The Christmas Truce of 1914: As seen by soldiers of the 1st Battalion, The North Staffordshire Regiment

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In January 1915, the first eyewitness accounts written by soldiers of the 1st Battalion, The North Staffordshire Regiment who had participated in an informal truce with German troops in the Rue du Bois sector, near Armentieres, began to appear in the local and national press.

The mythology of the “Christmas Truce” has developed to such an extent that the events are often remembered more for the myriad of mythical football matches that are alleged to have taken place rather than the simple fact that the pause in hostilities allowed both sides to bury the dead and have a welcome respite from their sodden trenches, being able to move over open ground without the risk of being shot by snipers. What happened in the sector manned by the 1st North Staffords was recorded in their Battalion History, and can be traced further by referring to several contemporary accounts written by officers and other ranks.

On Christmas Eve, just after the battalion had been stood down, the sentries on duty spotted a number of Germans appearing from the shelter of their lines. The Company Sergeant-Major of “C” Company, 7520 C.S.M. Ambrose William Statham, looked over the parapet to see what was going on, and then reported to his company commander, Captain Arthur Septimus Conway, who was having supper in his dugout. Stapleton, according to the account printed in the Battalion History, asked Captain Conway: ‘What am I to do, Sir? The Germans are sitting on their parapets, lighting candles and singing hymns!’ Conway went out to see the situation for himself, and stood on the firestep to look over to the German positions. He saw that lights had been erected on the German parapet, and that soldiers were indeed sitting and singing.

Captain Conway then sought out the Officer Commanding “A” Company, Captain Reginald John Armes, to confer as to how the North Staffords should react to the German’s activities. On his way down toward the “A” Company headquarters, Conway saw one of the North Staffords climbing over the parapet to speak to a German soldier who was standing out in “No-Man’s Land.” The German, who stated that he had worked as a waiter in Brighton, had wanted to exchange cigars for a tin of bully beef. Captain Conway then asked to be taken to see the German’s officers, and he was taken to their lines. Meeting a group of officers near the ruins of a farmhouse, they agreed to observe Christmas Day as a day of rest. Conway agreed to the request from the Germans to bury their dead, who had lain in front of the North Staffords’ trenches for several weeks, and it was stated that burial parties from both sides would be allowed into “No-Man’s Land” from 10 o’clock on Christmas morning. Both sides agreed that their troops would not open fire during the day, and that the truce would be observed until midnight.

On Christmas morning, at the time agreed by Captain Conway and his German counterparts, the burial parties left their trenches and began the grim task of interring their dead comrades. While this work was going on, other soldiers began to meet and swap food and souvenirs with each other. Captain Ferdinand Charles Tracey Ewald, took the opportunity to carry out some reconnaissance of the German positions, but was warned off by a sentry when he got too close. The North Staffords had also taken the same precautions, and guards were maintained in their trenches while the fraternization between the two sides took place in the open. While talking to their German counterparts, who turned out to be Saxons, some of the North Staffords were reported to have been warned about the occupants of the trenches on their left, who were Prussians and described as ‘Bosen Kerle’ (surly ruffians). Both sides returned to their respective trenches at dusk, and peace was still observed even after the deadline agreed between the two sides had expired.

On Boxing Day, the North Staffords stood-to at dawn as usual, but later that morning a German officer appeared in “No-Man’s Land” and asked to speak to Captain Conway. The two officers met and saluted, before the German officer warned Conway that his Commanding Officer had informed him that at mid-day they must resume hostilities and their snipers would be active again. After Captain Conway had thanked the German officer for his courtesy, the officer saluted and bowed, before replying ‘We are Saxons; you are Anglo Saxons; word of a gentleman is for us as for you.’ A message was thrown in the section of trenches held by “A” Company from the German lines shortly afterwards, informing the North Staffords that they would fire into the air to mark the end of the truce.

