.”[29]

Interestingly, Hamilton (picture on the right) reports no kind of hatred or mistrust of each other. They exchanged what they had heard about the each other. Stories and reports they had read or heard about the other’s illegal warfare were discussed. He believed the German soldiers when they told him that they were tired of fighting.

Trusting Each Other

Furthermore, this quote shows quite impressively that both sides trusted each other. Otherwise a conversation like this reported one would not be possible. People who hate their enemies or at least mistrust them will not discuss the propaganda stories they have heard. In the following sections of this letter, it becomes clear that both sides still went on with their fraternizations, and there is no kind of mistrust visible.[30]

Although it seems that Hamilton trusted the Germans, he called them in his diary, as Bairnsfather did, Huns, which means that a small part of the propaganda still worked.[31] In opposition to Bairnsfather, who uses the word Huns with a clear negative connotation, Hamilton uses this world only as different word for Germans. The way Hamilton uses the description Huns is neutral and not an expression of mistrust and disdain against the Germans.

Other soldiers like an officer from the Westminster Rifles, started thinking about the way the Germans were presented in the British press. In his letter, which was published first in The Daily News on December 30 and one day later in the New York Times, the officer described his impression of the truce with the Germans.

The Germans opposite us were awfully decent fellows – Saxons, intelligent, respectable-looking men. I had a quite decent talk with three or four have two names and addresses in my notebook. […] After our talk I really think a lot of our newspaper reports must be horribly exaggerated.”[32]

Political Structure

The English officer R.J. Fairhead saw the evil, but not in the soldiers. They just had to fight. In his statement, he strongly attacked the political structure in Europe and looked above the taught national stereotypes.

Politicians do not listen to those whom they claim to represent and the failure to take notice of the fragile peace declared for that brief period led to the anti-government revolution throughout Europe.”[33]

His learned hatred for the Germans was converted to a general hate for the whole situation and the system which made a war like this possible. Lieutenant A.P. Sinkinson describes similar experiences:

As I walked slowly back to our own trenches I thought of Mr. Asquish’s sentence about not sheathing the sword until the enemy be finally crushed. It is all very well for Englishmen living comfortable at home to talk in flowing periods, but when you are out here you begin to realize that sustained hatred impossible.”[34]

Sinkinson saw that Germans were not worse people than himself. Only the people at home, far away from the cruelties, the brutalities, from death and from the war’s real grimace, could keep their hatred. That the opinion toward the enemies had changed after the truce is emphasized by Westminster Rifle Man Percy. The new experiences he had with the Germans whom he met made him rethink everything he had heard about them. He wrote that

they [Germans] where really magnificent in the whole thing [Christmas Truce] and jolly good sorts. I now have a different opinion of the German. Both sides have now started firing, and are deadly enemies again. Strange it all seems, doesn’t it?”[35]

Obviously Percy recognized how surreal the situation was. He started to rethink his attitude toward the Germans but he did not think about stopping fighting them.

English soldiers who fraternized with Germans tended not to see them as Prussians. Prussians were still seen as the evil ones known from the newspaper and all the cruel stories. The aforementioned Westminster Rifle officer portrayed the Germans he met as very decent people, but “those men were Saxons- not Prussians.”[36]

Picture: German and British soldiers fraternizing on the battlefield

That the British soldiers differentiated if their enemies were Prussians or other Germans was common. Brown quotes one officer of the Rifle Brigade who at first had big doubts if he should meet his enemies. The night before, he let his people shoot at the German Christmas trees and the next day he buried with the Germans their fallen comrades. This was possible because he recognized that their opponents were Saxons. Saxons were, in his mind, good fellows who played the game as fair as they did.[37]

The behavior of the British soldiers was shaped by the local origin of their German enemies. Saxons, Bavarians or Wurttembergs were not seen to be as bad as Prussians because they were not in charge of the German policy. British soldiers might see in a Prussian soldier the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and his arrogance. His family, the Hohenzollern, was seen as a family which wanted to rule over the whole of Europe.

“We are not Prussians”

Non-Prussian Germans strongly emphasized that they were not Prussians. Captain Kenny from the Garhwal Rifles fraternized with a German regiment, and the soldiers with whom he talked said that they were Saxons & not Prussians.[38]

It is quite obvious that the soldiers differentiated between German origins because they still thought in their stereotypical patterns. On the one hand they recognized that the Germans whom they met were not as bad as they were told, but some Germans had to be bad, awful and cruel. Insomuch that the German Kaiser (picture on the right) was Prussian and the militaristic stereotype was a Prussian one, they thought that the Prussians has to be as bad as shown in their home propaganda.

