Legends, myths and realities – the Christmas Truce, 1914

The Christmas Truce in France and Flanders, 1914

Between 14 and 21 December 1914 the British Expeditionary Force took part in several localised attacks, all of which failed with heavy casualties, and were attacked at Givenchy. These operations are described in detail in Winter Operations 1914-1915. It is essential that this phase of fighting is understood as it forms the background to the surprising events of Christmas.

The following sections of the page are extracted from “The truce: the day the war stopped” by Chris Baker (Amberley Publishing, 2014).

The coming of Christmas

Christmas gifts for troops
A reminder of home for Midland men
Have you helped?

Christmas is less than six weeks hence. This means that no time ca be lost if sufficient money is to be subscribed to enable us to send one of our Christmas boxes to every Midland soldier and sailor. Perhaps you have read the appeals we have previously made, and while recognising the worthiness of the object have concluded that there was no need to send your share towards providing a soldier or sailor with a reminder of home this Christmastide. If you have had that idea we hope you will get rid of it at once. We shall need all the money that it is possible to raise.[1]

The public in Great Britain and Germany were left in do doubt that Christmas was coming. They were exhorted through the press and local opinion-formers not to forget their menfolk at the front. The newspapers carried numerous advertisements for funds such as that being raised by the ‘Birmingham Gazette’ and for all manner of gifts and comforts to be sent overseas. The Commander-in-Chief’s wife Lady French called for ladies to knit 250,000 mufflers; the Wincarnis drinks company pledged to send every man a French phrase book; the ‘Surrey Mirror’ ran an appeal for a ‘tobacco fund’ with the aim of sending a plentiful supply of English smoking materials. The pubic responded with alacrity: no one who could afford it was prepared to let their men be forgotten or go without their Christmas. The donating, collecting, making and packaging began to resemble a wartime industry in itself – and of course in the middle of it all was Princess Mary’s appeal. The result of this tremendous charitable effort was the deluge of mail that left British for France in December 1914; there was a similar flow of goods from German firms, individuals and clubs to their men in the trenches. The Duke of Wurttemburg distributed gifts of cigarettes and a photograph of himself to troops of the German Fourth Army; in their Fifth Army the commander, Kaiser’s son Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, sent a commemorative pipe bearing his image.

This wonderful German Christmas field postcard is copied from material submitted to Europeana by Andreas Schuppe, with thanks

This wonderful German Christmas field postcard is copied from material submitted to Europeana by Andreas Schuppe, with thanks

The somewhat sentimentalised Christmas of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries – already on its way to becoming, but still a very long way from, the commercialised affair that it is today – was as much about home and family as it was about its religious underpinning. Over the decades of the 19th Century, Britain had happily absorbed many aspects of the traditional German celebration of Christmas and the decorated, lit tree was as familiar to the men of the BEF as it was to their enemy across no man’s land. The singing of carols; the cards and greetings; the sumptuous food, drink and revelry were all aspects that both sides recognised, as indeed were the concepts of good will to all men and that Christmas should be about peace and quiet. When soldiers did begin to sing carols in the trenches, or when lit trees appeared on German parapets, these were motifs immediately recognisable and as un-warlike a symbol as anyone might have imagined.

Many people readily understood the irreconcilable conflict between a war of nations on one side, and the atmosphere and traditions of Christmas on the other. There were voices that suggested that in effect Christmas should be cancelled, lest in affect a successful prosecution of the war. Pope Benedict XV saw it the other way: it was the war that should be cancelled, even if temporarily. The Reuters news agency wired on 7 December 1914 that ‘the Pope is endeavouring to bring about an understanding whereby a truce may be possible during the Christmas season. It is thought, however, that there is little hope of its succeeding’. The Vatican had indeed appealed to the warring nations for a truce. It appears that while none of the nations really took this seriously as a proposition, most did send a formal acknowledgement that they would comply. Not unnaturally, none of the belligerents made their own overtures for a ceasefire. By 12 December, though, Reuters was reporting that the official organ of the Vatican, ‘Osservatore Romano’, was accepting that the idea had foundered:

The august Pontiff in homage of faith and devotion to Christ the Redeemer, who is the Prince of Peace, and also out of the sentiment of humanity and pity, especially towards the families of the combatants, addressed an enquiry to the belligerent Governments to know how they would receive a proposal for a truce during the sacred and solemn festival of Christmas. All the Powers declared they highly appreciated the Pope’s initiative, and the majority sympathetically adhered to his Holiness’s suggestion, but some did not feel able to second it in practice, and thus, the necessary unanimity being lacking, it was impossible to reach the benevolent result which the paternal heart of his Holiness had promised himself.

The London ‘Times’ of the same date said that ‘according to a wireless message from Berlin, Russia is the Power which refuses to accede to the proposal of the Pope’. There would be no peace sponsored by Governments.

Kreigsfreiwilliger (War volunteer soldier) Karl Aldag wrote home to Obernkirchen from his billet near Fournes-en-Weppes on 18 December 1914. It proved to be prophetic and is especially noteworthy as he wrote it within earshot of the British guns firing in support of the attacks being made by  the 7th and 8th Divisions between Bois-Grenier and Neuve Chapelle:

It is a strange kind of Christmas this year: so really contrary to the Gospel of Love – and yet it will be more productive of love than any other – love for one’s own people and love to God. I honestly believe that this year the Feast will make a deeper impression than ever and therefore will bring a blessing to many, in spite of the war.[2]

Aldag was referring to the love of his ‘own people’, at home and his comrades in arms: not love for his enemy. It is almost certain that, if asked in advance, neither side would have trusted the other to hold to a locally-agreed truce. There had already been too much blood spilt and too many instances of what was seen as treacherous behaviour. Tempered by our knowledge that there had already been a certain amount of exchange, as exemplified by the 2nd Essex Regiment earlier in the month, what developed over Christmas was nothing short of extraordinary. There was a literal atmospheric change, too: after days of almost ceaseless rain and flooding the temperature dropped, bringing snow flurries and then a clearing of the skies that led to a hard freeze. This was a blessed relief for the men in the trenches and on the tracks and lanes behind them, for it meant that the ground could be walked upon without the risk of losing a boot in the mud. Well, a blessed relief for most: on Christmas Eve, Private 1266 William Seed, a 21 year-old from Stalybridge who was serving with the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment, found his left foot frozen in the bottom of his trench. He had had trouble with that foot since he was twelve years of age, and on pulling his boot from the icy mud wrenched it so badly that the injury led to his discharge on medical grounds in January 1915. While it may have ultimately saved his life, that frozen mud caused Seed to miss the event of his lifetime: the truce.

[1] ‘Birmingham Gazette, 16 November 1914

[2] Philip Wittkop, ed, German students war letters, p32. Aldag was killed on 15 January 1915 and is buried in the German military cemetery at Fourbes-en-Weppes. His letters included a report on a short truce on New Year’s Eve, apparently requested by the British for burial of the dead but with fraternisation and exchanging of gifts. Unlike the Christmas truces this New Year’s ceasefire does not appear to have been widespread. Aldag explained the British motives for the truce as ‘they are only mercenaries, they are going on strike’.

Documentary record of the truce

It is evident that before and during the bloody fighting of the period 14-21 December 1914 there had been a series of moments when the enemies came to tacit or explicit agreement to temporarily abandon hostilities. In the case of the 2nd Essex and 181st Saxon Regiment on 11 December this resulted from boredom, men’s curiosity and the appalling wet and mud. An attitude of ‘live and let live; they are in the same boat as us’ prevailed. Other such armistices came as a result of German offers to cease fire to allow British units that had just attacked them to recover their dead and wounded, piled up on the barbed wire and in no man’s land: a mix of humanitarian act and simple hygiene. The trenches were bad enough; who wanted dozens of dead lying about just yards away? These were all local affairs, not widely known and certainly not undertaken in any spirit of rebellion against the war or what the men were being asked to do.

And then came Christmas, bringing the added factor of the traditional holiday, a feeling for peace and goodwill and thoughts of home and family. The localised armistices grew into a more widespread but far from complete and stable truce: collectively, possibly the largest such voluntary cessation of hostilities. A letter published in the ‘Cheltenham Chronicle’ on Boxing Day but clearly written before Christmas gave hint that men had the forthcoming season on their minds. It was from an un-named local officer to his mother:

… it cheers one to see the Germans baling water out of their trenches, too, and also having to dig new ones, like ourselves. However, they seem cheery enough, and sing all night and play mouth-organs. The ones opposite us are Saxons, a better brand than the usual Hun. They shouted across the other morning, ‘How are you getting on ——?’ Clever how they know who is opposite them. On Christmas Day I am going to put up a huge notice: ‘Mann bitten ein Ruhe’ [‘Let us rest’]. It is splendid those German cruisers being sunk. I wish the German army had been on board as well.

This letter from an unidentified Lieutenant, first published in the ‘Daily Mail’ and then widely reproduced in the local press as early as 26 December, would have been the first intimation to those at home that any such event had actually occurred:

An extraordinary thing happened between us and the Germans yesterday. We are so close in our trenches that we can talk to the Germans, and yesterday we got quite friendly. After a lot of talking and shouting to each other, we arranged that one of our men should go out half way and meet a German and that there was to be no shooting meanwhile. Both men got up at the same time and went out, everyone in the opposing trenches looking out over the tops of them. The men met and shook hands amid cheers from both trenches. Our man gave the German some cigarettes and received in return some chocolate. Then I went out and met a German and did the same, and so did a few others. I went right up and stood on the parapet of their trench and talked to them. Several spoke English quite well. They said they were very sick of it, and added, ‘Hurry up and finish this cursed war’. They told us they were in a bad state as regards water in the trenches but were fed fairly well and got letters about every five days. We had quite a long talk, and then one of their superior officers came long, so they said, ‘Get back’. So back we got, and then they fired very high over our heads just to warn us that they were going on as before, evidently to satisfy their superior officers. They were very sporting, and played the game perfectly. We asked them whey the sniped such a lot, and said ‘Why don’t you chuck it? It’s a terrible nuisance’. Funnily enough, they never fired a shot while we were relieving last night.

The letter would have been read with considerable interest, if not amazement or bafflement, by those who were not in the trenches. Along a considerable portion of the British-held front, the fighting stopped and there was contact with the enemy. But no means could all of this contact be described as fraternisation, but in certain areas the two sides came together. What happened is the stuff of legend, but legend now layered with myth and emotional re-telling. It began with publication of such letters: tantalising and exciting, but shorn of verifiable fact. To understand what really happened we must turn to the words of those who were there, focusing on texts where such facts are included or can be deduced. There is plenty of material of hearsay or hindsight but it is of dubious value for anyone who wishes to get to the bottom of things. As a solid background, the operational records of the formations and units that were present are reproduced below. Some units were very terse and matter of fact in the way they recorded things; others more personal and descriptive. There are repeated themes: the sudden drop in temperature and light snowfall; the firing quietening down; of each side requesting to go out and bury its dead, and the enemy agreeing to the request. Men heard the enemy singing and sometimes put up messages above the trenches. In many cases that was as far as the truce went, with little or no actual meeting between the men of the two sides. But in others, we read of the acts of a more genuine fraternisation: of men exchanging shouts across the quiet; of meetings in no man’s land; of men talking, and exchanging gifts and souvenirs.

In addition to the official accounts we have the legacy of letters, some private and some made public by being printed in newspapers. We have diaries and memoirs, some of which were written decades after the event. These sources tend to bring out the smaller events and human stories, but we must beware of their legitimacy. Letters written soon after the event are more likely to be honest and not so much contorted by hearsay, but of course men do exaggerate and put themselves at the centre of things of which they may only have been peripheral. It was not unknown for newspapers to pay for a good story. While too many reports match with the basic facts from official unit diaries and narratives for us to be overly suspicious, there are grounds for scepticism here and there: letters about involvement in a truce by a man whose unit was not in the front line at the time, for example. Of all of the various aspects of the truce, none is more difficult to pin down than the story of football being played – the very factor that has assumed such importance these days that the truce is scarcely discussed without it being at the very centre and almost to the exclusion of all else. We shall return to this subject, for the reader will note that it is almost entirely absent from official reports.

A widespread truce was not contemplated by either side, nor were there precedents or regulations for dealing with it. At 6.30pm on Christmas Eve, British General Headquarters signalled to all of its corps that the Germans may be contemplating an attack at Christmas or New Year, and called for special vigilance to be observed. This was passed down to the divisions and brigades to the units in the field, some of which report receiving it at around 7.45pm.

The period of the truce is described below by looking at each British formation and unit in turn, going from the left (north) to right (south) of the front line it held over the Christmas period. A selection of letters and words from private papers and memoirs appear alongside some of the unit descriptions. They are certainly not all that exists for there is a small mountain of such evidence, but have been selected because they appear credible and of genuine interest. What becomes immediately clear is that the truce was not conducted all the way along the line, and that in many cases the truce did not include direct, close fraternisation with the enemy. The British II Corps barely participated at the northern end of the line, I Corps at the southern end but this may have been the effect of heavy and terrible fighting having taken place so recently in this area and I Corps having recently arrived there. The main centres were on the central fronts of III and IV Corps, but even there were patchy.

3rd Division (II Corps, in Wytschaete sector)

Since their attack at Petit Bois on 14 December, the units of 8th Infantry Brigade had been withdrawn from the trenches and were now resting behind the lines. The fighting had resumed what was becoming recognised as a ‘normal’ pattern of trench warfare. On Christmas Eve, the 7th Infantry Brigade was ordered to move forwards to relieve the 9th Infantry Brigade. The diaries of the infantry battalions that moved into the trenches that day make no reference to a truce in this area.

9th Infantry Brigade: was in the process of being relieved. All the battalions of the brigade (1st Northumberland Fusiliers, 4th Royal Fusiliers, 1st Lincolnshire Regiment and 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers) left the front line on Christmas Eve and went into billets at Locre. The Lincolns and Royal Scots Fusiliers report that they were shelled in their trenches during the morning before the relieving battalions arrived. The brigade’s fifth battalion, the 1/10th King’s (Liverpool Regiment) (Liverpool Scottish, had already been in reserve billets in Kemmel but moved to Locre during Christmas Eve.

7th Infantry Brigade: the battalions of this brigade (3rd Worcestershire Regiment, 2nd South Lancashire Regiment, 1st Wiltshire Regiment, 2nd Royal Irish Rifles and 1/1st Honourable Artillery Company) moved to the front line during Christmas Eve. None of them mention of any friendly activity over the Christmas period: the Worcesters, South Lancashires and Wiltshires all report small numbers of casualties.

8th Infantry Brigade: the brigade’s battalions (2nd Royal Scots, 4th Middlesex, 1st Gordon Highlanders and 2nd Suffolk Regiment) all spent the Christmas period in billets at Westoutre. The only diary entry of any note comes from the Royal Scots on Christmas Eve: ‘footballs were issued to companies. Game of football stopped in afternoon by bombs from hostile aircraft’.

5th Division (II Corps, in Messines sector)

The 5th Division had not taken part in any significant offensive actions during December but had remained active in improving their trenches, probing the enemy’s position and ‘demonstrating’ by firing whenever divisions on either side were making their attacks. It reported to divisional headquarters that on the afternoon of Christmas Day opposite Sector B a large number of Germans and our men meet half way between the trenches and fraternise. Badges show the Germans to belong to Schulenberg’s Landwehr Brigade.

Brigadier-General George Forestier-Walker replied to 5th Division in no uncertain terms on 28 December. The incident reported by you appears to be in direct contravention of instructions, and the Corps Commander desires that a fuller investigation of the circumstances should be made, and the names of officers present at, who should have been responsible for preventing, the meeting shall be forwarded.

Division replied that it seems the incident seems primarily due to the Germans and our 4th Division meeting each other, the III Corps apparently not having issued orders similar to those of II Corps. The Germans opposite the Norfolks and Cheshires left their trenches, placing the company officers [of those battalions] in a position of some difficulty. Smith-Dorrien professed himself satisfied with this response and the matter was considered closed. No disciplinary action was taken against the British officers or men of II Corps.

14th Infantry Brigade: on 22 December the brigade had moved from corps reserve and took over the front line that had been occupied by 13th Infantry Brigade. It found the trenches in a very bad state, being some 9 to 12 feet wide and flooded to a depth of two feet of water. The brigade had two of its battalions in the front line over the Christmas period. During the night of 24 – 25 December, reports began to come into brigade headquarters in Neuve Eglise that the Germans were singing carols and ringing bells. All sniping ceased, and other than four German shells fired on Wulverghem in the morning, all remained quiet.

1st Devonshire Regiment: the battalion moved forwards and relieved the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s of 13th Infantry Brigade in trenches near Wulverghem on 23 December. On Christmas Eve, eleven casualties were sustained even though the diary reports that it was a ‘quiet day except for some sniping’. Christmas Day was a particularly quiet day. Beyond a few shells fired at Wulverghem during the early morning, there was practically no firing in our section. Considerable progress was made in improving trenches etc. The day was frosty and misty. Wounded: other ranks 2; to hospital: other ranks 8. The brigade’s diary tells us that in the thick fog of Christmas morning the battalion, working with 59th Field Company of the Royal Engineers, took the opportunity to dig six saps out towards enemy lines.

2nd Manchester Regiment: the battalion took over trenches near Wulverghem on Christmas Eve and sustained a small number of casualties. That night, the battalion advanced its line 150 yards by digging a new trench. Christmas Day was reported quiet and it remained so (other than for British artillery firing short onto the Manchesters trenches on Boxing Day) until the battalion was relieved on 29 December. Among the casualties were Second Lieutenant Herbert Farrar, Sergeant 4170 William Williams and Private 6470 George Robinson. The brigade Chaplain Douglas Winnifrith recalled presiding over their burial: ‘Many of our comrades lie in the north west corner of the churchyard [at Dranoutre], and on Christmas Day I buried [the three men] near the south transept, at the end of which there is a beautiful calvary’.[1]

1st East Surrey Regiment and 1st Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry were both in billets in and near Dranoutre. The DCLI reported that on Christmas Day, the day being rather misty apparently prevented any fighting taking place. The battalion played football against the 28th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery in the afternoon.

15th Infantry Brigade: reports submitted by this brigade headquarters and the units under its command are amongst the most detailed of any by a British unit. They appear at least in part to have been written in response to a demand from II Corps to know what had happened and with stern warnings for it to cease. This report by Brigadier-General Count Edward Gleichen summarised the situation: I beg to report that an informal meeting took place yesterday between the lines of trenches of ourselves and the Germans, at which about 200 of our men assisted, and an even larger number of Germans. It appears that on Christmas Eve there was a good deal of shouting and chaff between our right trenches (Norfolks) and the Germans about La Petite Douve Farm, each inviting the other to come over. Although there was a certain amount of firing on our part all yesterday morning and up to 2pm (Christmas Day), there was no response of rifle fire from the enemy on our front (only a few shells in the early morning some distance to the north). About 2pm a German officer or NCO appeared and walked over to our trenches holding up a box of cigars. He was not fired at, and one or two of our men went to meet him. Others, German and Englishmen, chimed in and soon there were large numbers in the space between the trenches nearer the German ones than tours, talking and fraternising and accepting each other’s cigars and cigarettes, etc. Most of the Norfolks and some of the Cheshires (on their left) from the fire trenches took part in this informal gathering including several officers. … I might add that the men sung Christmas hymns together each in their own language. PS the Germans stated that they were not taking any action by fire or otherwise from 25th to 27th instant. I have however ordered hostilities to proceed as usual.