Conditions in the front line began to deteriorate during the day, as it rained heavily, and by 27 December the battalion’s War Diary stated that several trenches had filled with water, mud and slush reaching the waists of the some of the North Staffords. However, the extraordinary experience of the temporary truce in their sector prompted many soldiers to write home, and their accounts of what they saw and took part in during the informal cessation of hostilities soon began to appear in local and national newspapers.

The most well-known account of the truce was written by Captain Reginald John Armes to his wife. The original letter is preserved in the archives at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum, although extracts were widely reproduced in the press during January 1915 as being sent home by an anonymous officer of the regiment:

“I have just been through one of the most extraordinary scenes imaginable. To-night is Xmas Eve and I came up into the trenches this evening for my tour of duty in them. Firing was going on all the time and the enemy’s machine guns were at it hard, firing at us. Then about seven the firing stopped.

I was in my dug-out reading a paper and the mail was being dished out. It was reported that the Germans had lighted their trenches up all along our front. We had been calling to one another for some time Xmas wishes and other things. I went out and they shouted “no shooting” and then somehow the scene became a peaceful one. All our men got out of their trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English. I got on top of the trench and talked German and asked them to sing a German Volkslied, which they did, then our men sang quite well and each side clapped and cheered the other.

I asked a German who sang a solo to sing one of Schumann’s songs, so he sang The Two Grenadiers splendidly. Our men were a good audience and really enjoyed his singing.

Then Pope[1] and I walked across and held a conversation with the German officer in command.

One of his men introduced us properly, he asked my name and then presented me to his officer. I gave the latter permission to bury some German dead who are lying in between us, and we agreed to have no shooting until 12 midnight to-morrow. We talked together, 10 or more Germans gathered round. I was almost in their lines within a yard or so. We saluted each other, he thanked me for permission to bury his dead, and we fixed up how many men were to do it, and that otherwise both sides must remain in their trenches.

Then we wished one another goodnight and a good night’s rest, and a happy Xmas and parted with a salute. I got back to the trench. The Germans sang Die Wacht Am Rhein it sounded well. Then our men sang quite well Christians Awake, it sounded so well, and with a goodnight we all got back into our trenches. It was a curious scene, a lovely moonlit night, the German trenches with small lights on them, and the men on both sides gathered in groups on the parapets.

At times we heard the guns in the distance and an occasional rifle shot. I can hear them now, but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German or two half way. They exchanged cigars, a smoke and talked. The officer I spoke to hopes we shall do the same on New Year’s Day, I said “yes, if I am here”. I felt I must sit down and write the story of this Xmas Eve before I went to lie down. Of course no precautions are relaxed, but I think they mean to play the game. All the same, I think I shall be awake all night so as to be on the safe side. It is weird to think that to-morrow night we shall be at it hard again. If one gets through this show it will be an Xmas time to live in one’s memory. The German who sang had a really fine voice.

Am just off for a walk around the trenches to see all is well. Goodnight.”

Captain Armes continued his letter the next day:

“Xmas Day.

We had an absolutely quiet night in front of us though just to our right and left there was sniping going on. In my trenches and in those of the enemy opposite to us were only nice big fires blazing and occasional songs and conversation. This morning at the Reveille the Germans sent out parties to bury their dead. Our men went out to help, and then we all on both sides met in the middle, and in groups began to talk and exchange gifts of tobacco, etc. All this morning we have been fraternising, singing songs. I have been within a yard in fact to their trenches, have spoken to and exchanged greetings with a Colonel, Staff Officers and several Company Officers. All were very nice and we fixed up that the men should not go near their opponents trenches, but remain about midway between the lines. The whole thing is extraordinary. The men were all so natural and friendly. Several photos were taken, a group of German officers, a German officer and myself, and a group of British and German soldiers.

The Germans are Saxons, a good looking lot, only wishing for peace in a manly way, and they seem in no way at their last gasp. I was astonished at the easy way in which our men and theirs got on with each other.