Furthermore, some Saxons told the English soldiers not to trust the Prussians. They would not play fair and were nasty fellows. Contrary to that, Saxons were honest. Eckstein quotes a Saxon officer: “We are Saxons; you are Anglo-Saxons; word of a gentleman is for us as for you.”[39]

That it sometimes did not matter what nationality and from what part of Germany the Soldiers come from is shown by Captain Hamilton.He wrote in his letter that we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttemberg, etc.,[40] sang various Christmas songs together. This case shows that the fraternization sometimes went over all boundaries of hate. The soldiers were not judged by their origins, but as humans and as nothing else.

Other Nationalities

In the most cases, German and British soldiers were engaged in the fraternization at the Western front during Christmas 1914. Fraternization between German and French soldiers occurred but with much less trust than between Germans and British. Often the mutual mistrust caused both to avoid fraternization.[41] Interestingly, when it occurred, the hatred of both was reflected on the British troops and the British government because England had nothing to do with the whole German-French antagonism.[42] In these cases of Franco-German fraternization or truce, both sides were surprised about the others’ humanity.[43]

Although there were a few truces between the Germans and French, the average Christmas of these enemies looked like the German student soldier Gotthold von Rohden described it. Von Rohden had to go on a patrol with seven comrades while the French side fired at him.[44] For both sides, Christmas 1914 meant nothing else then business as usual.

The Christmas Truce becomes really more remarkable if the antebellum stereotypes and the propaganda during the war are taken into account. Certainly some soldiers were so influenced by the propaganda that they refused to meet the enemy in No Man’s Land or even negated a truce proposal. These soldiers did not want to look above their horizons.

Others met with the enemy but still saw them with their propaganda poisoned eyes. Interestingly, they still talked with them and exchanged gifts. Their beliefs in their own government and their own press or in their own intellectuals were too strong to overcome their prejudice. The pictures they had in mind like this of the Germans as barbarous Huns and the English as conscienceless mercenaries was not questioned by them. These soldiers did not want to reflect their opinions about their enemies.

The Thinkers

The most remarkable group is the group of soldiers who, after having met the enemy between the trenches, started thinking about all they had read and heard about them.

For many, the former hatred was vanished. They now recognized the soldiers from the other side of the trenches as human as themselves. They were not mercenaries, no inhuman monsters eager for war, just humans. The stereotypes they know from the time before the war and before they met their enemies did not fit after meeting their enemies. Not all Germans acted like it was described in the newspaper and were not as arrogant as the German Kaiser. On the other hand not all the English soldiers were mercenaries fighting for material well-being.

These soldiers started to reflect their own experiences and started to compare their experiences with what they knew before about their enemies. The conclusion they made was that their prefabricated picture and the experiences they gained did not fit together. It was hard for the soldiers, faced with the reality of the war, to keep the black and white picture. The reality they saw was a grey picture with blurry boundries.

That this example of humanity did not occur again has several reasons. [45] One was definitely the change in warfare. Poison gas was used in 1915 for the first time and British cities were bombed by German Zeppelins. Furthermore, the hatred for the German inhumanity increased with the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine.[46] Moreover, the conventional warfare became crueler and the causalities on every side were much higher than in 1914. [47]

Another reason was that the headquarters were better prepared and used precautionary measures to prevent a truce. The punishment was on both sides more or less the death penalty.[48]

Soldiers grave in the Great War

Soldiers Grave

  Five Souls

   First Soul

I was a peasant of the Polish plain;
I left my plough because the message ran:-
Russia, in danger, needed every man
To save her from the Teuton; and was slain.
I gave my life for freedom – This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

   Second Soul

I was a Tyrolese, a mountaineer;
I gladly left my mountain home to fight
Against the brutal treacherous Muscovite;
And died in Poland on a Cossack spear.
I gave my life for freedom – This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

   Third Soul

I worked in Lyons at my weaver’s loom,
When suddenly the Prussian despot hurled
His felon blow at France and at the world;
Then I went forth to Belgium and my doom.
I gave my life for freedom – This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

   Fourth Soul

I owned a vineyard by the wooded Main,
Until the Fatherland, begirt by foes
Lusting her downfall, called me, and I rose
Swift to the call – and died in far Lorraine.
I gave my life for freedom – This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

   Fifth Soul

I worked in a great shipyard by the Clyde;
There came a sudden word of wars declared,
Of Belgium, peaceful, helpless, unprepared,
Asking our aid: I joined the ranks, and died.
I gave my life for freedom – This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

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