1st Cheshire Regiment: the war diary of this unit is so terse as to be almost useless. It merely says that the battalion was in trenches near Wulverghem – and does not spell that correctly!

1st Norfolk Regiment: On 17 December the battalion relieved the 1st DCLI (of 14th Infantry Brigade) in trenches near Messines and remained there for twelve days. The war diary merely records that the trenches were very bad, with a wet approach. A number of casualties were sustained. Given that the battalion appears to have been central to the truce in the brigade area, the complete absence of a mention of anything unusual is rather intriguing.

1st Bedfordshire Regiment: the battalion moved into the trenches during the evening of Christmas Eve. Christmas Day: quiet day. Germans semaphored over that they were not going to fire. Hard frost all day. Boxing Day: another quiet day. A little shelling by both sides. Some Germans came forward unarmed, apparently with a view to friendly intercourse. A few shots fired in their direction as a hint to withdraw. Later, enemy shelled trenches and Wulverghem: damaged several rifles but only wounded one man. The battalion was relieved on 29 December and moved to Bailleul.

1st Dorsetshire Regiment: the battalion had been in the trenches south of the Wulverghem-Messines road since 17 December. On 19 December it increased fire in support of other attacks, but the period was otherwise relatively quiet but for sporadic shell fire. On Christmas Eve the battalion reported enemy snipers and machine guns were active, and had to appeal through brigade for a correction to British shelling which was falling dangerously near the battalion’s front line. Christmas Day was merely reported as quiet. Sounds of singing were heard late on Boxing Day.

1/6th Cheshire Regiment: this Territorial battalion had only arrived in the forward area on 11 December and came under brigade command six days later. It was split for instruction under the more experienced units. Two companies went to the 1st Dorsets and one each to the 1st Bedfords and 1st Norfolks. During the period up to 29 December it lost 120 men to rheumatism and frostbite. The battalion reported to brigade that it had found during the truce that the Germans appear to be some Landwehr and some Landsturm age about 40 to 50, big and healthy men, well fed, well clad and clean. An officer said that he belonged to the 5th Konigslieber Landwehr Infantry Regiment number 20, Berlin. Several had number 20 on their shoulders, others 35.

Opposite 15th Infantry Brigade, Josef Wenzl of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment was in billets during Christmas Day and heard rumours of the truce. He was sceptical until his company moved into the line before dawn next day:[2]

That which only hours ago I should have thought was nonsense I now saw with my own eyes. A British soldier, who was then joined by a second man, came from our left and crossed more than halfway into no man’s land, where they met up with our men. British and Bavarians, previously the worst of enemies, stood there shaking hands and exchanging items. The one star still in the sky above them was regarded by the men as a special sign from heaven. More and more joined in all along the line, shaking hands and swapping souvenirs. More than half of my platoon went out. Because I wanted to take a closer look at these chaps and obtain a souvenir, I moved towards a group of them. Immediately one came up to me, shook my hand and gave me some cigarettes; another gave me a handkerchief, a third signed his name on a field postcard and a fourth wrote his address in my notebook. Everyone mingled and conversed to the best of their ability. One British soldier played the mouth organ of a German comrade, some danced around, whilst others took great pride in trying on the German helmets. One of our men placed a Christmas tree in the middle, pulled out a box of matches from his pocket and in no time the tree was lit up. The British sang a Christmas carol and we followed this with ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’. It was a moving moment; between the trenches stood the most hated and bitter enemies and sang Christmas carols. All my life I shall never forget the sight … Christmas 1914 will be completely unforgettable.

13th Infantry Brigade: this brigade had been relieved and moved to rest billets during 22 December.

2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers: The battalion was in billets in St Jans Cappel. Its diary is of interest not only as a description of how Christmas was spent behind the lines, but for anecdotal reports it had heard from the front line. Christmas Day: rest. Princess Mary’s gifts of an ornamented box containing cigarettes and tobacco, and pipe and a card of good wishes given out to every man in France. Also a Xmas card, with a portrait of HM King George V and of the Queen and their good wishes is issued as a surprise to every man. Owing to the kindness of people at home, great quantities of warm clothing, tobacco and eatables are issued to the troops. It is reported from the trenches that at various points during Xmas Eve and on Xmas Day the officers and men of the Bavarian Landwehr opposed to us in this portion of the line made overtures of peace for a Xmas holiday. These were generally accepted. At one point a football match was played between the opposing sides. Food and tobacco were exchanged and the opposing sides visited each other’s trenches. The Bavarians were reported to be looking well fed and in a good state, but in some cases in want of clothes. They are reported to have been in ignorance of the present state of affairs on the Russian border, to have been told that the Germans had won enormous victories there and that the war was to be over in a month. From hearsay evidence of officers and others.

Boxing Day – 28 December: Rest, reorganising. Large numbers continue to report sick with rheumatism and allied complaints. Superior authority expresses dissatisfaction at the fraternising with enemy on Xmas Day. It is forbidden in future. Also great dissatisfaction expressed by the II Corps commander at the work done, both offensive and defensive, in the trenches. Battalions are ordered to do much more spade work, and battalion commanders are ordered to take greater trouble in the trenches.

2nd Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment): the battalion was at rest near Bailleul.

1st Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment): the Battalion was in billets in St Jans Cappel. Many men were ill on Christmas Day, suffering the effects of an inoculation against enteric fever that they had received on Christmas Eve

2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry: the battalion was in billets in St Jans Cappel. Football matches were played in the afternoon

1/9th London (Queen Victoria’s Rifles): this territorial battalion was also in billets in St Jans Cappel.

During Christmas 1914, along parts of the Western Front unofficial truces between British and German soldiers took place. In the trenches on Christmas morning carols were sung and rations thrown across the opposing lines. It was not long before the more adventurous soldiers started to take matters into their own hands and venture into no-man's-land. Here they exchanged food, tobacco, cigarettes, drink, badges and buttons. Both sides saw the lull in fighting as a chance to find the bodies of their comrades and give them a decent burial. Although strict orders were issued against fraternization by the High Command, many junior officers tolerated the truce and allowed events to take their own course. They never doubted that eventually the fighting would resume in all its fury. They were proved correct. For the rest of the First World War there was to be no major repeat of the 1914 truce. The event acquired semi-mythic status and has since been celebrated as an act of humanity in a brutal conflict. From an album of 84 photographs compiled by Lieutenant Colonel A F Logan MC, East Surrey Regiment and 21st Prince Albert Victor's Own Cavalry. Photograph, World War One, Western Front (1914-1918), 1914.

During Christmas 1914, along parts of the Western Front unofficial truces between British and German soldiers took place. In the trenches on Christmas morning carols were sung and rations thrown across the opposing lines. It was not long before the more adventurous soldiers started to take matters into their own hands and venture into no-man’s-land. Here they exchanged food, tobacco, cigarettes, drink, badges and buttons. Both sides saw the lull in fighting as a chance to find the bodies of their comrades and give them a decent burial. Although strict orders were issued against fraternization by the High Command, many junior officers tolerated the truce and allowed events to take their own course. They never doubted that eventually the fighting would resume in all its fury. They were proved correct. For the rest of the First World War there was to be no major repeat of the 1914 truce. The event acquired semi-mythic status and has since been celebrated as an act of humanity in a brutal conflict. From an album of 84 photographs compiled by Lieutenant Colonel A F Logan MC, East Surrey Regiment and 21st Prince Albert Victor’s Own Cavalry. Photograph, World War One, Western Front (1914-1918), 1914.

4th Division (III Corps, Douve – St Yves – Le Gheer sector)

After 11th Infantry Brigade’s attack on the ‘Birdcage’ on 19 December, things quickly quietened down on the 4th Division’s front.

10th Infantry Brigade: this formation was holding the line throughout the period. It had supported the ‘Birdcage’ attack by firing but had not directly participated. German sniping activity was noticeably reduced and shellfire infrequent thereafter although small numbers of men were killed or wounded each day, but it was evident that the enemy was using the time to strengthen the barbed wire defences. On 22 December the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers saw that the Germans had put up a sign saying that prisoners would be kindly treated.

2nd Seaforth Highlanders: the battalion relieved the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers on the brigade’s left (River Douve) sector on 23 December. Christmas Eve: German ceased hostilities after dark and commenced celebrating Xmas by singing and shouting. Some of our men went right up to their trenches and obtained a certain amount of information. We put up a lot of wire during the night. Christmas Day: hard frost, misty. Not a shot fired, and we were able to walk about in the open, even after the mist rose. Had some trouble keeping the Germans away from our lines. Put some more wire out and did a good deal of work by day. The battalion was relieved by the Royal Irish Fusiliers on 27 December.

1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment: the battalion relieved the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers during the evening of Christmas Eve. Christmas Day: a local truce. British and Germans intermingle between the trenches. Dead in front of trenches buried. Not a shot fired all day. Boxing Day: truce ended due to our opening fire. German light gun reply on D Company trenches, 2 wounded. No sniping. These conditions continued, with the battalion carrying out much work on its defences, until it was relieved on 28 December.

The diary of 10th Infantry Brigade headquarters adds detail: The Germans appear to think that an armistice exists for Christmas Day. An informal interchange of courtesies took place between troops in the fire trenches of both belligerents. Some valuable information was gleaned during the intercourse. The trenches seemed fairly strongly held, the enemy seemed cheerful and well fed. The numerals noticed on shoulder straps were 35. The 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment reported that Germans and their men buried (1) 3 men of the Somerset Light Infantry (2) 3 Germans of 134th Saxons within 50 yards of barricade east of St Yves (3) 7 of Hampshire Regiment; 2 Germans (one of Russian infantry, one a Uhlan) found in an evacuated British trench 50 yards east of and parallel to road running N and SE of St Yves. The Germans helped in the digging, the 1st Royal WarwickshireRregiment supplying the tools, the Germans stating they had no spades. These Germans belonged to the 134th Saxon Regiment and 6th Jaeger Regiment, mainly reservists, old and quite young. They believed (?) Russia already defeated but that taken all together, Germany had undertaken too great a task. They were well fed in the trenches, with plenty of tea, cocoa and Swiss chocolate. However they were seen to almost fight for a tin of bully. Their letters and papers were four or five days old. They cooked in trenches in company kitchens. They stop in advanced trenches only one night. … Digging and wiring in front of trenches was carried out in full view of the other.

The battalion is one that has received much attention in previous works about the truce, not least due to the presence of its brilliant cartoonist and officer Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather. He reported that some men met the enemy on Christmas Eve and he himself went out to do so next day, joining the fraternisation in a ‘waterlogged turnip field’. In his book ‘Bullets and billets, which was published during the war, Bairnsfather captured the spirit of the moment, going some way to explaining how it was that men who would have murdered the other a few days on either side of these extraordinary events could possibly stop to shake hands now:

This was my first real sight of them at close quarters. Here they were—the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match.[3]

Bairnsfather’s sketches and photographs of the day have become symbolic: of fighting men, wearing whatever garb they could find to keep out the cold and wet, smiling as they met their enemy.

The ‘Birmingham Daily Mail’ of 5 January included a letter from Private 200 Frank O’Dell of the battalion’s ‘B’ Company, written to the Superintendent of the Norton Boys’ School:

I can honestly say we enjoyed ourselves better than we expected. At midnight we heard the Germans shouting across in English to us, so at daybreak we watched them very closely, and after a little consideration we walked half way to their trenches for them to come and meet us, and they were only too pleased to welcome us. … One of them gave me a German handkerchief issued to him by the Kaiser. I am sending it to my wife in Birmingham. On one side are the Kaiser’s photo, the ‘Goeben’, two forts, the Iron Cross, and a mine layer that the British sunk a few weeks ago. … they told us that every one of them holding this position was a Saxon and said they never wanted to fight from the beginning and though they were being imposed on by being made to fight the British soldier. We also found that they were mostly employed in London firms as bakers, waiters, etc. They said, ‘It is better to be in London than in the trenches!’

1st Royal Irish Fusiliers: the battalion was relieved in the trenches by the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders on Christmas Eve, and moved to billets at Le Creche. Goatskin jerkins with long sleeves were issued to the men.

2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers: the battalion was relieved by the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the evening of Christmas Eve and moved to reserve billets at Point 63.

Lieutenant Cyril Drummond, an officer of the 32nd Brigade of the 4th Division’s Royal Field Artillery, found himself in the 10th Infantry Brigade’s forward area and became one of the few gunners to witness the scenes at first hand:

We subalterns used to take turn-about a couple of nights at a time at the cottage, spending the day on Forward Officer duty, and it so happened that I was to relieve Gordon Harborne on Christmas night. Johnny Hawkesley said he would walk part if the way with me through the wood. As we neared it, coming down the road towards us was our Battery Sergeant Major – and his eyes were nearly standing out of his head. He said ‘There’s Germans coming over to our trenches and our people going over to the Germans, and I have shaken hands with a German. … according to the Sergeant Major there was to be a football match on Boxing Day between the Dublin Fusiliers and the Germans! There were two sets of trenches only a few yards apart, and yet there were soldiers, both British and German, standing on top of them, digging or repairing the trench in the same way, without ever shooting at each other. It was an extraordinary situation. One of the Dublin Fusiliers was killed one day by a bullet which came from the front of Ploegsteert Wood and the Saxons immediately sent over and apologised, saying it hadn’t been anything to do with them, but [was] from those so-and-so Prussians on their left. [4]

When his battery was finally ordered to open fire on a farmhouse, Drummond now knew that the Germans gathered there for coffee. It was a target upon which a gunner would not normally hesitate to fire, but he sent word across via the Dublin Fusiliers, ensuring no German was at the farmhouse when the guns opened up again.

11th Infantry Brigade: battalions of this formation had taken part in the attack on the ‘German Birdcage’ east of Ploegsteert Wood on 19 December. The brigade headquarters war diary for Christmas reads, After a night entirely free from sniping, a kind of informal truce took place all day. The Germans, who were not allowed near our lines, met our men between the lines on most friendly terms, cigars, cigarettes and news being exchanged freely. The enemy belonged to the 133rd and 134th Regiments of the XIX Saxon Corps and stated that they came from Chemnitz; among their men were some very old and very young men. Several of our officers visited the German trenches, most of which were well made but partly full of water; a lot of the enemy however wore gumboots. The trenches were very thickly manned; 1 man per yard or 2 yards in most places. Much valuable information was gained with regard to the enemy’s wire entanglements. … Both sides collected and buried many dead.

Among those burying the dead was Captain George Allman Bridge, an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps serving with 11 Field Ambulance. His daughter later wrote down George’s recollections of the event: he recalled burying 19 British soldiers in Ploegsteert Wood on Christmas Day. He also remembered that a man found dead in no man’s land was a Captain Henderson.[5]

1st Somerset Light Infantry: the battalion was still in the trenches and breastworks on the eastern edge of Ploegsteert Wood. Christmas Day: There was much singing in the trenches last night by both sides. Germans opposite us brought up their regimental band and played theirs and our national anthems followed by ‘Home, sweet home’. A truce was mutually arranged by the men in the trenches. During the morning officers met the German officers halfway between the trenches and it was arranged that we should bring in our dead who were lying between the trenches. The bodies of Captain Maud, Captain Orr and 2nd Lieut. Henson were brought in, also those of 18 NCOs and men. They were buried the same day. The Germans informed us that they had captured a wounded officer and this was thought to be 2nd Lieut. K. G. G. Dennys who commanded one of the attacking platoons of B Company on the 19th. There was a sharp frost last night which continued during the day, and the weather was very seasonable. Not a shot or shell was fired by either side in the neighbourhood; and both sides walked about outside their trenches quite unconcernedly. It afforded a good opportunity for inspecting our trenches by daylight. The enemy’s works were noticed to be very strong. A very peaceful day. Boxing Day: A day very similar to yesterday; but thaw started in afternoon. Truce still continued. No firing of any description. Spent the day strengthening defences and working at the new breastworks in supporting line.

1st Rifle Brigade: this battalion had also remained in the trenches of Ploegsteert Wood after its part in the attack on the ‘German Birdcage’. On Christmas Day: Everything extraordinarily quiet. Germans came out of their trenches and met our people half way; all friendly and helped collect each other’s dead; no shooting; 133rd and 134th Saxon Regiments, XIX Saxon Corps are opposed to us. Their Majesties Christmas card distributed. Starting on the 24th we now have one company London Rifle Brigade attached, so that each company does four days in the trenches, one day in support, four days in billets in Ploegsteert, one day in support breastworks, 4 days in trenches, one day in support and four days in billets in Armentières where they get baths! By 27 December: Still hostilities have not been properly resumed, though, finding their advances rather coldly received, and not encouraged, the enemy do not walk about quite so much; but peace still reigns. We got to such terms that they sent over to warn us that hostilities were to recommence and we several times walked out to tell their patrols to keep further away, instead of warning them in ruder fashion.

1st East Lancashire Regiment: the battalion was in the middle of an exceptionally long unbroken spell in trenches at Le Gheer, having moved into this position late in November. The diary only reports that Christmas Day was quiet with no shots being fired and an informal truce being held. Sniping did not recommence until 31 December.

1st Hampshire Regiment: the battalion was in trenches between Le Gheer and Frélinghien. The diary only reports that between 20 and 31 December 1914 nothing of importance occurred but does add that On Christmas Day an informal truce began with 133rd Saxons, XIX Corps, opposite us and continued until the New Year.

The ‘Bath Chronicle’ of 16 January 1915 carried a letter written home by the battalion’s Bandsman 8951 Peter Williams. It is more illuminating that the battalion’s dry official account:

I am glad to say we had a peaceful Christmas (he wrote on 27 December). The Huns played the game well. It was my turn in the trench as stretcher-bearer. I took over my duty about six o’clock and to my surprise I walked right into the trench without hearing a single shot fired. I had not been in the trench long before I heard one of the Germans shout ‘Gentlemen, a Happy Christmas to you all’, and our boys answered ‘the same to you’. They even wanted us to go over and drink their health but, of course, this was not allowed. All night they were signing, which was grand to hear. I tried to get to sleep but couldn’t, so I stood up and had a look at what was going on. One of them gave us a few cornet solos. Some of them were ‘Home, sweet home’, ‘Nearer my God to thee’ and ‘God save the King’. One of them shouted ‘What would the Kaiser say if he heard us playing this?’ and this is how they carried on all night. I came out of the trenches at about five o’clock on Christmas morning and got back to headquarters in time to have Christmas dinner, which was very nice, and we had a good old time. We had roast pork and beef, and plenty of Christmas pudding, which we have to thank the people of England for. Princess Mary sent us a good present, a most splendid box, and the contents were tobacco, cigarettes, pipes, photograph and a card.

The newspaper added soberly, ‘it seems a pity to spoil the story of the German soldiers who played God save the King on the cornet, but the fact is, of course, that the tune of the English National Anthem and the German song ‘Heil dir im Siegerkranz’ are precisely the same’.

1/5th London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade): on 23 December, one company of this battalion was attached to each of the four regular battalions. Its own diary for Christmas merely says, Freezing. Very quiet day. Practically no firing but several letters from its officers and men soon appeared in the press. The ‘Liverpool Echo’ of 2 January 1915 included this letter from Private 123 Charles Welton.[6]

It is Christmas and I am writing this in the trenches after having the most exciting time of my life. Last night I was on listening patrol in front of the trenches and the Germans, who were about 200 to 300 yards away, were singing all night, mostly in English. They sang comic songs, hymns and carols, and at twelve o’clock they sang ‘God save the King’ in English, and then their own national anthem, in German. Then someone made a speech, and others kept breaking in with cheers. This morning a good many of us went out in the front, and the Germans came and met us halfway. I spoke to a good many of them (by signs) and shook hands with a German officer, who gave me a gold-tipped cigarette. I managed to get a German helmet and one or two things which I hope to send home if they will let me.