We have just knocked off for dinner, and have arranged to meet again afterwards until dusk when we go in again and have until 9 p.m., when War begins again. I wonder who will start the shooting! They say “Fire in the air and we will”, and such things, but of course it will start and tomorrow we shall be at it hard killing one another. It is an extraordinary state of affairs which allows of a “Peace Day”. I have never seen men so pleased to have a day off as both sides.

Their opera singer is going to give us a song or two tonight and perhaps I may give them one. Try and imagine two lines of trenches in peace, only 50 yards apart, the men of either side have never seen each other except perhaps a head now and again, and have never been outside in front of their trenches. Then suddenly one day men stream out and nest in friendly talk in the middle. One fellow, a married man, wanted so much a photo of Betty and Nancy in bed, which I had, and I gave him it as I had two: It seems he showed it all round, as several Germans told me afterwards about it. He gave me a photo of himself and family taken the other day which he had just got.

Well must finish now so as to get this off to-day. Have just finished dinner. Pork chop. Plum pudding. Mince pies. Ginger, and bottle of Wine and a cigar, and have drunk to all at home and especially to you my darling one. Must go outside now to supervise the meetings of the men and the Germans.

Will try and write more in a day or two. Keep this letter carefully and send copies to all. I think they will be interested. It did feel funny walking over alone towards the enemy’s trenches to meet someone half-way, and then to arrange a Xmas peace. It will be a thing to remember all one’s life.

Kiss the babies and give them my love. Write me a long letter and tell me all the news. I hope the photos come out all-right. Probably you will see them in some paper.”

9488 Corporal Frederick Cornes, who was a member of the Machine-Gun Section, was in the front line on Christmas Eve as the first signs of German attempts to make contact with the North Staffords were being made, and described the unfolding events in a letter to his parents:

“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 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 are knee deep 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 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.”[2]

9745 Private Cecil Simnett described his experiences to his father, who lived at Moor Street in Burton-on-Trent:

“This story will be hard to swallow in England, but it is quite true. As the German trenches were not more than fifty yards away, we shouted and asked them to come over for Christmas – just for a joke, of course; but anyway they asked us to cease firing and sent a man out from each side between the trenches. Believe me, it was not long before we were all out and it was arranged to cease firing until midnight Christmas. We were having cigars from them and giving them cigarettes, and singing and playing all day. Everyone was carrying on as usual; in fact the transport fellows came up as they would not believe it. Several of the Germans were from London and were wishing the war was over. One of them even suggested that we should finish it off at football or throwing mud at each other, as we should not get hurt. No doubt you would have liked to be here for the day. What funny things happen in this war!”[3]

9414 Lance-Corporal Arthur Lockett was also in the line when the truce took place:

“I am pleased to say that I quite enjoyed myself on Christmas Day; we were having a bit of a spree with the Germans. We had an informal truce, we both met halfway. One of their officers asked one of ours if they could come out and bury their dead, so our officer agreed and then we went out to help them. I wish you could have seen the sight; there were hundreds of them lying dead. When they had finished their work a chum of mine fetched his melodeon out and you should have seen our fellows. We quite made the Germans stare. One of our fellows went across to the German trenches dressed in women’s clothes. There was a bit of sport at first, they thought we were the Russians in front of them. They said they were sorry that they had got to fight the English. The regiment that was in front of us were the Saxons and, as you know, Saxons are more English than German. It is the Prussians and the Uhlans that are doing the damage. These men that are in front of us are like gentlemen; they would not shoot at us. Some of them gave themselves up and said that they did not want to fight against us, and that there are some more coming in.”[4]

