The Illustrated London News’s illustration of the Christmas Truce: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The official reaction to the truce, on both sides, was far from enthusiastic. Theoretically the events of the day could well have been deemed “fraternisation with the enemy” – a serious military offence that may have resulted in the firing squad for all those concerned. However because of the large numbers involved, both officers and other ranks being represented, it was generally overlooked by the high commands. However General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, issued strict orders that there was to be no further “friendly communication” with enemy troops.
The reportage of the event in the newspapers back home was very scant at first, with soldiers letters censored to avoid its mention. However the unofficial press embargo was broken by the New York Times on 31st December that reported at length on many of the events of the day. This forced the hand of the British papers and articles soon appeared, together with sketches and photographs that described the day in detail.
In France and Germany, the coverage was far more restricted, with several German newspapers condemning the event, and with no images published with these articles.
The Christmas truce of 1914 was the first major example of what later became known as the “live and let live” system that was unofficially adopted along many areas of the Western Front during the remainder of the war. Other examples included unofficial agreements not to launch attacks around meal or washing times, and developed further into wider cease-fires for extended periods.
This was part of a general spirit of non-cooperation with the war ethos that gained some traction with the front line troops as the war progressed. It was the only way the combat soldier could have any control over his destiny.