The same newspaper printed a letter from an unidentified Private of the London Rifle Brigade on 31 December (it had apparently been in the London press the day before):

The Germans started singing and lighting candles about 7.30 on Christmas Eve, and one of the challenged any one of us to go across for a bottle of wine. One of our fellows accepted the challenge, and took a big cake to exchange. That started the ball rolling. We went half way to shake hands and exchange greetings. There were ten dead Germans on the ditch in front of the trenches, and we helped bury these. They were trapped one night trying to get at our outpost trench. The Germans seem very nice chaps, and said they were awfully sick of the war.

Captain Arthur Bates, commanding the battalion’s Number 4 Company, took the opportunity to write home to his sister Dorothy:

Just a line from the trenches on Xmas Eve. A topping night with not much firing going on and both sides singing. It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow. My orders to the Company are not to start firing unless the Germans do![7]

  1. Selby Grigg is most important to the London Rifle Brigade’s account of the truce, not least because he took photographs which are now in the Imperial War Museum collection.

Number 3 Company went into the breastworks (which have in most places round here superceded the flooded reserve trenches) on Wednesday night and had quite a quiet time. Soon after dusk on the 24th the Germans put lanterns on top of their trenches and started singing, and their shooting practically ceased. From where we [were we] couldn’t distinguish all the tunes but we understand from the regulars then in the advance trenches that, in addition to their own songs, they played ‘Home, sweet home’, ‘God save the King’ and ‘Tipperary’ on a cornet.

After daybreak on Christmas Day small parties on both sides ventured out in front of their trenches all unarmed and we heard that a German officer came over and promised that they would not fire if we didn’t. Apparently during the morning small parties of German and English fraternised between the trenches which at this particular spot are some 200 yards apart. … When Turner and I and some of our pals strolled up from the reserve trenches after dinner, we found a crowd of some 100 Tommies of each nationality holding a regular mother’s meeting between the trenches. We found our enemies to be Saxons. I don’t know what their status is, but they are certainly not first-line troops – mostly under 21 or over 35 – very few men in their prime and some very weedy specimens. Turner took some snaps with his pocket camera.

Near where we were standing a dead German who had been brought in by some English was being buried … [they] said ‘we thank our English friends for bringing in our dead’. They stuck a bit of wood over the grave – no name on it, only ‘Fur Vaterland und Freiheit’.[8]

Grigg mentioned that the British artillery fired next day, and the infantry yelled across ‘we didn’t do it!’. He also said:

I understand but only from an unreliable source that on Friday in another part of the line the Germans played us a football between the trenches. I don’t know which side won.[9]

 

12th Infantry Brigade: It will be recalled that this brigade had given a ‘no further parleying’’ order on 13 December, after the 2nd Essex Regiment had been involved in an informal truce two days before. The headquarters war diary for Christmas reads, Practically no sniping and no artillery fire all day. In left section, both sides sent parties out to bury dead between lines by daylight. At Le Touquet a German came into our lines to ask permission to bury dead. Having been allowed to see into our lines unarmed he could not be allowed to return. Normal relations were resumed on Boxing Day although the situation remained quiet.

1st King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment): this battalion was relieved from the trenches at Le Touquet late on Christmas Eve and went into billets at Le Bizet. They were replaced by the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, whose diary says of period that there was no firing on Christmas Day, practically none 26th but one man killed.

1/2nd Monmouthshire Regiment: this territorial unit says that between 14 and 29 December the battalion continued to occupy the same line of trenches, relieving the 2nd Essex Regiment every four days (and on one occasion five days). Most of its spare time and available men were employed in keeping trenches dry. Vast quantities of brush wood, planks and several hand pumps were sent into the trenches for this purpose. The enemy’s machine guns were sometimes very active. It was found, however, that they were temporarily silenced by our men firing controlled volleys at them. Christmas Day was spent in the trenches, the relief of the Essex having taken place on the evening of Christmas Day. The communication trenches still continued to be almost impossible to use and reliefs and ration parties had therefore to walk up unprotected and in the open to the trenches. Curiously no casualties occurred on relieving. On Xmas Day practically no firing took place on either side by mutual agreement. The opportunity was made use of to ascertain what German regiment opposed us. The losses in killed were five and wounded were six during this period.

The Monmouths’ Private 1250 Arthur Gill had a letter published in the Birmingham Gazette on 12 January 1915. He had expressed satisfaction at the amount of chocolate and Christmas pudding he had eaten, and had exchanged some with the enemy. The Germans don’t get looked after like we do. The one to whom we were talking put out his hands the way they hold a rifle and said ‘English damned good!’

2nd Essex Regiment: the battalion left its billets at Warnave and relieved the 1/2nd Monmouths in the trenches in the early evening of Christmas Day. It reported the situation quiet for next few days but made no mention of fraternising.

2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers: the battalion remained in brigade reserve at Wisques.

6th Division (III Corps, Frélinghien – Bois Grenier sector)

The 6th Division had been holding the trenches that skirted the town of Armentières since the fighting had settled down here in October 1914.  Their line ran down from Frélinghien, past L’Epinette, Porte Egal, Chapelle d’Armentières, Rue du Bois to Bois Grenier.[10] During the period of November and December it had a fourth brigade under its control: this was the 19th Infantry Brigade, a formation that had gone to France in August but which had acted as an independent command until joining the division in October. The brigade had been placed on the division’s left front.

19th Infantry Brigade:

2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers: the battalion had been almost a month in the flooded trenches west of Frélinghien when it was finally relieved by the 2nd Durham Light Infantry at 5pm on Boxing Day. From there it moved to billets at Erquinghem-Lys. A patrol from C Company had found a number of dead of the 133rd Saxon Regiment in no man’s land on 22 December. Three days later, after the temperature had dropped and some light snow fallen: Practically a truce all day. Both sides walked about on top of their trenches – allowed the Germans to bury their dead. The following telegramme was sent to His Majesty the King: All ranks 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers which their Colonel-in-Chief and Her Majesty a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’. The following reply was received: ‘The Queen and I thank all ranks for their Xmas and New Year greetings, which we heartily reciprocate’.

The battalion’s Captain Clifton Stockwell, who during the war would go on to become a highly respected commander of a brigade, wrote:

I think I and my Company have just spent one of the most curious Christmas Days we are ever likely to see. It froze hard on Christmas Eve and in the morning there was a thick ground fog.  I believe I told you the Saxons opposite had been shouting in English. Strict orders had been issued that there was to be no fraternizing on Christmas day.  About 1pm, having seen our men get their Christmas dinners, we went into our shelter to get a meal. The sergeant on duty suddenly ran in and said the fog had lifted and that half a dozen Saxons were standing on their parapet without arms. I ran out into the trench and found that all the men were holding their rifles at the ready on the parapet, and that the Saxons were shouting, ‘Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight today. We will send you some beer’.  A cask was hoisted onto the parapet and three men started to roll it into the middle of no man’s land. A lot more Saxons then appeared without arms. Things were getting a bit thick. My men were getting a bit excited, and the Saxons kept shouting to them to come out. We did not like to fire as they were all unarmed, but we had strict orders and someone might have fired, so I climbed over the parapet and shouted, in my best German, for the opposing Captain to appear. Our men were all chattering and saying, ‘The Captain’s going to speak to them’.  A German officer appeared and walked out into the middle of no man’s land, so I moved out to meet him, amidst the cheers of both sides. We met and formally saluted. He introduced himself as Count Something-or-other and seemed a very decent fellow. He could not talk a word of English. He then called out to his subalterns and formally introduced them, with much clicking of heels and saluting. They were all very well turned out, while I was in a goatskin coat. One of the subalterns could talk a few words of English, but not enough to carry on a conversation. I said to the German captain, ‘My orders are to keep my men in the trench and allow no armistice. Don’t you think it’s dangerous, all your men running about in the open like this? Someone may open fire’. He called out an order and all his men went back to their parapet, leaving me and the five German officers and the barrel of beer in the middle of no man’s land. He then said, ‘My orders are the same as yours, but could we not have a truce from shooting today? We don’t want to shoot, do you?’  I said, ‘No, we certainly don’t want to shoot, but I have my orders to obey’. So then we agreed not to shoot until the following morning, when I was to signal that we were going to begin.  He said, ‘You had better take the beer. We have lots’. So I called up two men to take the barrel to our side. As we had lots of plum puddings I sent for one and formally presented it to him in exchange for the beer. He then called out, ‘Waiter’, and a German Private whipped out six glasses and two bottles of beer, and with much bowing and saluting we solemnly drank it amid cheers from both sides. We then all formally saluted and returned to our lines. Our men had sing-songs, ditto the enemy.

Stockwell reported that on Boxing Day He played the game. Not a shot all night and never tried to touch his wire or anything. There was a hard frost. At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it and I climbed on the parapet.  He put up a sheet with ‘Thank You’ on it, and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots into the air, and the war was on again. [11]

Second Lieutenant Mervyn Richardson’s account, which is attached as an appendix to the battalion war diary, differs only in detail. He wrote on 31 December 1914:

I will tell you of the extraordinary day we spent on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve we had a sing-song with the men in the trenches (this applies to our company – A). We put up a sheet of canvas, with a large ‘Merry Xmas and a portrait of the Kaiser painted on it, on the parapet. The next morning there was a thick fog, and when it lifted about 12 [noon], the Germans (Saxons) who were only 150 yards in front of us saw it, they began to shout across, and beckoning tour men to come half way and exchange gifts. They then came out of their trenches, and gave our men cigars and cigarettes, and two barrels of beer, in exchange for tins of bully beef. The situation was so absurd, that another officer of ours and myself went out, and met seven of their officers, and arranged that we should keep our men in our respective trenches, and that we should have an armistice till the next morning, when we would lower our Christmas card, and hostilities would continue. One of them presented me with the packet of cigarettes I sent you, and we have them a plum pudding, and then we shook hands with them, and saluted each other and returned to our respective trenches. Not a shot was fired all day, and the next morning we pulled our card down, and they put up one with ‘thank you’ on it.[12]

The battalion appears to have fraternised with men from the Jäger-Batallion Nr 6 (Schlesiches Nr 2), as well as Saxon infantry.

1st Cameronians: the battalion returned to the trenches of the Pont Ballot sector on 11 December. The war diary makes no remarks with regard to a truce, saying on Christmas Day only Enemy very noisy during the night. One man wounded.

In his detailed private diary, Captain James Jack of C Company wrote that his battalion had heard music being played across in the enemy trenches and at one point a German with evident knowledge called out, ‘When are you going back to Maryhill barracks?’. He twice wrote that his unit did not take part in any truce. ‘Their merry making continues till the small hours of the morning, but C Company, physically cold and mentally dour, maintains a stiff reserve except when, as with the Imperial Toast, particularly irritating remarks are made by the Huns’.[13]

Old soldier Harry Archibald Taylor, a 1903 recruit who had seen garrison service in India and South Africa, and now of the battalion transport, witnessed the truce at a distance:

On Christmas Eve a corporal and I escorted the rations up the line. We made the usual distributions to companies including the rum issue and found that we still had a jar of rum left. We have our driver a good issue and sent them back to our lines. We sat, of all places, outside the cemetery of Houplines having a tot or two, listening to the singing of the troops. It was a beautiful night, moonlight and serene. We heard someone approaching. It proved to be our new Regimental Sergeant Major. He enquired what we were doing there, we explained that we were listening to the singing. We offered him our jar of rum, meantime I told him that his batman had drawn his issue. By the time he left we were all merry. Wishing us a Merry Xmas he made his way to headquarters and we strolled to billets, which was a large school building.

After two hours rest, Taylor was ordered to the divisional railhead at Steenwerck, where he helped collect the boxes of ‘Princess Mary’ tins for his battalion. But that was not all:

At the railhead were three trucks loaded with large bundles of gifts for Scottish troops at the front, just that, with no specific regiment being mentioned. Our Quartermaster Sergeant marked twenty of these bundles ‘1st Batt, the Cameronians’ and ordered us to load them onto our wagon. Inside them after opening, were everything from shaving soap to socks, balaclava caps, sweets and a host of things including cigarettes and plenty of well-wishing notes from the donors. Many a romance commenced through these innocent notes. After this episode the corporal and I were named the ‘scroungers’.[14]

2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders: late on 20 December the battalion left its billets in the asylum at Armentières and took over the front line trenches at Houplines. Christmas was a very quiet day. Germans came out of their trenches unarmed in afternoon and were seen to belong to 133rd and 134th Regiment. The position was reconnoitred by Lieutenant Anderson. The Germans asked for leave to bury dead. This was granted. On Boxing Day, after a number of German shells fell in the battalion area, the Argylls were relieved for the brigade was now going into divisional reserve.

The ‘Angus Evening Telegraph’ of 31 December reported a letter from Jack Peters, previously a footballer with Arbroath Football Club who was now serving with the battalion:

We exchanged caps and cigarettes, and a German officer asked one of our officers to let a football match be played on Boxing Day, but our officer said, of course, that it couldn’t be done, and the German officer understood.

The same newspaper included a letter from Sergeant 905 John Minnery on 17 February 1915:

We are lying facing the Saxons, and I think they are about fed up with this war. They have behaved as they are doing now ever since the Christmas Truce. They walk about on top of their trench, and we do likewise. They are only about 200 yards from us. They don’t snipe at us and we don’t snipe at them, but the Prussians who are on our right are sniping pretty constantly. The Saxons have a large French flag flying in front of their trench, and I am going to try to get it as a souvenir. Minnery’s bold and fearless nature is quite clear, and goes some way to explaining the fact that he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal before being commissioned as an officer in 1916. His DCM was gazetted in June 1915, with a citation that described the award as being For conspicuous gallantry and ability on patrol work. Corporal Minnery has done valuable work and his boldness has set a fine example to other patrol leaders.

1st Middlesex Regiment: the battalion was relieved from the trenches on 20 December and was in billets in Armentières throughout the Christmas period.

17th Infantry Brigade: the brigade headquarters reported that there was an informal truce on Christmas Day, except on the left of the Leinsters, and that both sides left their trenches and talked together.

1st North Staffordshire Regiment: the battalion was in a lengthy spell of holding trenches near Rue du Bois that they called the ‘Death Trap’. After two days of a good deal of firing in both directions, things quietened down on 23 December. Christmas Eve: Germans ask for armistice. Sing songs in turn from opposite parapets. Germans win prize at this [that is, they are better]. Christmas Day: not a shot fired. Germans bury their dead, our men go and help. Baccy and cigars exchanged and Germans and our men walk about in the open together!! Return to trenches at 4pm. Peace reigns till midnight. The peace continued next day, but it rained in torrents and by 27 December the battalion is reporting that its trenches were waist deep. The battalion was eventually relieved on New Year’s Eve and moved to billets at Chapelle d’ Armentières.

The ‘Staffordshire Sentinel’ of 14 January 1915 published two letters written by the battalion’s machine gunner Corporal 9488 Fred Cornes to his parents in Chesterton. The first bemoaned his condition but suggests that fraternisation was not entirely unexpected:

It is Christmas Eve in the trenches and the Germans are going mad shouting and singing and giving a big drum socks. I am afraid something will happen before morning for we are expecting them to attack any night. But we are ready for them, and the sooner they come the better so that we can let them see what we are made of. Our trenches and the Germans are only about 50 yards apart and they keep shouting across to us to ask for cigarettes, Christmas pudding and other things. I am sure if they dared some of them would come over to us for they are properly fed up, and so are we, having to spend Christmas in the trenches nearly frozen to death, and the trenches up to the knees in sludge. We have been in the trenches thirteen days now and have got to remain until the 31st. The weather is terrible and I find myself lying in about six inches of water, for while I had slept the water had oozed up out of the ground and everything I had on was saturated. We have all received a box of chocolates from the ‘Staffordshire Sentinel’ and a present from Princess Mary. Hello? What’s the matter with the Germans? What? They are re-advancing. All right, stand to the guns. Finish my letter later.

Private 9929 Thomas Harper’s letter was published in the ‘Tamworth Herald’ on 9 January 1915:

I would be very pleased if you would allow me a space in your valuable paper to let you know how we are going on at the front. I received the kind and welcome latter and tobacco from the Chamber of Trade, which was also a very nice Christmas box, and I also thank you for the ‘Herald’ which I receive every week. I was surprised when I woke up from out of my ‘funk hole’ in the firing line to see all the Germans out of the top of the trenches with our fellow, exchanging fags for German cigars, and giving them corned beef, which we call ‘bully beef’, for rum and coffee. They told us they were fed up with the war, and would be pleased when it was over. A lot of the German fellows had worked in England, and they asked us if the places were still working where they used to be employed. We told them ‘yes’, and you should have seen the laugh when we said ‘yes’. Some of them took our addresses, and said they would write when the war was over. We parted from them at 5 o’clock on Christmas night, but before we parted we sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and shook hands with each. Firing is as usual today, Boxing Day. They are letting us have bags of Jack Johnson today.

Cornes again, writing on New Year’s Day:

On Christmas Eve we ran to our guns ready to send a few Germans to the happy hunting grounds if they attacked, but it was not so, for I put my head over the top of the trench to see if they were attacking. What I saw surprised me as it did the others, for the Germans were putting lighted candles and fires on top of the trenches and our fellows were knocking them down as fast as they put them up. Then we heard a lone voice in English asking us not to fire and as they were not firing we stopped. The same voice asked that one of our officers went and met the man whose name was Fritz, a German interpreter. They shook hands and there was much cheering and clapping of hands. At the same time arrangements were made that no firing should take place until Christmas Day was over. The Germans asked permission to bury their dead, and this was granted. The Germans then began singing German songs and we sang one or two English ones. Early next morning they were out burying their dead, and when we saw how many then had we went out and helped them. Each German we approached shook hands and wished us a Merry Christmas and gave us plenty of cigars and other things for which in return we gave them bully beef. They seemed very hungry. One fellow showed us what he had for Christmas Day rations, and all it consisted of was half a loaf of brown bread and half a hunk of sausage. They said that they should not fire at us again as long as we did not fire at them and they added that if their officers made them, they should fire up in the air. So we spent another six days in peace. It was not like being on a battlefield at all, we could do nearly anything we liked. They were all Saxons from the 179th Regiment, 79th Regiment, 102nd Regiment and 132nd Regiment. A good many of them came from London. Well we are out of the trenches now for a few days.

2nd Leinster Regiment: the battalion was in a lengthy spell holding the front line of L’Epinette. On Christmas Eve it reported hearing a German band playing hymns and at 8pm saw several strong lights or flares in the enemy’s trenches. Next day, without previous arrangement, but apparently by mutual consent, this has become a day of peace. No shots have been fired on our right or centre, but on the left there has been a little hostile sniping. Our men have been digging outside in front of their trenches whilst the Germans have buried their dead that lay between the two lines. Later, some consultations between the two sides took place in the open, both officers and men of each side being concerned. The enemy opposite us are the 139th Saxon Regiment and consist largely of Landwehr and young soldiers. They appeared more numerous in the trenches than we are, and an artillery officer and some artillery privates were with them. For the most part the man are small but of good physique and remarkably content and confident of victory. Christmas cards from HM the King and HM the Queen, and presents from HRH Princess Mary received and issued to the troops today. One man killed and three wounded opposite our left. After a reportedly very cold Boxing Day the battalion was relieved at 8pm by the 1st West Yorkshires (18th Infantry Brigade) and moved to billets at Chapelle d’ Armentières. It stood-to in the early hours as a result of the alarm that an enemy attack was expected.

