The Christmas Truce is one of the few positive events of World War One that is still widely remembered today. Here, Rebecca Fachner explains what happened during Christmas 1914, and how soldiers on different sides in the war showed their common humanity.

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   Frohe Weihnachten und glückliches Neujahr (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in German). From a festive World War One card.

Frohe Weihnachten und glückliches Neujahr (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in German). From a festive World War One card.

The Christmas season is now upon us, and with it, the true story of a true Christmas miracle, the Christmas truce in 1914 in the midst of World War One. 

The beginnings of World War I have already appeared in this space, and by December 1914, Europe was 5 months into the most brutal warfare that anyone could remember. It seemed that humans lost control and that the world had been turned upside down. Everyone was now realizing that they were in for a long war. Gone were the predictions of a 90-day war, of easy victory, heroism and bravado. As December began, troops on all sides grasped that boasts of “home for Christmas” were not going to be anywhere close to a reality.  All sides were beginning to understand that they were enmeshed in a protracted battle, and that it wasn’t going to remotely resemble their pre-war dreams of glorious battles for king and country.  This conflict had been and would continue to be brutal, degrading and all but unbearable.

By December troops were dug in along the Western Front in trenches that stretched for miles, staring down the enemy in their own trenches. In between was a no mans land of barbed wire and dead bodies. Trenches were typically between 90 and 275 meters (100 to 300 yards) apart, so the enemy was very much within visual range. The week before Christmas British and German troops began to exchange season’s greetings, and sang Christmas carols together. In some places, troops began to actually go into no mans land to give gifts of food, cigarettes and souvenirs. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many troops ventured out of their trenches to greet their enemies, converse and enjoy holiday cheer.  Some used this as an opportunity to recover bodies that had been left in no mans land, and there were reports of several joint burials.  In many places, however, the celebration was much more lively, and shared meals were reported, as well as several soccer (or football in British English) games.  Most of the football games were comprised only of allies, but here and there along the front, enemies came together to organize football games together.

British and German troops together during the 1914 Christmas Truce. December 26, 1914.

British and German troops together during the 1914 Christmas Truce. December 26, 1914.

 Different truces

The name for it, the Christmas Truce, implies some sort of official truce or formal recognition of the events, but in fact there was really nothing of the sort.  These truces were in no way official, nor were they encouraged or even sanctioned by the command structure of either side. Rather they were spontaneous demonstrations of Christmas cheer from troops who had a desire to put down their weapons and celebrate with their enemies.  The truce did not encompass the entire Western Front, it was much more individual and grassroots led.  Some units did not observe a truce at all; in fact, in some places there was fighting over the Christmas period.  In some areas the Truce was little more than a completely informal ceasefire for the day, nothing formal, just an observance of the holiday.  Others used the opportunity to collect their unburied dead.

It must be said that the Truce was mainly between the British and the Germans on the Western Front.  The French did participate, but to a much lesser degree, possibly because the Germans had actually invaded their country. There was even a Christmas Truce in the East, which looked very different when compared to that in the West. In the East, Christmas celebrations were complicated by the fact that the Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated later, in early January. The truce in the East was more formal, too, with the impetus coming from somewhere in the Austrian military hierarchy.  The Austrians had the idea for a ceasefire, and the Russians responded positively, and so the Austrian army was ordered not to fire unless provoked on Christmas.  One unit in Galicia even brought a Christmas tree into no mans land, and in several places the two sides met to exchange gifts of schnapps and food. A few days later, when the Russian troops celebrated Orthodox Christmas, Austrian troops held their fire to allow the Russians to celebrate.

 

Christmas 1915

The Christmas Truce was not received as well by the military hierarchy on the Western Front. Both sides independently agreed that the Truce had been an inexcusable breach of military discipline, and a frightening opportunity for significant fraternization with the enemy. Military command was worried that the Truce was a tacit renunciation of the war and of non-cooperation by the enlisted, while it gave troops the opportunity to humanize their enemy. For this reason, Christmas 1915 looked very different, with many commanders forbidding fraternization, and some even ordering raids and artillery bombardments specifically for Christmas. There were very small-scale attempts at a truce in 1915 and later, but they were largely unsuccessful. 