9780 Corporal Arthur Podmore Oakes, wrote to his parents at 1 Broad Street, off Scotia Road in Burslem:

“On Christmas Eve, I was sent on an errand to ————– (Armentieres). While making my way through the streets of the town, I had quite a crowd of French children round me asking for souvenirs. They mistook me for Father Christmas for I was covered from head to heel with mud. I got back to the ‘death trap’ (as we have christened the particular trench we were holding) at dusk, and as I heard shots from German snipers, I wondered if that was their usual way of celebrating Christmas Eve. About eight o’clock, however, the enemy, who at this point are entrenched only thirty to fifty yards away, placed a number of lighted candles on the top of their trenches. Or chaps started to shout across good humouredly and the Germans replied in the same spirit. Then both sides got on the top of their respective trenches and one of each side met halfway. Then “Peace on earth, goodwill towards men” was the order of the day or rather the night. A regular singing contest began our chaps giving ‘Tipperary’, ‘Thora’, ‘Way Down De Swannee River’ and several other well-known songs. The programme tendered by the “Grey-coated Pierrots” (Germans) was very good, and included the Austrian and German National Anthems and ‘The Watch on the Rhine’. A baritone singer gave ‘Sailor Beware’ in English, and several other songs. We learned that he was a well-known opera singer and he certainly did not disgrace opera. At 10 o’clock we sang ‘The King,’ bade them good-night and turned in. Christmas Day dawned at last but I found nothing in my socks but a pair of feet so cold that I hardly knew they were there. If Santa Claus had not been round, Jack Frost had. After breakfast I, with several others, went halfway between the trenches and entered into conversation with the English-speaking Germans. They were members of the —– Regiment (Saxons) and very decent chaps they seemed. They told us their regiments had been in Kiel Harbour for three months waiting to go to England before they had been sent down to the fighting line. They said their officers had told them that General von Hinden burg (sic) had practically defeated the Russian Army, and a few days previously they had heard of a great German victory over the Russians. We showed them English papers but they argued that our papers were just as liable to lie as theirs. They all seemed anxious for a speedy termination of the war, and one fellow made us laugh by saying that both sides ought to stand back to back and advance. I noticed a couple of our chaps and a couple of Germans eating black bread and German sausage, and they made a pretty picture I assure you! Cigars were plentiful among them and they were very generous with them. I had a very nice pocket-knife given to me by one of them, and the postcard enclosed is a group of this regiment. At 4 p.m. we returned to our trenches and spent the rest of the day in peace for true to their word they did not fire at us. A peculiar thing about it was that the regiments on either side of us kept up hostilities.”[5]

Captain Philip Dawson Harris wrote to his family on Boxing Day:

“I will now tell you how I spent my Christmas Day. As I told you, our trenches vary from between thirty yards and 300 yards from the Germans.

On Christmas Eve we went once more up into the fire trenches. About 6.30 at night, with one accord, all firing in front of us ceased, and cheery remarks were shouted across from trench to trench. Later on one of their officers came halfway across, and was met by our captain, who gave them from 7.10 on Christmas morning to bury their dead (several of whom had been lying about for some time). A little later lights appeared on their near trenches (like footlights in a theatre), and they started singing; we then gave them a song. This went on until all their and our men were sitting on the parapets of our respective trenches, with fires blazing all round; it was a thing to see and remember. The singing went on far into the night, first they and then we.

On Christmas morning they came out in small parties to start burying. An officer came halfway across. I went out to meet him, and we talked for a bit. Chancing to look round I found that half our men were out, talking and shaking hands, and giving each other presents of cigarettes, cigars, chocolates, bully beef, biscuits, and any amount of talk. To cut a long story short, after breakfast there were nearly all our men and theirs on the ground between the trenches, all the greatest of pals. Arrangements were made, and we arranged for no shots to be fired from either side until nine o’clock (10 by their time) at night. So all day long this crowd of enemies were friends. Mind you, all the time the regiments on our right and left were having business as usual! At dusk we got into our respective trenches, and nobody fired at 9, but another impromptu concert at night.

This morning about ten o’clock I met one of their officers halfway, and he told me that they had had instructions to shoot as occasions occurred, so we arranged an hours’ grace, as the first shot has just gone off.

While I was talking to his this morning there was a captain, with another officer and two German officers, surrounded by swarms of English and German Tommies, having their photos taken! The high authorities on both sides did not seem to like the above proceedings at first, but the men took matters into their own hands, and so there you are.