3rd Rifle Brigade: the battalion had moved into the front line of the Porte Egal sector south east of Chapelle d’ Armentières on 5 December and was still there. Its diary reports only that one non-commissioned officer and two riflemen went missing on Christmas Day, believed to have been taken as prisoners of war.

The ‘Liverpool Echo’ of 2 January 1915 included a letter from Acting Corporal 8434 Frank Edwards, formerly a policeman in Birkenhead:

After a time some of our fellows shouted to tell them that if they would come half-way unarmed we would meet them and have a chat. A couple of our fellows left the trenches and, sure enough, a couple of Germans came to meet them … several more of us went, myself included, and had a bit of a chat and afterwards smoked side by side, and buried two dead Germans who had been lying there for fully two months. You may guess that was by no means a pleasant job. However we were on the best of terms with the Germans, and for the greater part of the day cigars, cigarettes and chocolates were freely exchanged between friend and foe. At 3pm a German officer called his men in. The fellow I had exchanged a cigar off said as they parted, ‘Today [Christmas Day] nice; tomorrow, shot’. As he left me he held my hand, which I accepted, and he said ‘farewell, comrade’. With that we parted, and in all probability in the course of a day or so we shall be doing our utmost to kill each other. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but I assure you it is perfectly true. If I had not participated in it I should feel rather inclined to disbelieve it myself, as I have witnessed some very treacherous acts on the part of the Germans, but I think this will go to prove that there are honourable Germans.

The same edition included this letter from Rifleman 3256 Frederick Mallard of the battalion’s machine gun section, a native of the Isle of Wight [the newspaper incorrectly gives him as C. Mallard]:

At 4.30pm on Christmas Eve we heard music, and gathered that the Germans had a band in their trenches, but our artillery spoilt the effect by dropping a couple of shells right in the centre of them and you can guess what became of the band, for we heard it no more. We were wondering if the Germans would agree to a couple of days’ truce and as soon as it was dark we were surprised to see Christmas trees stuck up on top of their trenches lighted with candles, and men sitting on the trench. So we got out of our trench and exchanged a few cigarettes with the Germans and invited them to come over and have a drink and a smoke, but we did not trust each other at first. After a while three of our officers started to go over to meet three German officers who were approaching them, their way being directed by a searchlight in the German lines. It made a fine picture to see those six officers meet between the two lines, shake hands, and smoke each other’s cigarettes in the glow of the searchlight, and all of the boys became quite excited over it. Then it was the turn of the troops, and they swarmed over to each other. Our going over to them quite altered their opinion of the British soldier and now they think a lot more of us.  Mallard was killed in action near Ypres on 4 September 1915.

1st Royal Fusiliers: the battalion was in billets at Chapelle d’ Armentières, but relieved the Queen’s Westminster Rifles of 18th Infantry Brigade in the front line at 4am on Boxing Day. During the day, Captain William Ford Coates found time to write a letter: one of considerable historical significance, as it turned out. He had only joined the battalion two days before after conducting a draft of Second Lieutenant Sidney Bunker and 55 men.When I came back I couldn’t find my servant (hope he hasn’t been sniped on his way to HQ) and so had to make myself a small meal. A few scraps of wood and some tea mixed with sugar and onions and a few more things and some bread and butter were all I could find but having had nothing apt or (hanse other) (of tea) since 7 pm last night and now 1.30 pm today it went down like fresh milk. War is undoubtedly the greatest game in the world – but it’s no game for a gentleman. I had a shave and a wash a few days ago but am already unrecognisable! The Boches have just removed the spire from the local church and about 20 minutes ago removed a corner of the house roof causing me to spill part of my ‘tea’ over my boots and I really thought I’d have to take to the cellar – cos just previously while enjoying a peaceful if uncomfortable nap an xmas present from the Boches messed up the nap window.

However one of our heavies got on the job and the shelling has ceased pro tem and beyond the rattle of rifle shots which goes on day and night there’s nothing doing at the moment, it’s bloody cold here – freezing hard water everywhere. Frostbite about too. However in the ordinary way one is quite well fed here so one can carry on – on (special / crucial) jobs one feels when and when one can – or doesn’t as the case maybe. I am at present 2nd in command of one (Arm??) of B company. Quaint old bird but some soldier.

When I came back I couldn’t find my servant (hope he hasn’t been sniped on his way to HQ) and so had to make myself a small meal. A few scraps of wood and some tea mixed with sugar and onions and a few more things and some bread and butter were all I could find but having had nothing apt or (hanse other) (of tea) since 7 pm last night and now 1.30 pm today it went down like fresh milk. War is undoubtedly the greatest game in the world – but it’s no game for a gentleman. I had a shave and a wash a few days ago but am already unrecognisable! The Boches have just removed the spire from the local church and about 20 minutes ago removed a corner of the house roof causing me to spill part of my ‘tea’ over my boots and I really thought I’d have to take to the cellar – cos just previously while enjoying a peaceful if uncomfortable nap an xmas present from the Boches messed up the nap window.
Dear old John,

Have been sent back from the trenches for a court of inquiry job at the headquarters [of the] Field Ambulance, and now having got it finished have to wait here till dark before I can rejoin. ‘Here’ is a house on the outskirts of a town about 900 yards from the German trenches [Chapelle d’ Armentières]. They’ve been knocking hell out of it all the morning with small Jack Johnsons. When I came back I couldn’t find my servant (hope he hasn’t been sniped on his way to headquarters) and so had to make myself a small meal. A few scraps of wood and some tea mixed with sugar and onions and a few more things and some bread and butter were all I could find, but having had nothing ‘cept a basin of tea since 7pm last night and now 1.30pm today it went down like fresh milk. War is undoubtedly the greatest game in the world – but it’s no game for a gentleman. I had a shave and a wash a few days ago but I am already unrecognisable! The Bosches here have just removed the spire from the local church an about 20 minutes ago removed a corner of the house roof, causing me to spill part of my ‘tea’ over my boots and I really thought I’d have to take to the cellar – cos just previously while enjoying a peaceful if uncomfortable nap an Xmas present from the Bosches messed up the nap window. However one of our heavies got on the job and the shelling has cased pro tem and beyond the rattle of rifle shots which goes on day and night there’s nothing doing at the moment. It’s bloody cold here –freezing hard and water everywhere. Frostbite about too. However in the ordinary way one is quite well fed here so one can carry on – on special jobs one feeds when one can – or doesn’t as the case may be. I am at present 2nd in command of one Curme of B Company. Quaint old bird but some soldier. When I arrived here I had to trek 12 miles at night in full kit through seas of mud and snow after 2 days troop trains! Bloody what! However on arrival I received a warm welcome from the Adjutant and shared his bed for the night and his razor for the morning so that was all right. They have been in billets then ‘resting’ (so called – really consists of digging like hell but it’s a change from the trenches and one gets one’s valise and is under cover).

Yesterday – Xmas Day – was priceless. Our men arranged signals with the Bosches to have no firing from dawn till midnight, to celebrate Noel and came out of the trenches! They produced a football and kicked it across from our entanglements to theirs and they kicked it back! Some game. Officers were present to see that no one crossed the half way line between the trenches and some of the men went up, shook hands and exchanged cigarettes for cigars and souvenirs etc. They’re not a bad lot really – they aren’t Prussians which makes all the difference. The French were quite sick about it all – didn’t see the sporting side at all – and their lines made a hell of an attack about 2am Xmas Day. It is most damnably cold.

Coates deleted his own short paragraph here, with a note ‘the censor wouldn’t approve!’

War is a great game (tho’ as I say, not for gentlemen) if only our people didn’t get killed so frequently. Our 4th Battalion has lost 62 officers and 1900 men since the show started – roughly 200% of its original strength! The local kirk is somewhat bent now and they’ve made a hell of a mess of this house – lets the draught in so damnably and it’s something cold. This is some regiment! The senior people are sahibs to the marrow – the 2nd in command Major Roberts was blown over arse over tip out of the 2nd storey window of a farm last week but is now back again with a black patch over one eye. Doesn’t worry him much as with a monocle he sees twice as much out of the surviving eye that most people with two. He is immensely popular and is known all over the Division as Bobby!  The letter continues and ends with an appeal to be sent a sou’wester oilskin has as soon as possible.[15]

16th Infantry Brigade: the brigade reported that on Christmas Eve, the Germans appeared to be very jovial in their trenches. Two came into our lines and were made prisoners. They belonged to the 179th Regiment of the XIX Saxon Corps. Several bombs were thrown in the Yorkshire & Lancashire Regiment lines. Next day, Christmas [was] celebrated as far as practicable. The receipt of the Xmas card from the King and Queen gave great pleasure to the troops. The day was frosty and foggy. We had more casualties today than for some time past.

1st Leicestershire Regiment: the battalion was holding trenches in the Rue du Bois – La Grande Flamengrie Farm sector. No truce is mentioned. Two men were killed and one wounded on Christmas Day.[16]

Private 9654 Harold Startin, describing himself as a ‘Mid-Somerset Old Contemptible’, later wrote:

On Christmas Eve, as we were standing-to, the Germans started to sing Christmas Carols, the first one being ‘Holy Night’, and then as though a preconceived plan we joined in. There we were, the fighting men of the two forces, who had previously been at one another’s throats, joining together having a real Carol Concert. … Next morning … dawned unnaturally quiet and still, broken only by the squelch of boots in the everlasting mud. … soon a few were bold enough to scramble over the top of the trench and it became evident that both sides had somehow inexplicably decided to honour the season of goodwill. … Everything was spontaneous and sincere. Perhaps never before, and probably never again, will the world witness such a demonstration of the ‘brotherhood of man’ between opposing warring forces.[17]

1st Buffs (East Kent Regiment): the war diary only reports that the battalion was in trenches near La Grande Flamengrie Farm between 9 and 29 December.

1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry: the battalion was relieved by the 2nd York & Lancaster Regiment on 23 December and moved to billets at Rue de Lettres. It moved back into the trenches on Boxing Day but makes no mention of a truce.

2nd York & Lancaster Regiment: the battalion relieved the 1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry on 23 December. The war diary reads, situation unchanged – advances for armistice for Christmas Day from enemy – no notice taken. Usual sniping and a few bombs thrown at our line.

18th Infantry Brigade: with the exception of one battalion which was already there, the brigade moved from reserve into the trenches late on Christmas Day.

1st West Yorkshire Regiment: the battalion was in billets at Erquinghem-Lys until it moved forwards to relieve the 2nd Leinster Regiment (17th Infantry Brigade) at L’Epinette in the evening of Christmas Day. The diary is one of the least verbose of all and only gives casualty figures for each day after that.

1st East Yorkshire Regiment: the battalion was in billets in Armentières for several days including Christmas Day. On 22 December it had been forced to move when a jute factory it was occupying was accidentally set of fire. It relieved the Cameronians of 19th Infantry Brigade late on Christmas Day, taking over the stretch of line between a point 500 yards north of L’Epinette to 300 yards north of Pont Ballot. Reporting this portion of the line fairly dry, the battalion was by two days later suffering from severe flooding. No hostile activity or trice is mentioned.

2nd Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment): the battalion moved from Nieppe to Armentières on 23 December 1914 and was there on Christmas Day. 650 of its men attended a voluntary Divine Service. It relieved the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (19th Infantry Brigade) in the afternoon of Boxing Day and held a 1500-yard long stretch of line.

2nd Durham Light Infantry: the battalion moved from Pont de Nieppe to Armentières on 23 December 1914 and was there on Christmas Day. It relieved the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers (19th Infantry Brigade) in the afternoon of Boxing Day, taking over the line near Frélinghien, with its left on the River Lys.

1/16th London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles): the battalion returned to the trenches near Houplines on 23 December, finding conditions worse than ever. Things were relatively quiet, although enemy snipers picked off seven men, killing one of them, on this day and Christmas Eve. The war diary reassures us: we can always silence them when they get annoying.[18] It continues on Christmas Day, no war today. Much conversation with enemy between trenches. 107 Regiment opposite us. Trenches strongly held. Their men of good military age for the most part, though a few very young ones. Seemed happy and healthy and well-fed. Some however were despondent. Some said they were just outside Paris, having been brought up to the line in closed railway carriages. They also believed that the Germans were occupying London. Casualties: other ranks, missing 3.[19]

Walter Mockett, the stretcher bearer who thought his pals’ attempts at raisin puddings might have made good trench mortars, wrote to a friend on 28 December:

My dear Charlie, I am writing to let you know that I am alive and well. We are in billets at present. We came out Boxing Day, so that we spent part of Xmas out of the trenches. Xmas Day was spent by us in a most remarkable way. The Germans and our own fellows got out of their trenches and shook hands with each other. The Germans said ‘you no shoot, we no shoot’ so we agreed and all day long we walked about on top of the trenches, where in the ordinary course of events it would have been instant death for us. I went over and talked to some of them. They said they were fed up with the war and ready to go home. I have a coat button, a hat badge and some cigarettes from one of them. Some of them come from London and so speak fairly good English. Opposite to us they are Saxons, who are not so bad as the Prussians. The Kaiser presented his men with cigars Xmas Day.[20]

Rifleman 2115 Ernest Morley wrote to a soldier pal on 29 December 1914:

The last time was not so bad as regards weather, it was chiefly frosty, and as regards the war [it] was a perfect scream. We had decided to give the Germans a Christmas present of three carols and five rounds rapid. Accordingly as soon as night fell we started, and the strains of ‘While shepherd’ (beautifully rendered by the choir!) came upon the air. We finished that and paused preparatory to giving the second item on the programme. But lo! We heard answering strains arising from their lines. Also they started shouting across to us. Therefore we stopped any hostile operations and commenced to shout back. One of them shouted ‘A merry Christmas English, we’re not shooting tonight’ … and from that time until we’re relieved on Boxing morning at 4am, not a shot was fired. I exchanged a cigarette for a cigar with one of them (not a bad exchange, eh?) and as some of them spoke English had quite a long conversation. One fellow said as soon as the war was over he was ‘going back to England by express’. He had a wife and two children in the Alexander Road! [21]

The press published several letters from men of the battalion, almost to the extent the one wonders whether there was a concerted effort for publicity. The Queen’s Westminster Rifles, along with the London Rifle Brigade and several other Territorial units, was rather select and had good connections. An un-named officer of the battalion, quoted in various newspapers in early January 1915 but apparently originally published in the ‘London Daily News’ on 30 December, reported that his company had been  carrying wood to the trenches on Christmas Eve:

Next day would have made a good chapter in Dickens’s Christmas Carol. It was, indeed, a tribute to the spirit of Christmas. Many of our chaps walked out and met the Germans between the lines. I went over in the afternoon and was photographed in a group of English and Germans mixed. We exchanged souvenirs; I got a German ribbon and a photo of the Crown prince of Bavaria. The Germans opposite us were awfully decent fellows – Saxons, intelligent, respectable-looking men. I had quite a decent talk with three or four and have two names and addresses in my notebook. It was the strangest scene you could imagine – going out to meet our enemies, also unarmed. After our talk I really think a lot of our newspaper reports must be horribly exaggerated. Of course – these men were Saxons, not Prussians.

The ‘Liverpool Echo’ of 2 January included a letter from an un-named Private of the battalion, writing to a friend in Leighton Buzzard:

Two of them with whom I happened to get in conversation were quite decent fellows and a cut above the others. They were brothers in the 107th Saxons, and being reservists were called up. One had a ticket for London with him, and told us that he was going to London for a holiday when he was called up. Both said they were personally very sorry to have to fight against us. The rest of the regiment were of a rather lower class, and looked as if a good feed would benefit them. Taking them all round, they were of medium age and rather well built. One fellow had an iron cross, which he kept in his purse. One thing that made us envious was their jackboots, which are just the things we want.

The same newspaper said that Lance Corporal 1147 Reginald Hines had written to his brother in Chester on 27 December:

On Christmas Eve, when it got dark, we heard the beggars shouting across to us: ‘Lustige Wiehnachten’, and of course our boys returned the compliment. There was no firing at all, as we had decided not to as well. A crowd of us got out of the trenches and walked up and down singing carols. It was a glorious night, freezing hard, and a white cast over everything, and a cloudless sky to crown it all. Next morning we repeated the programme, and before it was light. After breakfast it was misty, and we took the opportunity of going out and repairing the wire entanglements. Later on the mist cleared away and we could see several Germans moving about on the top of their trenches. Then the strangest thing of all happened. As if by some mutual agreement, both sides clambered out of the trenches and met in the middle of no man’s land. We exchanged cigarettes, etc and had a general conversation. One of them came up to an officer, and said in broken English: ‘Good morning, sir; I live at Alexander Road, Hornsey, and I would see Woolwich Arsenal play Tottenham tomorrow’. In the afternoon the same scene happened again. Near their lines there was a tumbledown farm, and German and English Tommies were rummaging about together for wood, etc to improve their respective trenches. Next day another regiment relieved us before dawn. We were rather sorry, as we might have still further good relations with the enemy. We are now billeted in a spinning factory – a weird kind of home, lying down between the looms and bobbin frames. Reginald Hines was killed in action on 9 August 1915.

An anonymous letter from a Rifleman appeared in the ‘Hull Daily Mail’ on New Year’s Eve:

As things seemed to be going very well, we thought we might as well get out on top, so four of us got on top of the parapet and struck matches, which was received by a cheer form the other side, so we all got out and held a concert and dance in the open. After this a few thought it would be just as well to shake hands and exchange cigarettes, etc, with them, so we called to them, and mat a few halfway between the trenches and they were jolly good sports, too. On Christmas Day we had a football out in front of the trenches, and asked the Germans to send a team to play us; but either they considered the ground too hard, as it had been freezing all night, and was a ploughed field, or else their officers put the bar up. Anyhow, we had a chat with each other in the afternoon, and one of them produced a camera, and we have a group [photograph] taken, about twelve QWR and twelve Germans. I expect you think this is a bit of a yarn. In fact the regulars, who were in reserve here, would not believe, and some of them came up to see for themselves.

7th Division: (IV Corps, Bois Grenier to the Rue du Bois)

The Division had taken part in the attacks during mid-December and continued to hold the same blood-soaked ground.

22nd Infantry Brigade: the brigade reported that it spent Christmas Eve in clearing the Layes river to prevent its water flooding the trenches. Next day there was practically no shooting of any kind throughout the day. Armistice in front of Number 5 Sub-sector to bury dead who fell on the 18th … lasted till 3pm.