The Christmas Truce of 1914, 100 years ago this Christmas, is a wonderful example of the human spirit triumphing over the brutality of war. It provides an all too rare glimpse into the human side of World War One, something apart from the killing and suffering.

 

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Now, you can read Rebecca’s article on how World War One’s Eastern Front differed from the Western Front here.

The Siege of Leningrad and the Battles for Moscow and Stalingrad in World War Two (WWII) are well documented, but very little, certainly in the West, has been written about the Eastern Front during World War One (WWI). Apart from the crushing blows to the Tsar’s Imperial Russian Army at Tannenberg, the Masurian Lakes and the German Army’s march east, the only other battle that ever seems to get a mention is the short lived Brusilov offensive in June 1916.

Here, the author Frank Pleszak returns to the site and tells us about the little known Battle of Vileyka in September 1915.

 

During WWI there was significant fighting and demonstrations all along the eastern front from Riga on the Baltic Sea in the north all the way south to Romania, and once Romania entered the war, right down to the Black Sea. My dad was born and raised in a small Polish village about 100 kilometres east of Vilnius near to Lake Naroch (in what is now Belarus). Though he never mentioned it, there was a huge, and to the Russians catastrophic, battle there in the spring of 1916. It was of such importance that the historian Norman Stone said of it “Lake Naroch was, despite appearances, one of the decisive battles of the First World War. It condemned most of the Russian army to passivity”.

The ‘Battle of Lake Naroch’, the ‘Russian Spring Offensive of 1916’, occurred following the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ when the Eastern Front had settled down into positional trench warfare. It was an ill conceived, poorly planned, and disastrously executed Russian offensive across a front of nearly 100km over a series of frozen lakes and swamplands. Its intention was to bring Vilnius into striking distance in an attempt to draw German troops east and away from their offensive on the Western Front at Verdun. The Russian 2nd Army massively outnumbered the Germany XXI Army Corps, almost 450,000 infantry to 75,000 but suffered staggering losses of more than 120,000 while the Germans lost about 20,000. After two weeks of bloody and futile fighting in the most appalling conditions the battle came to an end with the Russians having only captured a tiny area to the south of Lake Naroch.

Fighting at Ladischky-Bruch during the Battle of Lake Naroch.

Fighting at Ladischky-Bruch during the Battle of Lake Naroch.

Forgotten?

There is almost nothing written about this battle in the west and it is in danger of being lost to history. In a small effort to prevent this happening I have researched the battle from both sides and almost completed a book on the subject that should be published later this year.

Other than the Brusilov campaigns, Russia did have some other battlefield success. In fact in the lead up to the Naroch debacle, the battle for the small town of Vileyka, where the German advance east was stopped and then pushed back is considered by some to be one of the most significant military victories ever achieved on Belarusian soil. There will be a chapter with detailed information in my forthcoming book, but I include a summary here…

 

So, following on from the success at the second battle at the Masurian lakes at the end of February 1915, the German X Army, commanded by General von Eichhorn, after heavy fighting, had by mid-August, taken the strategically important fortress at Kaunas but then found the capture of the city of Vilnius altogether harder.

After regrouping to the north of Vilnius, supplemented with additional reinforcements, von Eichhorn’s X Army bypassed Vilnius and towards the end of August broke through Russian General Radkevich’s 10th Army in the so called Swenziany (Švenčionys) gap. Elements pressed on east through the city of Postavy towards Hlybokaje, but the bulk of the force headed south-east towards the City of Maladzyechna (Molodechno) and the primary objective; the city of Minsk.

By mid-September, amidst stiff opposition, General von Garnier’s VI Cavalry Corps (H.K.K.6.) had captured the towns of Vileyka and Smorgon. The 3 Cavalry Division moved on towards Maladzyechna, some units even approached the west of Minsk, and others had penetrated to the east of Minsk and attacked a bridge along the Beresina River south of Borisov. Stavka, the Russian high command, were clearly concerned. Not only was Maladzyechna an important railway cross roads but it also contained important secret government and military installations. 

German cavalry attack at Vileyka.

German cavalry attack at Vileyka.

