New historical evidence has come to light that is exciting for anyone engaged in researching resistance to World War One.
But this is not just good news for researchers. It is further evidence that resistance to World War One was stronger and more widespread than many would like to admit.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 has long been celebrated and romanticised. Soldiers on different sides on the Western Front put common humanity first, at least for a day, sometimes with the encouragement of their officers. What’s less often mentioned is that commanders on both sides issued orders after the incident declaring that it must not be repeated.
A year later, ahead of Christmas 1915, the British army issued strict warnings that soldiers would be punished if the truce were repeated.
This has long been known by historians. What wasn’t known until now is that some troops openly defied such orders.
The new evidence is in the diaries of Robert Keating, a teenage private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, which have been made public for the first time.
According to Keating’s account, members of both the Royal Welsh Fusliers and the Scots Guards responded to a request from German troops not to fire on Christmas Day. Troops on both sides got out of the trenches and shouted greetings to each other, although they don’t appear to have actually met in No Man’s Land as happened the previous year.
Keating writes that a senior officer came round the trenches and ordered the troops to fire on the Germans, which they refused to do. They only backed down when a machine gun was turned on them at the order of their own commanders.
Peace activists sometimes describe the more well-known Christmas Truce (of 1914) as a “mutiny”. This is probably an exaggeration, given that many junior and middle-ranking officers appear to have allowed it. The orders against it were only issued after it had taken place.
The newly revealed second truce (of 1915) is different. It involved open refusal of strict orders from a high level and was brought to an end by a British machine gun.
This was a mutiny. This was British troops choosing to put common humanity ahead of orders from on high. It is an incident every lover of peace can celebrate – and that future histories of World War One must include.