2nd Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment): the battalion, which had taken part in the attack near Well Farm on 18 December, returned to the trenches late on 23 December. It reported that on Christmas Eve it was in the trenches. Enemy quiet and not much sniping. In the evening enemy were evidently keeping Xmas – many flares going in rear of their lines. Weather fine and frosty. Christmas Day: at 11am an armistice began. It stated opposite the left of the Wiltshire Regiment, the regiment on our right. Many Germans, officers and men, came out of their trenches to midway between the two lines –parties were sent out to collect and bury the dead who had been killed on the 18th – graves were dug in the centre between the lines. 71 bodies were collected, chiefly Warwicks. The body of Lieut Ramsey, previously reported missing, was found near the German trenches and [was] later [taken] back to the dressing station to be buried in the churchyard. The Germans were nearly all belonging to the 55th Regiment. Several staff officers also came over. These were quite a different class to the infantry officers, who were of a very low class, and professed themselves as confident as to their being able to end the war in their favour. They had no opinion of the Russians, who they considered already beaten. All gave the appearance, however, of being fed up with the war. Armistice concluded at 4pm with agreement to resume it at 9am following morning, as dead all not buried. Boxing Day: armistice recommenced as arranged at 9am. A large number of staff officers appeared during the day. All were immaculately dressed without a speck of mud on them, mostly in fur lined coats. They furnished us with a list of officers they had taken prisoner and asked that their relatives might be informed. They also promised to try and obtain the release of 2nd Lieuts Rought and Walmisley, who had been taken prisoners during the armistice on 19th inst. Owing to frost the ground was very hard and the graves were not completed till 1pm, when the chaplain read the burial service in the presence of the digging party, some officers of the Queen’s and 8 or 10 German officers. The body of 2nd Lieut. Bernard, Royal Warwicks, was found and buried. In addition to the 55th Regiment, men of the 7th, 15th and 22nd Regiments were noticed. Armistice concluded at 3.30pm.

1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers: the battalion had been in reserve during the 18 December attack. It relieved the 1/8th Royal Scots in the trenches on 20 December but returned to billets during Christmas Eve after being relieved by the 2nd Queen’s. The diary does not mention a truce.

1/8th Royal Scots: the battalion had been in the firing line during the 18 December attack but had only provided support. After relief by the 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers, it returned to the trenches on Christmas Eve but makes no mention of a truce.

1st South Staffordshire Regiment: this still-understrength battalion was at Merville where it was employed on guard duties and fatigues.

2nd Royal Warwickshire Regiment: the battalion came out of the attack of 18 December with only 149 men left. It was relieved and went into billets on Rue Biache early on Christmas Eve. Drafts of two officers and 310 men arrived that day and next.

20th Infantry Brigade: in the days prior to Christmas the brigade reported that the Layes river had risen a foot, and in consequence units in the front line had to remove men from there as they were in places up to their waists in water. Reports from a scout of the Scots Guards (below) who had gone into no man’s land on Christmas morning, heard a voice from the enemy trenches shouting that they would like to parley. A soldier came out and said they wanted a quiet Christmas Day; all their men were sick of the war and they had had 22 comrades killed in fending off the recent British attack. As an officer approached, the man changed the conversation to Christmas. Arrangements were made and the day passed without a shot being fired after 9am. Much time was spent in burying the many dead, ‘silent witnesses to the fierce contest which must have taken place in the darkness’ of 18-19 December. The Germans remarked that that most of their wounds were caused by British bayonets: brigade remarked that this was accounted for by the fact that the men’s rifles had been so clogged with mud at the time of the attack. The truce lasted through Boxing Day. It was only on the third day that the Germans tried to come over and enjoy another day’s so-called armistice, but were informed that they must keep to their trenches. They seemed quite indignant, and said they wouldn’t fire if we didn’t, but if we had orders to fire to signal them with three volleys first fired into the air. On the night 27-28 December, the Germans enticed four Scots Guards to go over to them, whereupon they were taken prisoner.

2nd Scots Guards: the day after the battalion had taken part in an attack on 18 December, it moved to reserve billets at Sailly-sur-la-Lys. The battalion returned to the trenches on 23 December. Its RF Company took up the position from the ‘left of 8th Division to tall poplar trees’; LF Company took on the line from the trees to the Fromelles road; G Company from the road to the south east end of the newly dug Grenadier Communication Trench. Two men of the battalion were killed on Christmas Eve. During the fine and frosty night, another man was wounded.[22] The battalion’s war diary is unusually descriptive and personal: On the night of Christmas Eve, the German trenches opposite those occupied by the battalion at Fromelles were lit up with lanterns and there were sounds of singing. We got into communication with the Germans, who were anxious to arrange an armistice during Xmas. A scout named F. Murkin [actually Private 8497 Peter Murker] went out and met a German patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us. There was no firing during the night.

Early on Xmas morning a party of Germans 158 Regiment came over to our wire fence, and a party from our trenches went out to meet them. They appeared to be most amicable and exchanged souvenirs, cap stars, badges etc. Our men gave them plum puddings, which they much appreciated. Further down the line we were able to make arrangements to bury the dead who had been killed on December 18-19 and were still lying between the trenches. The Germans brought the bodies to a half way line and we buried them. Detachments of British and Germans formed in line and a German and English chaplain read some prayers alternately. The whole of this was done in great solemnity and reverence. It was heartrending to see some of the chaps one knew so well, and who had started out in such good spirits on 18 December lying there dead, some with terrible wounds due to the explosive action of the high velocity bullet at short range. Captain Taylor’s body was found amongst them. His body was carried to the Rue-Pétillon where we buried him in our little cemetery. I talked to several officers and men. One officer ,a middle aged man, tall, well set up and good looking, told me that Lieut. Hon F. Hanbury Tracey had been taken into their trenches very severely wounded. He died after two days in the local hospital and was buried in the German cemetery at Fromelles. He also said that another young officer had been buried. He was fair. We think this would be Lieut. R. Nugent who was reported missing. Captain Paynter gave this officer a scarf and in exchange an orderly presented him with a pair of gloves, and wished to thank him for his kindness. The other officers were rather inclined to be stand-offish and of the burgers class. Another officer who could not speak English or French appeared to want express his feelings, pointed to the dead and reverently said ‘Les braves’, which shows that the Germans do think something of the British Army.

The men I spoke to were less reticent. They appeared generally tired of fighting, and wanted to get back to their various employments. Some lived in England. One man told me he had been seven years in England and was married last March. Another said he had a girl who lived in Suffolk and said it had been impossible to communicate with here through Germany since war began.

Their general opinion of the war was as follows. France is on her last legs and will soon have to give up. Russia has had a tremendous defeat in Poland and will soon be ready to make terms of peace. England is the nut which still has to be cracked, but with France and Russia out of the way she Germany would be too powerful. The war they thought might be over by the end of January. This shows what lies are circulated amongst the German troops and the hatred which exists between Germany and England.

Discipline in the German Army is of the most rigid character. The men seemed to hate their officers but nevertheless are afraid of them. A photo was taken by Lieut. Swinton of a group of Germans and English. Both sides have played the game and I know that this regiment anyhow has learnt to trust an Englishman’s word. They appeared to be a smart-looking lot of men, possibly only the best were allowed to come out of the trenches. As far as I could see the officers don’t wear any distinguishing badge of rank.

The battalion remained in the trenches until 28 December but makes no further observations regarding relationships with the enemy. Four men including Peter Murker were declared missing: they had been the men enticed across to the Germans, and had been captured and were now prisoners of war.

Private 7792 Harold Bryan recalled:

As usual an hour before daybreak we stood to arms in case of attack. Presently we could hear the Germans singing carols and songs. Not a shot had been fired yet. We had had our breakfast and were enjoying smoke, when the lookout man shouted down that an officer and two men were approaching from the German lines. They were entirely without firearms and carried a white flag. We told him not to shoot but see what they intended doing. On any other occasion we should have treated the white flag with scant ceremony owing to their trickery on past occasions, but it being Xmas Day we thought we would wait and see what they wanted. They came just over halfway and halted, calling out to us, asking if an officer of ours [could] go out and speak to them. Without a moment’s hesitation one of our officers, a Captain, jumped the trench and advanced to meet them, also unarmed. We saw them exchange cigars and then our officer came back and told us the Germans wished to keep up Xmas Day with them and that we were to meet halfway between the trenches. We agreed like a shot … it may seem strange but the first thing we did was to shake hands all round, then followed an exchange of eatables[23].

The ‘Times’ of 11 January 1915 printed a letter from a ‘piper in the Scots Guards’:

We had a glorious time of it on Christmas Day. There was a keen frost and snow falling slightly. On Christmas Eve the Germans shouted from the trenches, which are only 100 yards from ours, in these terms: ‘A merry Christmas, Scottie Guardie. We are not going to fire tomorrow; we will have a holiday and a game of football’. Our fellows agreed. Next morning, sure enough, the Germans came out of their trenches, and began to saunter over to ours unarmed. At this, our chaps went over halfway to meet them. They greeted one another like the best of friends and shook hands. You would have thought the war was at an end. We exchanged cigarettes for cigars, tobacco, etc. They brought over any so many things as souvenirs. A German officer gave me a button off his coat for my capstar. We were chatting all day. I was talking to a German who was four years in London. He could speak fine English. I asked him when did he think the war would be over. He said in six months’ time. I remarked that they were getting the worst of it now; and he said that if they were beaten it was taking four countries to do it. They said they were getting tired of it. Them seem to be as well off as we are, and have plenty of everything. One German gave our officer a letter to post to a lady he knows in Essex. I had such a funny feeling talking to our enemy, who would seek to shoot us on the morrow; but there was another surprise in store for us. Next day they came over and stood up on the trenches. We could walk and go anywhere we liked. … I must say some of them were very nice fellows, and did not show any hatred, which makes me think they are forced to fight. I wrote you a letter telling you we made a bayonet attack. … We lost a few men. The Germans helped us bury them on Christmas Day.

One of the longest and most detailed accounts of fraternisation is the latter written by Captain Sir Edward Hulse to his mother on 28 December. It was reproduced in full in his posthumous book Letters written from the English front in France. Hulse describes a party-like atmosphere, conversations with the enemy and the exchanging of souvenirs.

Just after we had finished ‘Auld Lang Syne’ an old hare started up, and seeing so many of us about in an unwonted spot, did not know which way to go. I gave one loud ‘View Holloa,’ and one and all, British and Germans, rushed about giving chase, slipping up on the frozen plough, falling about, and after a hot two minutes we killed in the open, a German and one of our fellows falling together heavily upon the completely baffled hare. Shortly afterwards we saw four more hares, and killed one again; both were good heavy weight and had evidently been out between the two rows of trenches for the last two months, well-fed on the cabbage patches, etc., many of which are untouched on the no-man’s land. The enemy kept one and we kept the other.

Few could ever have imagined a reasonably senior officer of a regiment of Guards, at war with an implacable enemy, engaging in such a way. After returning to the trenches for an excellently-provided Christmas lunch, Hulse went out again as the truce lasted throughout the day.[24]

2nd Border Regiment: after the battalion’s part in the attack on 18 December it was partly moved to billets at Sailly-sur-la-Lys. A and C Companies moved from Sailly and relieved B and D in the trenches on 22 December. The battalion diary for Christmas Day reads, In the morning the enemy in front of A and C Companies trenches signalled for an officer. One was sent over to their trenches and an armistice agreed upon till 4pm for the purpose of burying the dead lying between the trenches from the night of 18 December. There was no firing on either side on this day, and the bodies were buried near the trenches.

The diary for Boxing Day said that B and D Companies relieved A and C, and that the armistice was still recognised, with no firing and the troops walking about on top as the communication trenches were so bad.

The ‘Sunderland Daily Echo’ on 9 January included a letter from Sergeant 9050 Charles Dobson:

We had three days’ rest in billets and then went back into the trenches for another four days. So while you were enjoying Christmas I was in the trenches. There was a vast difference during those four days, for instead of keeping sniping at one another we had a very peaceful Christmas. Somehow or other there was an armistice arranged and we were talking to the Germans, who met us halfway between the trenches. This gave each side an opportunity to bury the dead, who had lain there since the time of the attack. It seemed peculiar to be talking to the Germans, for some of them could talk English. We listened to them signing on Christmas night, and some good singers they have. On Boxing Day it was still the same; they were out of the trenches again and some of them even gave our men chocolate and cigarettes. We got out [for our relief] without a shot being fired.

Dobson transferred to the Machine Gun Corps when it was formed in 1915. He ended the war as a Company Sergeant Major.

2nd Gordon Highlanders: the war diary of this battalion appears not to have been delivered to headquarters and the existing diary was compiled by reference to other units of the brigade. The entry for Christmas is of a very general nature, stating that not a shot was fired and that the dead were collected and buried side by side. Captain Bertrand Gordon however submitted this report to divisional headquarters:

I beg to report for your information the following. The Commandant of the German forces immediately in front of my sub-section came out of his trench this morning at 10am. I met him half way between the two lines of trenches. We agreed to bury the dead – any bodies of our men over the half way line should be carried across by their men and vice versa, so there was no possibility of viewing the trenches. This was done and all the dead have now been buried. I would like to point out that the Borders who made their night attack were intermingled with the German dead and would appear that they (Germans) made a counter attack. I observed the following: the regiments holding the points of the line immediately in front of my sub-section belong to the 15th Saxon Corps, 59th and 159th Bavarians [this was inaccurate information and was questioned by Division]. The men are mostly young but of good physique. I noticed that the majority of them carried hand grenades at their sides. Several of them showed me the ‘Iron Cross’ which they had received, which would make it appear that they had been fighting in other parts before coming here. I obtained information about Captain Askew, 2nd Border Regiment. He was in their trench firing his revolver when he was killed. Captain [Hanbury] Tracey, Scots Guards, was captured by them (wounded) and lived for six hours. His effects were taken off him and are being sent home to his wife by them (the Commandant gave me this information about the two officers). He said only seven prisoners were taken during the night attack on 18th. I am quite confident that none of the Germans approached our trenches and men were on observation in the trenches all day.[25]

1/6th Gordon Highlanders: this territorial unit only joined the brigade on 5 December. Based at billets in Sailly-sur-la-Lys, it spent Christmas Eve and Day digging. Two men were killed and three wounded on Christmas Eve.[26]

Second Lieutenant Spence Sanders recorded his experience in a diary. He had gone to France with the battalion as a Lance Sergeant and ‘found he had been commissioned’ on 18 November 1914. On Christmas Eve he wrote

We left at 11.30(pm) yesterday. At the dressing station a Borderer offered to guide us to our place on their left. He did but when we got there we found it impossible to enter as the German trenches were so close that it wasn’t safe to get over the parapet. We about-turned and went along the communication trench. … It took us hours to get into position. We had to come through a bad piece of trench with water in it and several men stuck. Spent a rotten night in a miserable little dug-out. This morning a man in Number 1 Section was hit in the shoulder – a nasty wound. It quite upset Petrie Hay – he was as white as a sheet and had to have some brandy. The poor devil [the wounded man] was suffering badly and will probably have to lie in the trench till night. The German trenches are only about 50 yards away and between are a lot of dead Germans and I believe Borderers through I haven’t seen the latter. The General has just been along to tell us that we must leave an officer and men to mend the wire when we go out. That will be a rotten job for me, I fear.

Christmas Day and a jolly queer Christmas too. Last night we had orders to move along to the right at 4.30. Some moved, then C and D Companies on the left said they were not ready as the 2nd Gordons had not come. A tremendous lot of trenches were left empty. I posted a few men here and there to keep up the fire and finally about 10 o’clock we got to our positions. It was a hard frost last night so we had a miserable cold time in our dug-out. The casualties yesterday were bad. Two men killed – one in D Company and one in F; several wounded, one in E badly in the shoulder. This morning the Colonel came down and the Padre – the latter was going to bury the F Company man. While talking to them an order came along not to shoot. Very shortly we found the Germans were getting out of the trenches and our men were doing the same. They walked across and met and talked to each other. I went over and talked to some. A tremendous lot of dead were lying about. Very soon an order came to return to the trenches but then another came to send our parties to bury the dead. The Germans did the same and we all mixed up and chatted. The dead were a horrible sight – nearly all Borderers left after the charge. The German dead had been there much longer I believe and were quite rotten. The Germans were a nice lot, though –as fed up as we are. There is to be no firing for an hour after the burying and unofficially I believe it is agreed that there will be none either today or tomorrow. I only hope there won’t be – I have seen enough horrors for one day.[27]

Private Edward Duncan of the battalion’s E Company wrote home to Inverurie on 28 December. His rather lighter observations about the events were published in the ‘Aberdeen Evening Express’ on 1 January 1915:

We spent Christmas Day in the trenches and it was one long to be remembered for a reason that you can hardly credit. We had a day off with the Germans, and had fun along with them in chasing a hare, and giving as well as receiving souvenirs. It seemed to be a mutual truce along our part of the line. Certainly, it was not official. The first that we knew about it was a few Germans putting their heads up above the trenches and some of the boys saying that they were out to bury their dead. A few of the enemy soon appeared clear of the trenches and before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’, they all came out and over the trenches without their rifles. Our boys were soon swarming up to meet them, and hand shaking ensued. We were not allowed to go near their trenches, so we carried their dead halfway across, and they carried our dead the same distance. Soon a hare made its appearance between our trenches and all joined in the chase. Not a man could refrain from laughing at the sight, as the Germans mixed with us in the scramble. Spontaneous laughter re-echoed all around, and the hare got clean away, so there was no trouble over who was to have the soup. A good few of them could speak English, and one of them was once a Sunday school teacher in Blackpool. He said they got bulletins issued to them every day, and they were told of a great German victory in Poland, and that they were to get 160 guns which had been captured from the Russians, up to help them. They had been waiting patiently, but no guns had come their way, so they are now fearing it was a bulletin of falsehoods. They are all fed up, and wishing it was over. Some of them were exceedingly smart looking chaps, and gave our boys cigs and chocolate, as well as drinks of gin. They said that if we did not fire, they would not, and the agreement was carried out. The day after Christmas, they cried across if we would play them at a game of football, but as no football was forthcoming, there was no match. The first night we were in the trenches they were crying across to us and singing Christmas carols, and taking spasmodic turns of shouting ‘are we down-hearted? No!’.

The ‘Aberdeen Journal’ of New Year’s Eve included a latter from the battalion’s Private 11016 John Robb, describing how a well-known Aberdeen chaplain had played a part in the truce:

Both the Germans and us ceased firing the whole day, and our chaps left their trenches and went over to the Germans and wished them a Merry Christmas. Our Chaplain, the Rev. J. Esslemont Adams, went up to the firing line today and had a talk with the Germans. One of the German majors gave him a cigar for a souvenir, and Mr. Adams gave the major a small prayer out of his cap in return. He also read the burial service to 17 Germans who were buried today. The major told him they were quite fed up and wanted to stop; so we commenced fighting at 5pm again.

 

1st Grenadier Guards: Moved forward on 18 December and held the line on the right of Scots Guards. They were relieved by the latter on 23 December and moved to billets on Rue de Quesnes. Major-General Capper and the Prince of Wales visited the battalion on Christmas Eve. The diary for Christmas only mentions the arrival of a draft.

The diary of 7th Divisional headquarters includes a note describing how fluent German speaker Lieutenant Oldfield of the Royal Artillery also went out into no man’s land in the area of 20th Infantry Brigade: he personally saw several men of the 139th Regiment and actually spoke to others of the 69th Regiment. He also saw men of the 22nd and 68th Artillery. The former he thought were Field Artillery and the latter Foot Artillery. Only officers and NCOs of artillery were seen, and he gathered the impression that they were observation parties. One NCO told him he was a telegraphist. They came out of the German trenches opposite the ‘D’ of ‘Cordonnerie’ [a crude way of identifying the location on a map]. In the course of conversation with an officer, Lieut. Oldfield learnt that the Germans lost about 50 men killed in a counter attack during the night 18-19th, either on left of the Scots Guards or on the Border Regiment. Lieut. Oldfield, who has lived in Germany for some time, met an acquaintance – a Feldwebel in the 22nd Regiment of Artillery. This man stated that they considered our shrapnel very deadly but that our 18-pounder high explosive shell was a joke and hurt nothing. He deplored the shortness in [that is, the lack of] artillery in this neighbourhood, and also said they were limited as to expenditure of ammunition. The health and morale of officers and men appeared to be excellent. They said they were well fed, and were convinced that Germany was playing a winning hand. They were very pleased with the news from Russia – they believe the Russians were running out of ammunition, and although they recognised that there were vast undeveloped resources in the country, they thought Russia would get such a blow in the present operations that they would not come again. They were confident that as soon as the winter was over they would be able to drive us back into the sea.