On 17 September, as the German X Army began to surround Vilnius, Russian forces were withdrawn and the city ceded to the Germans. But as the German Army marched east their supply lines had increased and become severely stretched. Russia’s had shortened and their material losses were made good from increased production at home together with supplies from France and England. The Russian 2nd Army, devastated at Tannenberg and then obliterated at the Masurian Lakes, had re-formed and re-grouped, and under General Smirnov were given the ‘honour to finally halt the German advance’.

 

Back on the front foot

The H.K.K.6.’s rapid advance had left them vulnerable. Whilst they had easily crossed the rivers, streams and swamps their infantry and artillery support struggled over rivers with bridges blown up by the retreating Russians. The Russian 10th and 2nd Armies struck back, and immediately halted the German advance before Maladzyechna, and then pushed them back north along a 40km stretch of the River Wilja from the town of Vileyka to Milcza where they were slowly reinforced with advanced infantry units of the 115 Infantry and eventually 75 Reserve Divisions.

Extent of the German X Army Advance East.

Extent of the German X Army Advance East.

By 22 September the town of Smorgon between Vilnius and Maladzyechna had been recaptured by a combination of a Russian 10th Army offensive together with Russians withdrawing from Vilnius. The Germans were exhausted and hungry, most of their artillery and supplies of food and munitions were still far behind their front. The Russians counter-attacked at Vileyka. Smirnov’s 27th Army Corps commanded by General Balanin had moved into positions to the south of Vileyka along the southern bank of the River Wilja and bombarded German positions. At 16:00 an infantry company supported by a machine gun company attacked across the railway bridge south of the town, scattering the German defenders that enabled two companies to ford the river and through the night occupy high ground to the southwest of the town.

By the early morning of 23 September all the Russian artillery, including two heavy batteries, had assembled to the south of Vileyka and by the same time further infantry had crossed the Wilja near the village of Olszyna just to the east of Vileyka causing a distraction to the German defences. Taking advantage, a further three infantry brigades were moved quickly from reserve to consolidate the breakthrough.

Russian Artillery.

Russian Artillery.

The Germans regrouped and counter-attacked the positions to the south and west, but even more Russian Infantry was brought up to assist. The German action was brave but futile and by mid-afternoon as the Russians massed ready to storm Vileyka from the south, southwest and west of the town the Germans stubbornly repeated their attacks. At 16:00 massed Russian artillery began bombarding the outskirts of the town and at 16:30, as the wooden houses burned, Russian Infantry moved forward from the south. Within minutes they had driven the Germans back towards the centre of the town. Fierce hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting took place at almost every building but by 17:00 the centre was under total Russian control. Dogged German resistance prevailed around the cemetery and at the nearby prison but with the assistance of targeted Russian artillery the fighting quickly moved to the northern outskirts where a German howitzer was captured. The Germans fought desperately to recover the lost gun but Russian support arrived and repeated German attempts failed.

Russian Map of attack (original dates in Julian format).

Russian Map of attack (original dates in Julian format).

At the same time Russian units moved, largely unopposed, around the west of the town preventing any German withdrawal to the west. Fighting within Vileyka concentrated along the northern perimeter and particularly around the railway station where a furious firefight erupted with the station changing hands several times. More Russian units moved in from the southwest and eventually cleared the remaining resistance around the cemetery before moving to the northern edge of town where they helped capture the station.

 

The closing stages

20 kilometres to the east at the village of Sosenka Russian cavalry failed in an attempt to capture the bridge over the River Wilja that was guarded by a single company of 80 German defenders. But nearer to Vileyka Russian infantry had crossed the Wilja around the village of Kasuta and within 4 hours had forced the German X Army back along the road towards the town of Kurzeniec, capturing the villages of Kaczanki, Hrycuki, and Kłynie together with several light field guns in the process.

Further Russian infantry crossed the Wilja capturing the villages Chołopy and Małmhy on the eastern outskirts of Vileyka. The remaining Germans were surrounded on three sides and their support was too far back to assist. Their position was hopeless so during the night all remaining units were withdrawn to new positions north of Vileyka around the village of Wołkowszczyzna.