If you could only have seen this mob, you would have thought you were dreaming. We find that it is a regiment (Saxon), or, rather, two regiments whom we had a real good bust up with about six weeks ago! A message has just been thrown over from them on a piece of dirty cardboard: “We shot to the air,” but, of course, war is war, and I expect we shall be at it properly again in a short time.

Still, it is an experience never to be forgotten, and I would not have missed it for worlds! Nor would anybody else who was there. They looked very clean and well-clothed, and to have had plenty to eat. They like our hairy coats very much, and could hardly believe they were Government issue.”[6]

9929 Lance-Corporal Thomas Harper described his impressions of the truce in a letter that he sent to The Tamworth Herald, written on 26 December:

“I would be very pleased if you would allow me space in your valuable paper to let you know how we are going at the front. I received the kind and welcome letter and tobacco from the Chamber of Trade, which was 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 on top of the trenches with our fellows, 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 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 them 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 hand with each. Firing is as usual to-day, Boxing Day. They are letting us have bags of Jack Johnson to-day. I am glad to see my old “C” Company, 6th North Staffords, are going on first class, and are ready for active service. I am getting on first rate. I was a big pal of Joe Seal’s, [7] and I miss him now he is dead; poor chap.”[8]

Another soldier from Tamworth, 9429 Sergeant Alec Pointon who served with “A” Company, also wrote to the Herald:

“I now take the opportunity of thanking you for sending me your valuable paper each week, and hope you will allow me, through its columns, to thank the people of Tamworth and district on behalf of my chums and myself from Tamworth and district, for the many parcels of tobacco and cigarettes received by us from them at Christmas. I have noticed that several men of the British Expeditionary Force have also written thanking you for your paper, and letting you know about the truce at Christmas between us and the Germans. I can say quite truthfully that the truce lasted from Christmas Eve till the night time of Boxing Day, and several of my chums from Tamworth that are in the same regiment as myself exchanged tobacco, cigarettes and other souvenirs, and I have sent home to my father, Mr Albert Pointon, 34 Bolebridge-street, Tamworth, a German cigar, and some German coins, which I obtained on Christmas Day in exchange for some English souvenirs.

In your paper about three weeks ago I noticed that someone wrote and said that the Germans cannot shoot, but in my opinion and anybody else’s opinion that knows anything about shooting it is all bosh, as I have seen men of my own regiment put out of action by their snipers from over 1000 yards’ range. The only time that the German infantry shooting is at fault is when they are attacking, and then they advance in great masses, firing from the hip, as they do not have a chance to take aim then. I must say that everyone out here is as cheerful as circumstances will permit, but some places in the trenches are up to the knees in water, and every endeavour is being made to make them as comfortable as possible with timber, etc. I have two Tamworth men in my platoon, viz., Privates Bond and Collins, and several men from around the district.”[9]

On 28 December 1914 9770 Acting-Sergeant Charles Lightfoot, of “C” Company, wrote to his parents, who lived at 97 Campbell Road in Birches Head:

“On Christmas Day we saw a sight past imagination. The Germans left their trenches and so did we. We met them half-way and you should have seen them shaking hands, exchanging addresses, and souvenirs &c. They brought us plenty of cigars and tobacco. There was not a shot fired between us all Christmas Day. One of our men played a melodeon and the Germans danced to it and gave us some very good singing.”[10]

The 1st North Staffords remained in the line until New Years’ Eve, when they were relieved by the 2nd Battalion, The Leinster Regiment, and marched to rest billets at la Chapelle d’Armentieres.

9488 Corporal Frederick Cornes, who was manning his machine gun on Christmas Eve as the Germans began to appear on the parapet of their trenches, described the truce in a letter to his parents at Chesterton written on New Years’ 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 the dead, and when we saw how many they 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 ration, 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.”[11]

Another account regarding the truce, written by an unnamed Bandsman of the 1st Battalion, The North Staffordshire Regiment, was reproduced in The Brighton Herald & Hove Chronicle on 2 January 1915:

PEACE PRO TEUM IN THE TRENCHES.