21st Infantry Brigade:

2nd Bedfordshire Regiment: the battalion had left its billets in Fleurbaix and returned to the trenches on 22 December. On the evening of 24 December at about 8pm there Germans were singing in their trenches. There were numerous lights on their parapets, apparently on Christmas trees. A voice shouted from their trenches and could be distinctly heard, ‘I want to arrange to bury the dead. Will someone come out and meet me’. 2nd Lieut de Buriatti went out with three men and met five Germans, the leader of whom spoke excellent English but was not an officer. He said he had lived in Brighton and Canada. This German said they wished to bury about 24 of their dead but would not do so at night as they were afraid of their artillery might open fire and they could not stop them and this would not be fair to us. No arrangement was made at the time. During the conversation the German said he belonged to the 15th regiment and gave Lt de Buriatti a postcard with the following information: the addressee was in the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Brigade, VII Army Corps. The men also had 15 on their shoulder straps. The red band round their caps was covered with grey cloth.[28]

This morning, 25th inst, at 10am, a German officer and two men unarmed came out of their trenches with a white flag and were met by Captain H. C. Jackson and asked to be permitted to bury their dead, so we said we would not fire till 11.30am to give them time, and this was done. My men had already buried some on night of 24/25th. It was noticed that the German trenches are strongly held, their being a large number of men sitting on the parapet during the time the bodies were being buried. The men were a young lot from 19-25 years, well turned out and clean. I had given strict orders that none of my men were to go towards the enemy’s lines without definite orders and that no one except those on duty were to be looking over their parapet. No Germans were allowed to come near our trenches. The German wire was closely inspected as previously reported. During the period that no firing was taking place, one of my Company Sergeant Majors was speaking to a German when an elderly officer passed. The German said he was the ‘Divisioner’. This German also said they were very comfortable in a very nice village behind and he did not give the name! He seemed surprised that our troops were not an elderly reserve class. The general impression was that the Germans had had enough and were anxious for the war to come to an end.

2nd Wiltshire Regiment: this unit relieved the South Staffords and Royal Warwickshires of 22nd Infantry Brigade in the trenches on 19 December. It returned to the Fleurbaix billets on 21 December but then relieved 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers in the front line on Christmas Eve. The diary reads, Christmas Day: No firing. An unofficial armistice took place and troops of both sides met and buried the dead. The battalion fixed up a board with ‘A Merry Xmas’ written on it in German, midway between the trenches, and was evidently much appreciated by the enemy. Boxing Day: No firing. Another unofficial armistice took place and Captains Makin and Beaver met some German staff officers and had a few minutes conversation.

2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers: the battalion relieved the 2nd Wiltshire Regiment in the trenches on 21 December but was relieved by the same unit early on Christmas Eve, whereupon it moved to billets in Fleurbaix.

2nd Yorkshire Regiment: the battalion spent the Christmas period in divisional reserve billets at Sailly-sur-la-Lys.

8th Division: (IV Corps, the Rue du Bois to Port Arthur)

The division had taken part in one of the attacks during December and continued to hold the line of the Neuve Chapelle sector.

24th Infantry Brigade: the brigade took over the division’s ‘A’ and ‘B Lines’ on 19 December. After taking part in firing and actions in support of the Indian Corps’ fighting to the south, the brigade began to report unusual activity on 23 December: about 4pm Germans showed themselves over their trenches. No firing by mutual consent. Our men also showed themselves and finally small parties of both sides met and conversed in the space between trenches. After a very quiet night, on Christmas Eve, yesterday evening’s conversation repeated in ‘B Lines’. Information obtained that enemy opposite belonged to 53rd Regiment, 27th Brigade, 14th Division, VII Corps. Once again the night was quiet, with the men rising to fine, frosty Christmas Day. Water reported to be rising on right of ‘A Lines’ and flooding our trenches. Cause believed to be a German pump 150 yards south on La Bassée road. At end of ‘A Lines’ a temporary truce established. Both sides buried dead and conversed between trenches. Captain Watts in ‘B Lines’ was shot dead by the Germans when exposing himself. A certain amount of shellfire fell on part of the brigade line during the night.

2nd Northamptonshire Regiment: the battalion left billets at La Gorgue and moved into the trenches of the division’s ‘B Line’ in the afternoon of 22 December. On Xmas Eve, the Germans and our men got into conversation, eventually meeting in no man’s land between the trenches. Cigarettes and buttons (non-regimental) were exchanged and one of our men even got to their parapet and looked in. The German private soldiers seemed very friendly and said they did not wish to fight us, eventually even cheering the English. Most of them seemed very young as was also an officer who also came and spoke to one of ours. They wished to have no firing on Xmas Day to which we agreed as far as concerned the two companies of ours (A and B) immediately opposite them on this part of their line. The cessation was to be form midnight to midnight. The next morning, 25th, acting on instructions from our brigadier, we again got into conversation with them and they admitted that they had suffered heavily from our artillery fire on the previous evening. They also sent over some cigars and bread. We sent them some papers. Further intercourse was stopped by superior orders, not, however, before two of their officers sent us a letter* which was far from complimentary. The truce was, however, observed honourably by both sides. In the evening, the Germans decorated the trenches with lights and there was a good deal of singing on both sides. One of our Captains was killed in another part of the line about 8am on the 25th, but there seems no reason to suspect treachery. The battalion was relieved about 5.30pm and went into its billets at the Red Barn.[29]

*Transcript of German letter: You asked us yesterday to temporarily suspend hostilities and to become friends during Christmas. Such a proposal in the past would have been accepted with pleasure but at the present time when we have clearly recognised England’s real character, we refuse to make such an agreement. Although we do not doubt that you are men of honour, yet every feeling of ours revolts against any friendly intercourse towards the subject of a nation which for years has, in an underhand way, sought the friendship of all other nations, that with their help they might annihilate us; a nation also which, while professing Christianity, is not ashamed to use dum-dum bullets; and whose greatest pleasure would be to see the political disappearance and social eclipse of Germany. Gentlemen, you are not, it is true, the responsible leaders of English politics and so you are not directly responsible for their baseness, but all the same you are Englishmen whose annihilation we consider to be our most sacred duty. We therefore request you to take such action that will prevent your mercenaries, whom you call ‘soldiers’, from approaching our trenches in future. Signed, Lieutenant of Landwehr.

1 Worcestershire Regiment: the battalion had moved to La Gorgue when it was relieved by the 2nd Northamptons on the afternoon of 22 December. It returned to relieve the same battalion at 5pm on Christmas Day. No firing during relief at all. The 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment had arranged an unofficial armistice with the Germans till midnight, which we also kept. There was a certain amount of shouting, remarks between the Germans and ourselves and the Germans sang English and German songs most of the night which were applauded by our men. In spite of the armistice our sentries were kept much on the alert as usual. Next day there was practically no firing although the British guns fired a few rounds in the morning.

2nd East Lancashire Regiment: this battalion relieved the 1st Sherwood Foresters holding the ‘A Lines’ trenches west of Neuve Chapelle on 22 December. The war diary does not mention anything usual on Christmas Eve except for the ‘usual interchange of rifle fire’ and that the Germans were pumping water into the La Bassée road ditch, with water rising in the battalion’s support trenches. Next day, the German began shouting Christmas greetings in the early morning and there was no firing throughout the whole day. During the afternoon some of our men and the Germans went into the open outside No 1 Section to bury some German dead which had been lying there for some time. Battalion was relieved in the trenches at 5pm by 1st Sherwood Foresters and marched to billets. One killed and two wounded in Xmas Day.[30]

1st Sherwood Foresters: after being relieved by the 2nd East Lancashires on 22 December, the battalion moved to reserve billets in the Red Barn near Richebourg. A draft of an officer and 165 men arrived there, too. As it was under orders to return to the trenches on Christmas Day, the battalion instead celebrated on Christmas Eve. It reported that it consumed 1100 plum puddings sent out by the county and city of Nottingham. The men began to move forward again at 4.15pm on Christmas Day. By 8.20pm the relief was reported complete. The quickest relief we have yet had due to entire lack of fire and to severe frost of night 24-25 December [making it easier to move]. An informal armistice was arranged between some of the Germans opposite ‘A Lines’ and the 2nd East Lancashire, and during this time both sides collected the dead in front of the trenches. Lieutenant Maclean Dilworth (killed 20 November] and L/Cpl Walters brought in and buried near battalion headquarters. The 2nd East Lancashires had also found body of Private 16768 John Clarke of the Sherwood Foresters, previously reported missing.[31]

23rd Infantry Brigade: the brigade took over the division’s ‘A’ and ‘B Lines’ on 19 December. At 7.45pm on Christmas Eve it received a notice from divisional headquarters that special vigilance was required as it was thought the enemy may attack during the Christmas season.

2nd Devonshire Regiment: this battalion had returned to billets after the attack of 18 December. Knowing it was due to return, it held its Christmas celebrations on 23 December. The battalion returned to the trenches of D Lines trenches between 5 and 7pm on Christmas Eve, relieving the 2nd Scottish Rifles. It was in the front line until it was relieved on 27 December. Informal armistice during daylight. Germans got out of their trenches and came towards our lines. Our men met them and they wished each other a marry Xmas, shook hands etc. About 7.30pm sniping began again. We had one man killed and one wounded. Hard frost.  The man killed was 8316 Pte Richard Gregory.

A letter from Private 4812 John Dymond was published in the ‘Western Times’ on 14 January. He referred to an earlier letter in which he said he had been through a most terrible bayonet charge on the German trenches, which were captured, and that he had now lost all of his chums on the Western Front. We have been having it fairly quiet the last few days, but we have had awful weather here. When in the trenches it is up to our knees in mud and water, and very cold: but we don’t mind. We know we have got to do it, so we stick it with a joke and a smile. … We spent Christmas Day in the trenches. We made an agreement with the Germans not to fire that day, and it was a sight that you would never believe unless you saw it yourself. First one German came out of the trench shouting out ‘A merry Christmas to you English’ and then one of our chaps went out to him, and they shook hands with each other. Of course, when the boys saw this they must all go out, until there was about fifty of each side out there exchanging articles with each other. We asked them what they thought of the war and they said they were fed up with it and will be glad when it is all over. They said ‘it is not our fault we are fighting; we are the same as you, we have got to do what we are told’. Dymond survived the war, in which he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.

2nd West Yorkshires: this battalion had also taken part in the 18 December attack and in the meantime had some rest in billets. It moved forwards to relieve the 2nd Middlesex in C Lines at 6pm on Christmas Eve. The diary only reports ‘all quiet’.

The battalion’s Sergeant 8878 Arthur Self recorded his recollections in a paper that was printed in 1974, entitled ‘A gunner in a ring side seat’. He said:

Just after breakfast in the front line a white flag appeared in the German trench. A bit later we responded and all firing ceased. A German office left his trench and met one of ours in the centre of no man’s land. Speaking English he offered an armistice so that an unarmed party (stretcher bearers) could bury our dead lying behind the German front line. A Sergeant and six men wearing red cross armlets crossed over and carried out this task, which took about two hours. During this period I was able to bury the Lance Sergeant in a grave about four yards behind our front line. This was in full view of the German front line – no mourners, no chaplain, just myself – in a shallow grave and a small wooden cross. The task finished, I jumped down into the trench thankful that Fritz had kept faith to the truce. Later on, the burial party returned to our lines. There were no planes overhead, no observation balloons, no bombs, no rifle fire, therefore no snipers, just an occasional lark overhead. Just watching … and watching, it was so quiet, it was uncanny, two forces facing each other in the muddy trenches, sentries posted at each periscope, which were put up without being shot at. The truce ended at 10pm with a burst from a Maxim.[32]

2nd Scottish Rifles: The battalion was relieved by the 2nd Devons on Christmas Eve and went to billets at La Flinque. The dairy makes no comments about the period.

2nd Middlesex: the battalion was relieved by the 2nd West Yorkshires in C Lines at 6pm on Christmas Eve and moved to billets at Pont du Hem.

25th Infantry Brigade: the headquarters of this brigade also received the 7.45pm Christmas Eve warning order for special vigilance to be maintained. Fifteen minutes later it was recording that the Germans had come out of their trenches and were saying that they would not fire on Christmas Day as long as the units of the brigade did not fire. The Germans illuminated their trenches and lit some big fires behind them. Unsure as to the meaning of this, brigade issued orders forbidding men to hold any communication with the enemy. Brigade reported that the next two days were quiet, with men getting out of their trenches and going to within 100 yards of the enemy.

1st Royal Irish Rifles: this battalion was only indirectly involved in the attack of 18 December. Its war diary four days later said that ‘after five weeks desultory trench operations and little to show for it’, it had still suffered a cumulative 95 casualties. On 23 December the battalion left its billets and relieved the Lincolns in E Lines; a draft of 64 men arrived and joined the battalion in the trenches. The Christmas diary is one of the most detailed of all battalions that were in the trenches at the time.

Christmas Eve: Nothing of importance occurred up to 8pm, when heralded by various jovialities from their trenches. The Germans placed lamps on their parapets and commenced singing. Various remarks such as, ‘If you’re English come out and talk to us’. Both British and Germans met halfway between respective trenches and conversed.

Message to brigade at 8.30pm: Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and are wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions. Brigade reply: It is thought possible that enemy may be contemplating an attack during Xmas or New Year. Special vigilance will be maintained during this period.

Message to brigade at 11.45pm: Germans before my regiment state they will not fire until midnight 25/26th unless we fire. No shot has been fired since 8pm. A small party of one company met Germans half way and conversed. 158th Regiment, fine men and well clothed. They gave us a cap and helmet badge and a box of cigars.

Message from brigade at 12.35am on Christmas Day: No communication of any sort is to be held with the enemy, nor is he to be allowed to approach our trenches under penalty of fire being opened. Judging by the battalion’s diary and the words of some of its men, this order had little effect.

Battalion diary: At dawn the Germans shouted out ‘Merry Xmas’ from their trenches and danced and sang in front of their parapets. A message was received from division not to snipe unless sniped at, and that guns would not fire unless called for or if Germans fire. The line settled down, both sides doing work and singing but apparently not communicating directly with each other. It is very doubtful how one should regard this curious soldier’s truce. The German soldiers themselves are probably simple-minded enough about the thing but only time will show whether there is not something behind all this and whether we have not made a mistake in permitting this to take place. Captain O’Sullivan of B Company will fire his revolver at midnight, at which signal the truce ends. This took place. It remained quiet during 26 December but there was occasional firing. The battalion was relieved by Lincolns later in the day. A German deserter indicated an attack was due and the battalion was turned out of its billets, only to be stood down again next morning.  The deserter who caused the alarm unfortunately did not fall into the battalion’s hands.

During the month, the battalion sustained the loss of one officer, one NCO, and five men. The officer was Captain Robert Patrick Miles, attached from the 1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, who was shot dead on 30 December. He was taken for burial in Estaires Communal cemetery. He had written home, just days before:

We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorised but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The thing started last night soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen!’ to us. Of course, our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled no man’s land between the two sides. Here the agreement – all of their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. There was a half-moon and the ground was covered with hoar-frost, and one could see dim shapes wandering about or standing round in groups, English and Germans, where it would have been death to have shown a whisker an hour or two before. The men were all fraternising in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night. …  He reports going out and seeing the German trenches … I was disappointed to see such a cheery lot of fellows, as I had hoped to see a collection of living skeletons half covered with rags – animated toast-racks in uniform. The funny thing is that while we are fraternising here, swapping bully beef for bread and ‘fags’ for most execrable cigars (perhaps the gift of a box of these is a symbol of hate), one can hear the dull booming of guns and a certain amount of rifle fire going on in the same old sweet way on our right and left.[33]

The ‘Tacoma Times’, an American newspaper which printed Miles’ words, said that ‘Of all the letters printed in the English newspapers none had breathed such a spirit of optimism none portrayed with such humour and intimate detail the life in the trenches as those of this officer.’

The Royal Irish Rifles commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel George Brenton Laurie wrote home, giving us not only a view of the truce but of the veritable feast of good things sent from home:

Here we are, on Christmas Day! We have had a curious time of it. Last night, about eleven o clock, the enemy (100 yards only from us) put lanterns up on the parapet and called out: ‘Do not shoot after twelve o clock, and we will not do so either.’ One of our men ventured across; he was not fired upon, and was given a cigar and told to go back. A German officer came out next, and asked for two days truce from firing, but we said, ‘Only one day.’ Then we saw both sides, English and German, begin to swarm out to meet each other; we thought it wiser to keep our men in, because we did not trust the Germans, so I rang up the General to tell him this. We had to station sentries on the trenches to keep the men back; they were so eager to talk to the Germans. Then I offered to go across myself and learn what I could, and finally the German General asked me to send one of our officers over to them. This I did, and gave the latter as an ostensible reason the Daily Telegraph of December 22nd, which I had got hold of, and which contained a very fair account of the troubles in Austria-Hungary and Berlin. He went out with this paper, met some German officers, and discovered a certain amount. They were very anxious to know if the Canadian Division had arrived, whether our trenches were very muddy, and told him that our rifle fire was good. We said that our rifle fire in general was our weak point, etc., etc. So now this is the queer position of affairs: we fire a pistol shot off at 12 midnight to-night by arrangement, and they reply with some shots over our heads, after which things continue to hum as before. You have no idea how pleasant everything seems with no rifle bullets or shells flying about. I need hardly tell you that we have kept our men ready in the trenches all the same, as we do not trust our friends further than we can see them.

As to other matters. (1) The pheasants and the partridges arrived in time, and we lunched off them sumptuously today ; many thanks. (2) The chocolate arrived, and was distributed this afternoon to the men. (3) I enclose three Christmas cards. They are very hard to get, and you had better keep them as mementoes of this war. I am sending one to my mother. (4) Only 500 Ibs. of plum pudding arrived for our men this afternoon. If more does not turn up tomorrow, I will write to the A.D.C. of General Rawlinson to find out what has happened to the remainder.

Whilst we are peaceable, the guns are booming out now and then some miles away on our left and right where the French are fighting. I suppose we all thought from the Germans behaviour that they had something up their sleeves and are looking out for squalls. They said that their army was in Moscow, and that the Russians were beaten, and, moreover, that the war would be over in two, or at most three weeks, so we are expecting a push. . . .

He continued in another letter on 27 December:

Our strange sort of armistice continued throughout yesterday. The Germans told us they were all Landwehr men, and therefore not obliged to fight outside Germany except as volunteers, and that they did not intend to fight at present. Sure enough, though we shelled them and fired at them with rifles, they paid not the slightest attention. Whilst the shelling was on, they dodged down in their trenches, and popped up again when it was over. We hit one with a rifle, but as they would not reply, we felt rather mean and fired over their heads. The relieving regiment [Lincolnshire], of which Mr. Brown of South Collingham is a member, said they would not go on like this. Curiously enough, they have done so. Leaving our trenches, we marched away gaily, getting in here about eight o clock, or a little later.