The battle for Vileyka was effectively over. The Germans, overstretched without supplies, exhausted and hungry, struggled on for a few more days but with increasing demands from the Western Front it became clear that the prospect of any further German short-term progress to the east was unrealistic. On 25 September General von Hindenburg ordered a halt to the advance east, withdrawal of all the forward troops along the River Wilja back to positions around Lake Naroch, and for the establishment of permanent defensive lines (Dauerstellung) which were developed through the winter of 1915.

Isolated but bloody fighting erupted periodically in sections along the whole of the new front through the winter and early spring of 1916. Both sides continued to build up their forces and prepare for battle, but neither were prepared for the onslaught that eventually came in the March of 1916. The Russian success at Vileyka was not to be repeated; in fact, despite overwhelmingly superior forces they were so badly beaten that the consequences were drastic and far reaching…

 

 

Frank Pleszak has written a book about his father’s journey from near Lake Naroch via the GULags of Siberia to England entitled Two Years in a Gulag.

It is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

You can also hear an excerpt from the book in our related podcast here.


Frank has also almost completed a book on the Battle of Lake Naroch. His YouTube presentation is here. He is working on a history of the Polish 2nd Corps – Anders Army. Finally, Frank’s Twitter handle is @PolishIICorps.

The Eastern Front in World War One is often largely unknown to many Westerners. The situation there was quite different to that on the Western Front. Here, Rebecca Fachner follows up on her articles on Royal Family squabbles here and the spark that caused war to break out here.

 

The 100th anniversary of the first summer of World War One rolls onward, and with it commemorations of battles that everyone in the Western world seems to know instinctively - the Marne, the Somme, Ypres…  The war on the Western Front is very much alive in the Western consciousness, but what is so often forgotten is that it was actually a two-front war in Europe. Germany was not only fighting in the West against the French and British (and eventually the Americans), but also in the East against the Russian Empire.

Russian troops on the move to the front line. From National Geographic magazine, volume 31. 1917.

Russian troops on the move to the front line. From National Geographic magazine, volume 31. 1917.

As a fighting force, the Russian Empire was extremely contradictory. They were a formidable foe, but at the same time a very worrying ally. Their one huge advantage in warfare was the sheer numbers of troops that they had at their disposal. It was truly a staggering amount of men, millions upon millions of Russian troops, a “mass of bodies ready to bleed” in the words of one historian of the period.[1] The main disadvantage for the Russians was everything else. The army had miserably poor leadership, was woefully underfunded and was technologically backward. In the years before the war, the Allies, especially France, had spent enormous sums of money trying to improve Russia’s technological capability.

Railroads had been a particular target, as the movement of troops to the front as quickly as possible was of paramount importance. France knew that German war plans hinged on Russia’s inability to mobilize their troops and so planned on attacking France first, then moving on to Russia only after the French had been defeated. Therefore, if Russia could respond more quickly, and force Germany to divert troops in their direction earlier, so much the better for France.  Their efforts did do some good, but not enough, as was painfully demonstrated in the opening days of the war. It took weeks for the Russians to assemble a fighting force along the German and Austro-Hungarian borders.

 

DIFFERENCES WITH THE WEST

Russia began the war by invading eastern Germany. It was able to do so as Poland was not an independent country at this time meaning that Russia and Germany were contiguous. The first major engagement of the war was the Battle of Tannenberg, which was a resounding defeat for the Russians. The next week at the Battle of Masurian Lakes, the Russians were pushed back further, and would not fight on German soil for the remainder of the war. Despite the inauspicious beginnings, the Russians did enjoy some success, particularly against Austria-Hungary in the fall of 1914. By 1915, however, the Germans had made the Eastern Front their top priority and began to hurl troops at the Russians, managing to turn the tide of the eastern war permanently in their own favor. Russia never again enjoyed a significant advantage.

The geography of the war in the east was very different when compared to the west. Rather than a compressed front line, the Russians and Germans were eventually fighting over an area of more than a thousand miles. This spread the fighting, placing a much larger burden on military supply chains than in the west, and making Russian transportation problems an even bigger issue as they began to have supply problems soon after war broke out. One small, seemingly trivial problem added to the frustration, namely that Russian railroads were, and still are, on a different track gauge than parts of Europe further west. Railroad tracks in Europe (and almost everywhere else) are 4 feet 8 inches apart from each other, but in Russia the tracks are 5 feet apart. This means that trains from Europe don’t work in Russia and vice versa; to this day, if you are travelling by railroad into Russia it causes delays at the border. This created all kinds of chaos for supplying both armies and moving troops. All told, it generally slowed down the war in the east. Additionally, because the front line stretched over so large a territory, trench warfare, something that is so closely associated with the war in the west, was not a factor in the east. There was no need for trenches, as the armies had so much more room to maneuver.

