Interviewer: Hello and welcome to the show. Today I am joined by someone very special. Now you have probably never heard of this man. But I can assure you, he, along with the men whom were there on that day, December 25th 1914 showed a much more deserving piece of heroism than the likes of David Beckham or Robbie Williams, whom we idolize today. It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you…Jim Prince. Jim was on the front-line that day in Ypres, Belgium 1914….The Christmas that stopped the war.
Jim Prince: Thank you very much for inviting me onto the show. It is unbelievable thinking back that we had no idea this would be a day that would resound through history for years to come.
Interviewer: Tell me Mr. Prince, what was the overall mood of the people leading up to Christmas?
Jim Prince: I remember it very well. As you may or may not know I was a volunteer for the North Staffordshire regiment at the age of eighteen. But I soon learnt that war was not what it was built up to be. I learnt war was more like butchery than a game of football. Leading up to the day of the 25th, the morale was very low. W e had been promised that the war would be over by Christmas but we now knew that this was not to be the case. The most terrifying thing, however, was that because the war would not be over by Christmas, we knew that a quick victory would now never be achieved, and that it would take years for the war to end. It was clear to us that the war had reached a stalemate…the German’s could not advance any further, we could not drive them back.
Interviewer: What was done to try and motivate the soldiers?
Jim Prince: Things were done to try and motivate us. On December 19th we launched a huge offensive attack on the Germans.
Interviewer: And did that boost the morale?
Jim Prince: No…it actually had the opposite effect. In our eyes it had just brought about the slaughter of many Germans, and we did not make up any ground. At that time the Germans what not seen as the enemy- it was the weather that was killing us. We were in a complete stalemate. I had never seen so much blood shed being spilt in such a small area. We were, however sent presents from Princess Mary and cards, pictures, cigarettes…and thank God even clothing was being sent! Even though they did not reach us until New Year’s Day.
Interviewer: What did the Generals think of this?
Jim Prince: I think they were worried mostly that this could let our guard down and that there could be a surprise attack from the Germans such as what we did on the 19th.
Interviewer: And what actually happened on the Christmas morning which sparked the truce?
Jim Prince: Well it actually began on the Eve of Christmas. I remember it very well. A full moon came out…looking back at it now, it almost seems as if the script war written for such an event to take place like it was meant to happen. I remember the tough frozen ground glistening whitely and crystal clear air. Normally at such an hour, you would have seen dark figures scattering around, either reconnoitering or trying to retrieve dead and wounded. Things were however different that night…it was very quiet…. Silent in fact. A friend of mine pointed to a light in the east, just above the German trenches.
At first I thought it was a star but it was far too low. For some reason no one shot at it, such was the mood. We then saw another light and another. Soon there were light al along the German trenches. It was a beautiful sight. Then I remember a man next to me…Williams his name was, saying, “The Jerries have Christmas trees!” We then heard sounds like never before in a war, it was the sound of singing. Our first thoughts were that the Germans were playing tricks on us. Then we became more aware of the hymn they were singing. It was Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht that of coarse was Silent night Holy night.
Interviewer: What was the response and why?
Jim Prince: Well once they had finished their song, we responded by singing The First Nowell. I guess we all just got caught up in the moment of it all. The atmosphere was very special. It happened very spontaneously. I still cannot tell you today how it happened. It is a great mystery. What took place next was quite amazing. There was a German standing on top of a parapet in my part of the Front…a perfect target. But instead of shooting at him are regiment began to sing While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night. He astonishingly began to walk towards are trenches, followed by half-a-dozen other Germans all unarmed, with their hands in their pockets. Then I began to climb out of my trench, with five other men. Then a German said to me, “I am a Saxon. You are an Anglo-Saxon. Why do we fight?”(pause) I still do not know the answer to this question. The atmosphere was very special. It happened very spontaneously. I still cannot tell you today why it happened.
Interviewer: What was going through your mind at that very time?
Jim Prince: At first, standing outside of the trench, I was afraid and very uneasy. As we began to talk things started to become a lot easier, and sooner or later we had become friends. Then as I began to think about it a bit more and things began to clear I started to think what are Headquarters would make of this. After all, I was aware that this was one step away from treason, and the punishment for treason was death.
Interviewer: People find it difficult to understand that you fought against each other as enemies could now make peace for once at Christmas. What would you say to this?