1/13th London Regiment (Kensington): this territorial battalion had relieved part of 1st R Irish Rifles on 21 December but only half of the unit was in the line and this was reduced to 600 yards in extent by handing over a portion to the 2nd Scots Guards on Christmas Eve. The diary for next day is uninformative, only saying that the situation was quiet, but an officer wrote: Being in the line at Christmas was an extraordinary experience. The evening of Christmas Eve was very quiet, after the first really fine day for a month. After spending the day at the Aid Post with violent diarrhoea, I and my batman went up and as it was very quiet, just dusk, and the communication trench very wet, we decided to go in over the top which we did. I found my platoon and had to move immediately. My batman collapsed soon afterwards and later we had to move again, so I carried him on my back, crossing a stream over a fallen tree being no easy matter. Shortly after settling in we heard a voice ‘Englishman, Englishmen, Happy Christmas to you’ and in answer ‘same to you and many of them’. Soon Christmas trees all lighted up appeared in the German parapet and they started singing carols to which we replied. Later we heard that there was to be no firing till 5pm on Christmas Day. Next day after stand-down we saw Germans walking about no man’s land in groups, and as I saw some of our men out too and also the men of the Scots Guards on our left, I allowed my men to go in pairs and reconnoitred my own line ‘on the top’ finding that my only piece of habitable trench was separated by 150 yards of impassable trench on one side, and two hundred yards od deeply flooded trench on the other. I doubled sentries and one of our RE officers came down and examined the wire but the Bosche told him we could do what we liked behind the wire but if we did anything to the wire they would fire. So I constructed a new trench to the left of my company (which was 3 feet deep in water in 48 hours). The truce lasted all day and from the fraternisation we identified the enemy as 13, 126, 158 German Infantry. We were relieved by D Company the next night and went to billets at Laventie. Lieutenant Maltby had caught a deserter, who said that the enemy were going to attack that night.

The deserter was the cause of a widespread order for the British Expeditionary Force to go onto the alert during the night of 26-27 December.

2nd Royal Berkshire: the battalion spent Christmas in the trenches at Fauquissart. At 7pm [Christmas Eve] enemy ceased fire and an informal truce commenced. Communications by word of mouth taking place between our men and the enemy. Xmas Day. Men got up on parapet and advanced half way towards German trenches, and in some cases conversed with them. Orders given at 11am prohibiting our men from going beyond parapet. Much work done in improving trenches during this day. The enemy protested against barbed wire being repaired, and we stopped enemy from repairing theirs. Next day there was little or no rifle shooting although artillery opened fire.  The battalion was relieved at 5pm Boxing Day but had its rest disturbed by the alert during the night of 26-27 December. Second Lieutenant Albert Raynes, an officer of the Royal Sussex Regiment who was attached to the battalion at the time, wrote home to his parents in Nottingham on 27 December:

I would not have missed it for anything. Xmas Eve was cold and frosty, with a lovely moon (ideal Xmas Eve). Soon after dark, we heard someone in the German trenches shout, ‘Hullo, English, a Merry Xmas’. Soon all along the line of the German trenches, we heard ‘English, we’re friends tonight’. ‘Don’t shoot, we won’t shoot’. We shouted back we would not fire. They then fixed small fires like toy lamps all along the top of their trenches and sat on the parapet. Most of them could speak English and shouted all sorts of things, asked for the latest football results, asked if we would like a song. We shouted back ‘yes’, whereupon they struck up the ‘Watch on the Rhine’. The whole of the German line for a considerable distance took it up, and sang it with great gusto. When they had finished we struck up, ‘Tipperary’, then they sang an Austrian hymn and we replied with ‘Rule Britannia’. … Several Germans came half way, but none of our fellows went out to meet them during the night. … [Next day] ‘… when a German walked towards us, one of our men went out, then another German carrying a bottle of something came out, whereupon another of our men went out to meet them. Both sides watched the four men approach each other, in silence they met and shook hands heartily. That broke the spell, the remainder of the men in the trenches jumped out and each side waved their caps and cheered wildly. Raynes went on to describe the exchange of gifts and souvenirs and remarked upon how quiet things were until the battalion was relieved – with an exception of a shot accidentally fired on Boxing Day and for which the battalion apologised. He makes no mention of the order prohibiting further dialogue.[34]

2nd Lincolnshire: the battalion spent Christmas in at Fort d’Esquin, Rue Masselot and Picantin. It had been relieved by the 1st Royal Irish Rifles on 23 December and relieved them in the front line four days later.

2nd Rifle Brigade: this battalion was in billets at Laventie. It had been relieved by the 2nd Royal Berkshire and relieved them in trenches at 4pm on Boxing Day. An informal truce reigned. No firing on either side. The opportunity was taken to do a lot of work in the open and mending wire. As did most units, the battalion stood-to late in the day on warning of the impending German attack. At 11.40pm the British artillery opened a heavy fire. It was quiet for the next few days, and the battalion did more work on its trenches and wire. The enemy recommenced sniping at 10am on 28 December. A divisional order forbidding any further truce was received.

45 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery: a letter home from former Aston Villa football player, now Gunner 58071Herbert Smart was reported in the ‘Birmingham Evening Despatch’ of 4 January 1915.

‘Come over’, said one German soldier, ‘I want to speak to you’. We didn’t know how to take it at first, but one of the ‘nuts’ went over, and as no harm befell him others followed. But our commanding officer would not let more than three go at a time. I went myself on Christmas Day and exchanged some cigarettes for cigars. The German I met had been a waiter in London, and could use our language a little. He says they do not want to fight. Fancy a German shaking your flapper as though he was trying to smash your fingers, and then a few days later trying to plug you! I hardly know what to think, but I fancy they are working up a big scheme. But our chaps are prepared.

Smart’s brigade fired 270 rounds at 11.30pm on Boxing night, as part of the alert caused by the deserters information. The guns of the brigade were located south of Laventie and south east of Rouge de Bout.

An un-named German officer, who began his statement by saying ‘My regiment was entrenched at Neuve Chapelle’ and was this facing 8th Division, said:

On the 24th in the afternoon the activities on both sides died down and after nightfall cased completely. We had received mail, parcels and some Xmas trees from home. The choir of my company tuned up some Christmas songs. In the dugouts the men were awake, gaily talking, eating, reading and playing games. At dawn the officer on duty reported everything alright but strange, he mused, not a single shot was fired.

About noon a Sergeant rushed in. ‘Captain, come out’. The British have started waving in their trenches, but no shooting and our men do the same. On both sides the trenches had come to life. The duty-free soldiers [that is, men with no specific duties that morning] stood upright on top of their trenches without arms, waved and shouted Merry Xmas. I ordered half the company back into the trenches, arm and reinforce the sentries, on the alert but no shooting and avoid any menacing movement. Meanwhile some soldiers had slowly advanced into no man’s land.

Intensely we watched the strange sight when the soldiers met in the middle of no man’s land, shook hands, talked and strolled about. Then a man of my company came running back and reported the British officer wanted to talk to me. Thus I gave my command to the officer on duty and marched off 150 yards to the middle of no man’s land where I met two English officers, one Indian officer and one German officer of a neighbour company. We shook hands, wished Merry Xmas, agreed that both sides would abstain from any hostile activity until next day at noon, then we exchanged small presents like plum puddings, cakes, whisky, brandy and thus did our men. Finally some photos were taken for both sides. When daylight began to fade away, everybody returned to the trenches.

Next morning there has been no more meeting but also no shooting. After noon we lifted a helmet on top of our trench. It took quite some time before a bullet came – far and wide – as a warning. And thus we knew that the war had begun again.[35]

7th (Meerut) Division (Indian Corps, from Neuve Chapelle to near Festubert):

The division, headquartered at Locon, was in the process of being relieved by I Corps. Two of its brigades were now in the rear area, and only elements of the 20th (Gharwal) Brigade remained in the line.  On Christmas day it reported that all was generally quiet and that the Germans threw cigarettes into the brigade’s trenches. At 3pm an unauthorised truce took place and lasted about thirty minutes.

20th (Garhwal) Infantry Brigade: headquartered in Lacouture, the brigade was relieved during the night of 27-28 December. On Christmas Day, after several days of intensive activity, it reported a quiet night, followed by a quiet day. During the afternoon the Germans and some of the 1/39th and 2/39th [Garhwalis] left their trenches and met in the intermediate space. It was found that the 76th Infantry Regiment occupied the trenches opposite and the 142nd was opposite the left of the 2/39th. The dead that were lying between the trenches were collected and buried: one Jemadar and four men of the 2/3rd [Ghurkas] and one Jemadar and one man of the 1/39th. Captain Robertson-Glasgow’s body was also recovered from the German parapet. It was found that the Germans had three machine guns opposite the ‘gaps’. Loopholes and wire entanglement of 1/39th were repaired. Next day remained quiet.[36]

2/39th Gharwal Rifles: the battalion had been in the trenches for several days and faced the 16th (3rd Westphalian) Infantry Regiment. On Christmas morning it reported a cold misty morning, hard frost, water reported not rising. About 9am, gunner observing officer came, and 4th Howitzer shortly afterwards stared shelling enemy’s [water] pump. After three or four blind shells [that is, they failed to explode] he reported that he had dropped shells, as far as he could see, within five yards each side of the pump, and one shell a good deal nearer, and about ten shells within 15 yards radius, but it was impossible to estimate the damage. At 11am the Officer Commanding 5th (British) Brigade and the Commanding Officer and officers [of the 2nd] Worcesters came to see the trenches with a view to relieving us, though no actual orders had been received for relief. About 3 o’clock the Germans, who had since the morning been shouting and singing in their trenches, made signs to our trenches that they wished to communicate with us, and eventually they began to climb out of their trenches. We did the same, as did also the regiments on our right and left. Both sides fraternised for about an hour, several Germans coming over to our trench and talking and conversing by signs with officers and men. They gave our men tobacco, cigarettes and newspapers, and for about an hour both sides walked about freely outside their trenches and in the open space between the lines. Opportunity was taken to search for the bodies of the officers and men who were missing after the night attack on the enemy’s trenches on the night of 13 November. Captain Burton found Captain Robertson-Glasgow’s body lying on the parapet of the enemy’s trench. The bodies of several men were also found near the trench, but the situation did not admit of a careful search sufficient to identify them. About 3.45pm both sides retired again to the trenches, but little or no firing took place for the rest of the day, except an occasional shot. The battalion reported that things remained quiet through most of the next day.

2/3rd Ghurkas: this battalion remained in the trenches at the beginning of the Chrismas period, in the area of Rue du Bois and Rue du Berceaux. The only mentions that officers of the British 5th Infantry Brigade came to reconnoitre before they relieved the battalion, and that the battalion stood-to in the general alert after the German deserter said that an attack was imminent.

2nd Leicestershire Regiment: the battalion was in reserve billets in Richebourg St-Vaast throughout the Christmas period.

21st (Bareilly) Brigade: the units of this brigade had been relieved and were now in billets in the area of Paradis and Richebourg St-Vaast.

19th (Dehra Dun) Infantry Brigade: the units of this brigade were relieved by the 1st Guards Brigade during Christmas Eve and the early hours of Christmas Day. They were now in billets in the area Croix Marmuse – Cornet Malo.

The Indian Corps’ 3rd (Lahore) Division had been relieved, with headquarters at Lozinghem and the battalions billeted in Allouagne, Lapugnoy, La Beuvrière and Auchel, and was not present in the front line over the Christmas period. The detachment of the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade had also been withdrawn from the battlefield and the men rejoined their respective regiments.

1st Division: (I Corps but temporarily under orders of Indian Corps, from Chocolat Menier Corner to Festubert)

 

1st Guards Brigade: this brigade had also gone into the counter attack between Givenchy and Festubert on 21 December, and on the evening of Christmas Eve relieved the Dehra Dun Brigade and extended its line up to Chocolat Menier Corner. Its diary for the Christmas period is terse, with the entry for 25 December merely saying Quiet. No shelling.

1st Royal Highlanders (Black Watch): during the evening of 22 December the battalion had moved from reserve at Cuinchy to take over trenches that had been occupied by the 1st Coldstream Guards and 1st Cameron Highlanders. Under much sniper fire, work is undertaken to bring in the wounded from recent fighting. The diary for Christmas only mentions that the royal cards were distributed, before the battalion was relieved late on Christmas Day.

1st Cameron Highlanders: the battalion was withdrawn into billets half a mile south of Pont Fixe on 22 December. It was joined there by a draft of an officer and 161 men. At 8pm on Christmas Day, most of the battalion moved to relieve the 1st Black Watch from north west of Givenchy church, extending north to join up with the 1st Gloucesters of 3rd Brigade. The diary makes no comment about the situation.

1/4th London Regiment (London Scottish): elements of this territorial unit were holding the front line of Givenchy, with others in reserve trenches and redoubts. The diary makes no comment about the situation.

1st Scots Guards: the battalion moved into billets in Cuinchy on 22 December, describing the village as being ‘in bits but habitable in places’. At 7pm on Christmas Day, half the battalion moved forwards to trenches at a farm, and north west of it, on the north side of Givenchy village. A bad place – some of the men having to be in farm building (nasty of shelled) and the trench in prolongation of it being very narrow and shallow. No casualties.

1st Coldstream Guards: the battalion spent Christmas in brigade reserve billets at Cambrin.

3rd Infantry Brigade: the brigade had gone into the counter attack between Givenchy and Festubert on 21 December and reorganised the disposition of its units during 23 December. The Christmas period was spent in attempting to improve the trenches, with the situation being relatively quiet other than for occasional sniping. Work also began on pushing out a number of zigzag saps towards the enemy lines. On Christmas Day, the men of the brigade received their royal Christmas cards and tins. Private 9790 Peter Fitzgerald of the brigade’s 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers was the lucky recipient of a unique tin, for it included a card saying that it had been packed by Princess Mary herself.[37]

2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers: the battalion was in reserve west of Festubert. It sent its ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies to relieve the South Wales Borderers – on the left of the brigade front – during Christmas Eve. The diary reports that Christmas and Boxing Days passed quietly.

2nd Welsh Regiment: the battalion remained in its front line, in the central sector of the brigade front. Its war diary for the Christmas period is missing, but some feeling for the situation can be gained from this message: on 25 December under instructions from the GOC [divisional commander] I sent Lieutenant Hollingsworth and 70 men to try to [illegible] the corner made by the road 150 yards west of the Lone Tree and establish himself there in the communication trench. His force came under a heavy fire crossing 300 yards of open ground, losing four killed and one wounded. He almost reached his objective and established himself in a curve of the communication trench, but was himself wounded at this point. This valuable position was taken and maintained by Lieut. Hollingsworth and Company Sergeant Major Hays personal example and effort. The position so taken is very valuable. Private 10954 Hogan brought back a report from Lieut. Hollingsworth under a sharp fire. Captain H. C. Rees, commanding 2nd Welsh Regiment.[38]

1st Gloucestershire Regiment: the battalion was in the new front line – on the right of the sector held by the brigade – and remained in position throughout the Christmas period. The war diary only comments on inter-company relief movements.

1/4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers: this territorial battalion moved into reserve trenches near Festubert on 23 December and remained there during Christmas. The diary reports Christmas morning particularly quiet but Festubert was shelled during the afternoon.

1st South Wales Borderers: the battalion remained in the front line until relieved at 6pm on Christmas Eve, whereupon it moved to billets in Festubert. Next day, the battalion had the usual stand to arms at 6.30am. Many men are sick with frozen and rheumatic feet. Day passes without incident. Royal Xmas cards, puddings and Princess Mary’s gift issued to battalion. Quiet day. Boxing Day was much the same, until at 5pm the battalion moved to relieve the Royal Munster Fusiliers in the front line.

The division’s 2nd Infantry Brigade had been withdrawn to Corps Reserve and was in billets in the Essars – Le Hamel area during the Christmas period.

2nd Division: (Festubert to Cuinchy)


4th (Guards) Brigade
: the brigade headquarters moved from Béthune to Le Touret early on 23 December, and its battalions moved to relieve units of the 3rd (Lahore) and 1st Divisions. They found an enemy that could hardly be described as being in a festive mood.

2nd Grenadier Guards: the battalion relieved the 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment of 1st Brigade in trenches at Rue de Cailloux after dark on 23 December. Before this could be completed, some men of the outgoing battalion had to be dug out from the mud, and the Guards found their new position to be waist-deep in water. On Christmas Eve there was considerable sniping and bombarding with heavy trench mortars during early morning. Enemy sapped to within 10 yards in two points. About 11am they blew in the end of No 2 Company’s trench and attacked at the same time. Numbers 2 and 3 Companies retired from trenches and occupied second line which was attacked. Attack driven off with loss. Communications between trenches difficult owing to deep water and mud. During night, dug new line of trenches. Lost: Captain Sir M. A. R. Cholmeley, Bart, and Second Lieutenant J. H. G. Nevill killed; Second Lieutenant C. G. Goschen wounded and missing; Second Lieutenant Mervyn Williams slightly wounded, and following NCos and men: 15 killed, 27 wounded, 5 wounded and missing, 2 slightly wounded, 4 missing. Total 4 officers 53 NCOs and men. During the night and into Christmas Day, very severe frost during night. Great deal of shooting all day. Relieved about 7pm by 3rd Coldstream Guards and marched back to Le Touret and billeted.[39]

Given the ferocity of events on Christmas Eve it is perhaps unsurprising that the battalion was not in a Christmas mood. Major ‘Ma’ Jeffreys write in his diary:

Hard frost and ground as hard as bricks. Dykes frozen over. At daybreak a few Germans put their heads up and shouted, ‘Merry Xmas’. Our men, after yesterday, were not feeling that way and shot at them. They at once replied and a sniping match went on all day.[40]

2nd Coldstream Guards: the battalion merely reported the trenches wet, and the weather cold. Snipers caused a few casualties on Christmas Eve; the next day was quiet.

1st Irish Guards: the battalion was ordered to move forward to relieve the 41st Dogras (Bareilly Brigade), 1/9th Ghurka Rifles and part of the 6th Jats (Dehra Dun Brigade) on Christmas Eve. Supplies including plum puddings were provided to the men before relief began at 6pm. During the night, German flares and rockets lit the scene for their snipers, who were active. On Christmas Day, a patrol from Number 1 Company made a good reconnaissance under Sergeant Lynch up a disused British trench running straight towards the enemy and brought back some valuable information – enemy’s trenches are about 250 yards off. The whole ground in front is a network of trenches as it has been fought over for some time with failures and successes on each side. There are many cross trenches and communication trenches which run straight into those held by the battalion. Fortunately it was a hard frosty night so the men, though cold, kept dry. Telegram wishing the battalion a Merry Christmas was sent by the Colonel. A letter was received from General Monro, and a message from the brigadier to the same effect. A quiet day was spent as regards shelling by the enemy, although they were bombarded by heavy artillery. Lieutenant G. P. Gough and Lieutenant F.H. Witts were wounded while digging trenches, the former in the hand and the latter, slightly, in his leg. There were also six men wounded. During the day Christmas cards were issued to the battalion from their Majesties the King and Queen. The situation remained quiet on Boxing Day, although a further four men were wounded. Despite the weather which worsened considerably next day, the battalion was not relieved until 2 January.

1/1st Hertfordshire Regiment: this territorial unit had landed in France on 6 November 1914 and joined the brigade two weeks later. The battalion acquired the nickname of the ‘Hertfordshire Guards’ through their association with this prestigious formation. It left its billets at Les Facons Farm during the evening of Christmas Eve and relieved part of the 6th Jats south of the Rue du Bois. The war diary for the period is terse, only remarking that Lance Sergeant 2301 Thomas Gregory and Private 2701 Percy Huggins were both killed on Christmas Day.[41]

3rd Coldstream Guards: on Christmas Day the battalion moved from billets at Rue de l’Epinette and relieved the 2nd Grenadier Guards in the trenches. No comments are made in the diary.