Another significant and often remarked upon problem for the Russians was the personality of the men making the key decisions. Tsar Nicholas was a weak and largely ineffective leader, and enjoyed far too much command authority for a person with limited military experience. His two top commanders, Grand Duke Nicholas and Minister of War General Sukhomlinov, hated each other and constantly tried to undermine the other, often to the detriment of their command.  One of those commanders, it must be said, Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievich, was an extremely dedicated and able military commander, frustrated by the duplicity of his counterpart and the ineptitude of his boss.

 

THE TSAR TAKES CHARGE

This was not a recipe for success, and as the Russians continued to lose, blame was shifted around and around the command structure. Eventually the Tsar, frustrated and exasperated, decided to move to army headquarters to take personal command of the military. He hoped that his presence would inspire both the troops and the command structure and turn the tide of the war. On the face of it, this was not as poor a decision as it turned out to be, and at least the Tsar’s heart was in the right place, so to speak. Unfortunately, Nicholas’ presence had the opposite effect, and he was blamed by many for every single thing that went wrong with the war from that point on. This severely undermined his authority, not just with his army but also with his people, who had previously believed that the Tsar was close to divine, and blamed all the military failures on his generals. With his very visible presence at the head of his army, Nicholas was exposed as ineffective and weak, and the Russian people had no choice but to blame him for the manifest failures of his strategy.

Compounding the Tsar’s image problem was that he had left his wife in control in his absence. Empress Alexandra was dangerously unstable, and extremely unpopular, partly due to her association with the monk Rasputin; it was widely thought that she was under his direct control. Alexandra quickly assumed many of the governmental duties that her husband had left behind, which was very unfortunate, as she had little political acumen and no experience in government. What she did have was an unshakable faith in Rasputin, and a stubborn refusal to grasp how widely he was mistrusted and disliked. Alexandra careened from one disastrous policy to another, dismissing competent ministers and replacing them with self-serving yes men. Events continued to spiral out of control, and after years of war and shortages, poor management and an ineffective monarchy, it is actually extraordinary that the revolution didn’t happen sooner.

The Russian Revolution, at least the first one, didn’t end the war. The first Russian Revolution, in February 1917, deposed the Tsar but the Provisional Government that took his place did not want to end the war. Alexsandr Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, had the makings of a political genius, and it is one of the frustrating what-ifs of the Russian Revolution to wonder what he might have achieved, but he was intent on continuing to prosecute the war. This proved to be the undoing of both the Provisional Government and Kerensky, as they underestimated just how war weary Russia was, and suffered the consequences when the Bolsheviks launched the October Revolution, promising, among other things, to end the war.  The Bolsheviks sued for peace, and the Germans forced them to sign a humiliating treaty, ending the war in the east.

 

A clip about the 1916 Battle of Lake Narocz on the Eastern Front is available here on the site.


[1] Massie, Robert Nicholas and Alexandra: the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. P. 302

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

As we enter the 100th anniversary of the year that World War I began, Frank Pleszak has shared with us an overview video of a World War I battle that you probably won’t have heard of, the Battle of Lake Narocz (or the Battle of Lake Naroch).

 

The video below shares the story of the Battle of Lake Narocz, a battle in which a large Russian force faced a much smaller German-force in present-day Belarus. The video shares the story and outcome of this huge battle. And the video is even silent – so you can choose the music to go over the top of it from your personal collection!

An overview of the little known Russian offensive in which the Russians outnumbered their German opponents 4 to 1. But in diabolical conditions and with inept leadership and poor planning, did the unthinkable happen?

Frank Pleszak is the author of Two Years in a Gulag, available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

 

You can read Frank’s article on the amazing Polish 2nd Corps and their exploits in World War II by clicking here.