Jim Prince: Well, once you began to talk with these men, you became even more aware that they were going through the same misery as you, and that you had so much in common with them. I tell you now…. the average British soldier had more in common with his German counterpart than he did with his officer. What people forget is that although the war stopped in many places, there were areas where the war continued…where both sides lost many men in action. There were areas where some officers said there would be no fraternization, and the soldiers stuck to that.
Interviewer: What about Christmas day itself?
Jim Prince: We went to sleep on the night of Christmas Eve wondering if we would be waking up the next morning to renewed fighting or a continued effort to define the war. Thankfully, the truce lingered on.
Interviewer: Wasn’t there a great problem if soldiers got used to the idea of not fighting, how they would have been able to go back and start fighting once they had a taste of it?
Jim Prince: Well we always knew that these men were having the same problems as us. Such as the cold, rationing, and our trenches collapsing. It however became different when we met them…when you find out one of them had been working as a waiter at a restaurant you have been to. It becomes almost impossible to kill someone whatever the reason. In someway, we had seen straight through the propaganda and realized that our so-called enemies were decent people. This was not the same enemy we had been told about.
But I suppose the fear of punishment was enough to get us back fighting. However many of us were reluctant to go back fighting. We were caught between orders from above and fellowship towards our opponents.
Interviewer: It must have been very difficult…tell me about the day itself.
Jim Prince: When Christmas day dawned it was cold, clear and most importantly, peaceful. The perfect day for the war to end. Soon No Man’s Land filled with thousands of soldiers from both sides, walking along, taking photographs, talking about how things used to be. We even ended up playing several football matches. They were mostly knockabout affairs with a tin can. All games were played in meticulous sportsmanship.
Soldiers with special skills contributed as much as they could. One Englishmen, a hairdresser, gave haircuts to docile Germans kneeling on the ground. A German who was a professional juggler so enthralled his audience that it was not hard to imagine him like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Everything was perfect and in good spirits.
Interviewer: Was there any bad points?
Jim Prince: There were still many bitter realities. No man’s land was littered ewith dead bodies. You would see people you knew, who you lived with side-by-side in the trenches (pause). So we began to retrieve bodies and bury them…both German and British. One German officer even held a service over one of the graves. I remember, I slept later than usual on Christmas morning because there was no firing. When I met up with everyone, I met a university from Leipzig. He had a Christmas parcel, which we sat down and shared. -Sweets, cake, and a box of cigars. Those were the only presents I got for Christmas.
Interviewer: Was there any talk about how it would go down with their respective top- brass?
Jim Prince: Yes. Both sides realized that it would not have gone down well at all. There was an unspoken understanding between us to keep it a secret…it was in everyone’s best interest. I remember a friend of mine informing me that a brigadier was being sent. So we all dived into our trenches like naughty boys. The brigadier was completely fooled.
Even when he saw a German sticking his head above the parapet and told the soldier to shoot. The three so-called shots missed the man, each getting closer, but the brigadier seemed satisfied. But once the top brass did find out what was going on, they were fuming. Looking back now, I think they were annoyed about two things. The first was the breakdown of military indiscipline. The second, and most important thing to them, was that they were worried that we might discover the enemy were not the monsters who were said in propaganda to have bayoneted Belgian babies and lopped off the breasts of English nurse, but were actually decent people.
Interviewer: When did you begin fighting again?
Jim Prince: In my sector the feu de joie came on December 29th, and so we all scrambles back into our trenche…I can still remember the exact words, “Go back, Tommy” or “Go back Jerry”. It all began very quickly and firing resumed in earnest. It wasn’t long until the Christmas truce became a distant memory. I suppose it ended as it begun, by mutual consent.
Interviewer: Do you think it was the British High Command issuing stern orders that brought about no further fraternization in further years?
Jim Prince: Yes I think it was. However, I do believe it was the introduction of flame-throwers and poison gas in 1915 which helped to rule them out. From then on it is easy to say that bitterness just increased.
Interviewer: In your view, could the Christmas truce have actually ended the war?
Jim Prince: I think it may have. If the armistice had continued for another week or so…well then I think it would have been very difficult to get the war started again…it would have been impossible.
Interviewer: Thank you ever so much for joining us this morning Mr. Prince. It has been a true privilege to hear your story first-hand.
Jim Prince: Thank you.
Interviewer: As we reach the end of the show, let me just leave you with something that you can think about. World War One was like four years of hell. And for just one day during these four years there was a sparkle of hope and humanity, that is what the Christmas Truce was. Hopefully this will make you think about what you would have done in these circumstances and will also lead to the next question- “War or Peace”