6th Infantry Brigade: the units of this brigade were resting at Caestre before being moved by bus to Béthune and thence by march via Beuvry, taking over the southernmost sector previously held by the Indian Corps, on 22 December. All units reported continual sniping but little shellfire before they were relieved. No unit mentions any friendly arrangements.

1st Royal Berkshire Regiment: the battalion moved into the trenches east and north east of Givenchy. It reported the situation quiet until it was relieved on Boxing Day, although Captain George Wyld was killed near the battalion’s support trenches by a stray bullet.[42]

2nd South Staffordshire Regiment: the battalion relieved the 57th Wilde’s Rifles and a company of the French infantry on a 1000-yard frontage of the trenches east and south east of Givenchy.

1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps: the battalion relieved the 1st Connaught Rangers in the trenches east of Cuinchy (south of the La Bassée Canal) on 22 December. It was relieved on Christmas Day by the 1st King’s (Liverpool Regiment), but only after suffering the loss of four men killed and thirteen wounded. Rifle and mortar fire continued unabated and there is no mention of any friendly arrangements.

1st King’s (Liverpool Regiment): the brigade diary shows that when the battalions took over this sector, the King’s was held in reserve behind the 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps, on the Béthune – La Bassée road. The battalion diary for December does not appear to exist, but there is an extract from the private diary of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Steavenson, who in December 1914 was a Major. The entry for Christmas Day reads, Hard frost at night. Very cold foggy morning. Church parade at 10am in the open. Orders to relieve the KRRC in the trenches, starting at 1pm, so had our Xmas dinner at noon. Lord Derby sent out an enormous hamper for the officers and one for the sergeants. The first company moved off at 1pm, the last with Major Steavenson at 4.30. Very good trenches, all of them paved with bricks of which there were plenty as the support trenches were in a brickfield. The communication trench with headquarters – 600 yards long – was paved the whole way. Very good dugouts for officers and men. All the men, especially those in support, had very good cover and were really more comfortable than they had been in billets. The KRRC were quite annoyed at being relieved.

5th Infantry Brigade: this brigade moved to the Locon – Lacouture area and relieved the Gharwal Brigade after Christmas.

Football in no man’s land

Readers will have noted that football is scarcely mentioned in the official accounts. At least some of the men who were there did not believe it happened at all. The practicalities of taking footballs into the front line and having somewhere one could play anything that resembled a game made many veterans sceptical. Private 6618 Thomas Goodwin of the Northumberland Fusiliers had a letter published in the ‘Staffordshire Sentinel’ on 6 January 1915. He was quite certain about it, but he also seems to deny that fraternisation had taken place so is perhaps not the most reliable commentator:

We had a rough time out there. We lost 1200 men and 40 officers. My chum got a shrapnel straight into him. Don’t believe all the letters you see about playing football in the trenches and shaking hands with the Germans. You dare not show your head out of the trenches or else you would get one through it.[43]

Many letters, diaries and memoirs bear witness to football having been played at Christmas, but not between the two enemy sides. These examples are typical: the ‘Yorkshire Evening Post’ of 2 January 1915 carried a letter from an un-named officer of the Rifle Brigade: … we had an inter-platoon game of football in the afternoon, a cap-comforter stuffed with straw did for the ball, much to the Saxons’ amusement. In the evening we said ‘good night’, and our men lit large fires in the trenches and sang songs, though I took good care to double my sentries, as I trust these fellows devil an inch [sic]. Private 1125 William Farnden of the 3rd Rifle Brigade, writing to his parents in Leyton, talked in the ‘Chelmsford Chronicle’ of 15 January 1915 of meeting the 139th Saxon Regiment: On Christmas Day we were out of the trenches along with the Germans, some of whom had a song and dance, while two of our platoons had a game of football. Units behind the lines often reported Christmas football as one of the activities undertaken over the holiday period. One German soldier noted in his diary that the British opposite were grateful for the truce as they could play football again. This is all entirely to be expected, for the game was at a height of popularity, was encouraged by the army and a generally familiar pursuit.

But what of football with the enemy? In their masterly 1984 work ‘Christmas truce’, historians Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton concluded that there was no question that football between German and British had been at least discussed. A weight of evidence bears this out, but only to show that things rarely if ever progressed to the football match of truce mythology. The ‘Hull Daily Mail’ and other papers on 2 January 1915 reproduced letters carried in the ‘Daily Telegraph’. One included the line ‘they [the Germans] wanted to play us [at football], but unfortunately we hadn’t got one’. The ‘West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser’ of 4 January included a letter from a colonel of an infantry regiment: ‘For an hour I stood there: afterwards their captain and two subalterns came but, but I had left and did not see them. I said if they would have an armistice on New Year’s Day we would play them at football between our lines – so that remains to be seen’. There are mentions of offers to play, refusals to play, orders not to play, men who wanted to play but could not get a ball, and more. Private Frederick Mallard of the 3rd Rifle Brigade, whose letter describing the truce we have already seen, went on to describe how On Christmas Day we agreed to play a football match and we got a football, but their colonel would not let them play, so we had a bit of a game between us. This is hardly the stuff of legend.

Company Sergeant Major 1008 Frank Naden of the 1/6th Cheshire Regiment gave an account that appeared in the ‘Cheshire Observer’ on 9 January 1915, describing the extraordinary events that ‘included football in which the Germans took part’. None of the British war diaries or German regimental histories, or even his own regiment’s published history, mention anything although the official accounts of both sides in this area are curiously short on detail.[44]

Yet British newspapers by 2 January 1915 had reported that a football match had been played, with a score of 3-2 to the Saxons – a theme that comes up frequently thereafter but almost certainly through men having read or heard that very headline. The information is said to have come from an un-named officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps. There is no hard British evidence to substantiate it. The most persistent statement we have that something happened comes from the German side, and in particular three officers: Johannes Niemann, Hugo Klemm and Kurt Zehmisch.

Niemann, who wrote on his unit’s war and appeared as a veteran guest in BBC television programmes in the 1960’s, was adamant that a game had taken place and that his side were 3-2 victors. Klemm was from the same unit, the 133rd Infantry Regiment. At least one other letter from a man of this unit also mentions a game: ‘we played ball with Tommy’. The regiment was holding the line in the area between Frélinghien and Houplines, facing the British 19th Infantry Brigade.

About midday Seiss, my batman, came rushing down into the dugout and reported that out there, between the trenches, friend and foe were mingling … I thought briefly, then decided to go forward … and was soon in the middle of the crowd. Everywhere hands were shaken. The soldiers opposite us were Scotsmen. We then  exchanged everything we had with us – tobacco, chocolate, schnapps, insignia and many other things … then a Scotsman produced a football … and a regular football match developed, with caps put down to mark the goals. There was no problem, because the meadow was frozen hard. One of us had a camera with him … Quickly the footballers formed up into a single colourful group with the football at the centre … The game ended 3-2 for Fritz. During the football our soldiers soon discovered that the Scots had no underpants beneath their skirts [sic.], so that rear views were clearly visible when the skirts flared up …

In other accounts Niemann makes a point of reminding us that he saw kilted Scots. There were indeed Scots troops in the 19th Infantry Brigade: the 1st Cameronians and the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. The former are not a kilted unit. Photographs of the battalion in the trenches during the winter of 1914-15 show them not only in standard trousers and puttees, but more often than not with gum boots, leather and goatskin jerkins. It is hard to believe that Niemann would have mistaken a Cameronian for a kilted soldier. The men of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, on the other hand, only wore khaki aprons over their kilts even in the flooded trenches of the Houplines sector. This does lend some credence to Niemann’s account but it is curious that the reports by the British unit and its men do not tally. We have seen (above) that even former footballer Jack Peters could only report forlornly that the thought was there but no football was actually played. James Jack, commanding a company of the 1st Cameronians which were next to the Argylls in the trenches, wrote in his diary on ‘It seems that on Christmas Day the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders actually arranged to play a football match versus the Saxons … in no man’s land that afternoon. Indeed, someone in my trench told me of the proposal at the time, but I scouted so wild an idea. In any case, shells prevented the fixture’. In other writing Niemann mentions the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders but this unit was some distance away.

Leutnant Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Infantry Regiment made some notes in his extensive diary. It was only transcribed many years later and is now held in the documentation centre at the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum in Ypres. In addition to his account of the singing, lighting of trees and tentative meetings in no man’s land, he too referred to a game (but note that he makes no reference to it being between the erstwhile enemies):

Soon a couple of Englishmen brought a football out of their trench and a game started. This was all so wonderful and unusual. That’s also how it seemed to the English officers. That’s indeed the effect of Christmas, the festival of love, that the hated enemy should for a short time become a friend.

The diary also suggests that hopeful arrangements were made for a game on the following day, but this did not take place as Zehmisch’s unit was relieved. It was located opposite the British 10th Infantry Brigade, in the sector between the River Douve and St Yves: we have already seen that this was an epicentre of fraternisation, particularly around the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment. It may be significant that in his diary, the battalion’s Private 8970 William Tapp wrote, ‘we are trying to arrange a football match with them for tomorrow, Boxing Day’.[45] It would appear that this is the only instance where the mention of any kind of game of football between the two sides is independently mentioned by men of each side, and whilst it is inconclusive does suggest that something may have taken place, albeit far short of the mythology of football as the driver and centrepiece of truce.

There is a 1960’s footnote to the way that football developed as a legend of the truce. In that decade, the BBC produced their important and enormously popular television series, ‘The Great War’. Dozens of veterans came forward in response to an appeal for anyone who had a story to tell. Among them was one Captain Peter Jackson, an officer of the Wiltshire Regiment who recalled the tale of the truce including football. He said he had been a junior Lieutenant at the time. With only a few minutes of screen time to be devoted to the truce, Jackson’s piece was not used in the finished product. A few years later another programme was produced, titled ‘Christmas Day passed quietly’. Jackson was invited to participate. This time, so did Johannes Niemann, and after providing notes and being interviewed, they met with a film crew in France. But something did not add up. Niemann pointed out inconsistencies in Jackson’s account and the latter was reluctant to be filmed. After the BBC put it to him that all was not quite right and that after some background checking of facts that they were concerned and could not use the film, Jackson confessed: he had not been an officer but an NCO; he had not enlisted under the name of Peter Jackson but as 10932 A. E. Jackson. Nonetheless he maintained that he had been there and his story was credible, but the situation was irretrievable and hi story was cut from ‘Christmas Day passed quietly’. These days such statements can be checked in a matter of seconds: Lance Corporal 10932 Albert Edward Jackson joined the 2nd Wiltshires in France on 11 December 1914. He was wounded in early 1915. It seems he was there during Christmas, but to what extent his truce and football story can be believed is a matter of conjecture.

[1] Farrar, 27, was a graduate of Queen’s College, Cambridge.

[2] Wenzel’s unit was the Kgl. Bayerisches Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment Nr 16, which was under command of the 12th Reserve Infantry Brigade of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division. This was the unit with which one Adolf Hitler served in France. It is also sometimes known as ‘Regiment List’, after the surname of its first commander.

[3] Bruce Bairnsfather, Bullets and billets

[4] Private papers of C. A. F. Drummond, Imperial War Museum 87-56-1 (1694). His reference to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers is at odds with the fact that the ‘Dubs’ were not in the trenches at the time.

[5] This may have been Captain William Alexander Henderson of the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who has no known grave and is commemorated at the Ploegsteert Memorial. The recollections of George Allman Bridge are in the Liddle Collection.

[6] Welton was in 1915 commissioned as an officer of the Royal Garrison Artillery, reaching the rank of Major during the Great War.

[7] Private papers of Arthur Sydney Bates, Imperial War Museum MISC 70 Item 1080 (10083)

[8] Private papers of J. Selby Grigg. Imperial War Museum 84 9 1 (3881).

[9] Private papers of J. Selby Grigg.

[10] Rue du Bois is, in this instance, the hamlet alongside the Armentières – Lille railway line near Wez Macquart, rather than the better-known road of the same name that passes down towards Neuve Chapelle.

[11] The war the infantry knew

[12] Richardson, by then a Captain with the regiment’s 1st Battalion, was killed in action on 19 March 1916, aged just 21.

[13] General Jack’s diary, edited by John Terraine.

[14] Private papers of H. A. Taylor, Liddle Collection. Harry’s number could not be traced.

[15] Captain ‘Billy’ Coates was killed in action on 30 April 1915 and is buried at La Chapelle d’ Armentières Communal Cemetery. His ‘wart’ (subaltern) Sudney Bunker went on to become a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Royal Engineers, with a Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross to his name.

[16] The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission show that the two men killed have no known grave. They were Lance Corporal 7620 George Sutton and Private 11419 James Farrell. Private 9634 Joseph Richards was killed next day: he is buried at Ration Farm Cemetery. Private 9713 George White died of wounds on Christmas Day at a clearing hospital in Bailleul, but it is not certain that he was the man wounded on the day.

[17] Private papers of Harold Startin, Liddle Collection

[18] The man killed was Rifleman 2316 Leonard Tait. He has no known grave and is commemorated at the Ploegsteert memorial.

[19] The Imperial War Museum holds a letter written after the publication of Brown and Seaton’s book on the truce (item MISC 208 item 3015 (8085)). It came from Mrs Marian Richmond, the daughter of Rifleman 2288 Arthur Lancelot Pearce. She explained that he had been one of the three men who went missing and that he had become a prisoner of war. Pearce had been educated in Germany, spoke German fluently, and had been suspected as a spy because of it. Tragically, Pearce’s mother committed suicide and Mrs Richmond had always wondered whether she suspected that her son had defected to the Germans rather than been captured. The other men taken prisoner were 2133 Noel Byng and 1401 Herbert Goude.

[20] Private papers of Walter Mockett, Liddle Collection

[21] Private papers of Ernest Gordon Morley, Imperial War Museum 93-25-1(2450). Morley was killed in action on 12 October 1915 and lies in Potijze Burial Ground Cemetery. He was 22 years of age.

[22] Privates 9841 Alexander Butters (who served under the name of Kennedy) and 8327 Henry Teasdale are both commemorated at the Ploegsteert Memorial.

[23] Private papers of Harold Douglas Bryan. His papers also mentioned a boxing match and football, the Scots Guards “winning easily by 4-1”, but the reliability of these notes is doubtful. They are all written in the past tense, evidently at a later date, and are very mixed up in terms of chronological sequence.

[24] Hulse, 7th Baronet, son of Sir Edward Henry and the Hon. Lady Edith Maud Hulse of Breamore House, Breamore, Salisbury, was killed in action on 12 March 1915. He is buried in Rue-David Military Cemetery, not far from the site of the battalion’s participation in the truce. This is not, however, his original place of burial. His remains were exhumed after the war from a burial plot at Wangerie Post, on the road between Fauquissart and La Flinque.

[25] Bertrand Gordon had been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and was in command of the battalion when he was killed on the Somme in July 1916. He is buried in Dernancourt Communal Cemetery.

[26] Private 1204 James Macintosh has no known grave; Private 1101 Archibald Reid lies in Rue-du-Bacquerot (13th London) Graveyard, Laventie.

[27] Private papers of Spence Sanders, Liddle Collection

[28] The officer was Harold de Buriatte. He had been commissioned into the Bedfords from the Artists Rifles on 14 November 1914.

[29] 32 year-old Captain Charles Watts was a native of New Zealand. He has no known grave.

[30] The man who lost his life was Private 4902 Edmund Griffiths. He has no known grave.

[31] 26 year-old Maclean Dilworth now lies in Cabaret-Rouge Cemetery near Souchez, many miles from Neuve Chapelle and outside the area occupied by the BEF in 1914. He was exhumed from his original place of burial in ‘Edward Road Cemetery Number 2’ near Rue-des-Berceaux in the post-war clearance of many similar small plots. Lance Corporal 8749 Jarvis Walters and Private John Clarke have no known graves.

[32] Private papers of Arthur Self MM, Imperial War Museum 74-154-1 (7753). Self added that he visited Ypres in 1971 and from the officers of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission there found that the man he had buried, Lance Sergeant 8569 Henry Lomax, now has no known grave and is commemorated at the Le Touret Memorial. Lomax had been killed on 19 December 1914.

[33] Letter reprinted in the ‘Tacoma Times’, 11 February 1915 referring to previous anonymous publication in Britain.

[34] University of Oxford Great War Archive, accessible via Europeana. Albert Raynes letter was submitted to the archive by his nephew Peter Raynes. 20 year0old Albert was killed on 10 March 1915 and is commemorated at the Le Touret memorial.

[35] A German officer’s recollections. Imperial War Museum. MISC 26 Item 469 (5016). This officer appears to have been in company of 6 Company. In later passages he described the burial of Captain Arthur Forbes Kilby VC of the 2nd South Staffordshire Regiment, who was killed near Cuinchy at the start of the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.

[36] 34 year-old Captain Archibald Robertson-Glasgow of the 2/39th Gharwalis is buried in le Touret Military Cemetery. He was a veteran of the 1901 campaign in Somaliland.

[37] Limerick native Fitzgerald died of wounds while serving with his regiment’s 6th (service) battalion in 1916.

[38] The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission list two men killed on Christmas Eve, two next day, and one on Boxing Day. Rees may have been misinformed, or it is alternatively possible that the officially recorded date of death is wrong for two of the men.

[39] 38 year-old Baronet Sir Montague Cholmeley was reported to have been shot in the head as he led a charge down a trench towards the area that had been blown up. He has no known grave but is commemorated at the Le Touret Memorial. John Nevill is buried in the adjacent cemetery. Of the men who lost their lives only five have known graves.

[40] Jeffreys’ diary was published in an edited form and is entitled ‘Fifteen rounds a minute: the Grenadiers at war’.

[41] Both men are buried in Le Touret Military Cemetery.

[42] He was buried in ‘the garden of a house near Pont Fixe’: he now lies in Brown’s Road Military Cemetery. It is not clear whether the two are the same location.

[43] Goodwin had originally enlisted in 1901. A veteran of the Second Boer War, he was recalled from reserve in August 1914 he joined 1st Battalion in France on 9 November.

[44] A battalion comrade, Ernest Williams, gave an interview many decades later in which he also mentioned football.

[45] Tapp also noted that ‘the Scotch [by which he presumably meant the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders on his battalion’s left] won’t have anything to do with them’, which tallies with the brief account in that battalion’s diary.

German units which took part in the truce

Brigade Unit
6th Bavarian Reserve Division, facing Kemmel
12th Bavarian Reserve Brigade 17th Bavarian Reserve Regiment
40th Division, facing Wulverghem and Ploegsteert Wood and at Frelinghien
48th Brigade 10th Infantry Regiment
88th Brigade 104th Infantry Regiment
6th Jaeger Battalion
89th Brigade 133rd Infantry Regiment Saxon
134th Infantry Regiment
24th Division, on the Armentieres-Lille railway
47th Brigade 179th Infantry Regiment
48th Brigade 107th Infantry Regiment
13th Division, at Fromelles and on Rue des Bois Blancs
25th Brigade 158th Infantry Regiment
13th Infantry Regiment
11th Jaeger Battalion
26th Brigade 55th Infantry Regiment
15th Infantry Regiment
14th Division, at Aubers and Festubert
27th Brigade 16th Infantry Regiment (3rd Westphalian)

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Winter operations, 1914-1915

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