German and British troops fraternizing on Christmas Day, 1914
On Christmas Day, 1914, British troops in the frontline trenches could hear the Germans singing ‘Stille Nacht’, ‘Silent Night’. The British joined in. Cautiously, soldiers on both sides climbed out of their trenches and walked towards each other across no man’s land. They shook hands, exchanged cigarettes, cap badges and alcohol, and took photographs of each other. Further up the line, a group of Scots played the Germans at football, with helmets used as goalposts. The Germans won 3–2. But the festivities had to end. With reluctant handshakes, they each returned to their trenches and grudgingly took up their arms. This fraternization was very much against orders. The following year, sentries on both sides were posted with orders to shoot anyone tempted to try a repeat performance.
However, Christmas Day still saw much fighting. Joffre launched attacks against the Germans in the Champagne and the Vosges but his attempts to finish the year with a resounding French victory failed. The Turks and Russians fought a fierce battle in the Caucasus, the Battle of Sarikamish, which took place over Christmas and into the New Year. The Tsar sent an appeal to Britain, asking for a diversionary attack that would ease the pressure on his troops. Britain responded and in April 1915 started its ill-fated campaign in Gallipoli.
And so, 1914 drew to a close. The anticipated short, sharp war had not materialized. The Western Front, 450 miles long, had stabilized, ending the war of movement, and, although more haphazard, the Eastern Front extended over a thousand miles. Offence was no match against deeply fortified defence. These lines would remain, by and large, in place for the next four years. Only during the last months of the war did the frontlines become more fluid.
Throughout the warring nations of Europe, the initial enthusiasm for war evaporated as it soon became clear that there would be no quick victory. Horrendous casualty figures and the sight of severely wounded men brought home the reality of modern warfare.
Almost 750,000 Germans and 850,000 Frenchmen had been killed, and few of the original 90,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force remained. But as 1915 dawned, generals on all sides planned their New Year offensives that would bring about a decisive conclusion to the conflict people were already calling the ‘Great War’.
By 1918, the Russian Revolution had taken place, taking Russia out of the war; the Americans had joined the Allied cause; and both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires collapsed. Germany, isolated and exhausted, sought an armistice. It duly came at precisely eleven o’clock in the morning of 11 November 1918. The Great War was over.