BRITISH AND GERMANS FRATERNIZE.

“The following highly interesting letter has been received by a young lady at Brighton from a bandsman of the 1st North Staffordshires who has been in the fighting line since the beginning of September, and has so far escaped without injury. His letter tells how a little party of the British and German soldiers declared a truce and fraternized on Christmas Day. He says:

“26-12-14

This is a letter to you all; and as I am allowed to send only one letter, I have to do it this way, so please forgive me. You have all been so good to me that I want to thank you very, very much… I received all the parcels, letters, cards, etc, before Christmas.

Now I will tell you all how I enjoyed my Christmas. Well, you will be surprised to know that we all spent a very happy one, and it was with the Germans. This is how it came about.

The evening of December 24 is rather cold, and the ground is covered with frost. The troops start singing carols and songs; and as the Germans are only fifty yards away, they also start to sing, and they put lighted candles on the top of their trenches, which looked very pretty over the frost.

Then a German shouted across, ‘If you won’t shoot, we won’t.’ So we said, ‘All right.’ Then a German officer came halfway, and one of our officers went out to meet him; and there and then they arranged to have a twenty-four hours’ armistice, and as there was a lot of dead in between their and our trenches (of theirs), we said we would let them bury them in the morning.

Then the officers went back to their trench, and there was no firing except for a shot now and then on our right.

About 9.30pm, a German came across and gave a chap a cigar, and then went back for a boxful and gave them to our chaps; and so in return two of our fellows went and gave them two boxes of cigarettes between them.

25-12-14

Christmas morning my mate came down from the firing line and woke me up; and so off we go to see the Germans bury their dead. The morning is very cold, and the ground is all white (an ideal Christmas morning). When we get up there, I find every one walking about on top as if nothing was on (all the guns are quiet, and once more there is peace on earth for a day), and there were the Germans burying their dead, and some of our chaps helping them.

It was then that we started to go over to them and exchange cigarettes for cigars, and laugh and joke with them. I myself had five cigars (which were very good), some German money, and got six of their names and addresses. So that is a proof of what I say is true; and that is how we spent Christmas Day, laughing and singing together. My word, they have got some fine singers, too. There was one boy only sixteen there. I didn’t see any more there, but they were all pretty fat and looking well. They were the 107th Regiment.

A lot of the chaps would not believe this until they went up and saw for themselves. It is a thing that has never been known before. We all had our photo taken together, Germans and all; I don’t expect I will be able to get one. All regiments didn’t go over to the Germans, for some wouldn’t have it; so we were lucky. In the evening we sang to one another again. Today is not so quiet, for the guns are firing. Goodbye.”

With the letter there was submitted to us the six German names written on two pages torn from a small pocket-book. With these treasured souvenirs were sent back to Brighton the Christmas cards that the writer of the letter had received from the King and Queen and from Princess Mary. The signatures of the Germans were as follows:

Willy Müller; R Enzmann; M Dorn; Hermann Bösel; Otto Ehrlish; L Findmann.”

6615 Lance-Corporal Harry Shufflebotham wrote home on 3 January 1915:

“We had a very bad time in the trenches this time, on account of the bad weather, and there are no end of men going sick through colds, &c. We were in the trenches from December 11th to the 31st, and now we have come down to ——–, where we are to stay in billets for five days. After we got back into the trenches for four days, and then, I believe we go down for a new outfit and a rest. We had a very good Christmas, taking all things into consideration. You may not believe it, but it is the truth. Our regiment and the Germans met half-way between the trenches (which are only 40 to 50 yards apart), and shook hands and exchanged cigarettes, cigars, &c. Not a shot was fired as it was arranged by both sides that there should not be. They (the Germans) seems as though they were short of food, as they even begged bully-beef, and we gave it to them freely. They are quite a young lot of chaps, ranging from 18 upwards. I was talking to several of them, and they said they were fed up and ready to throw in, and no doubt you will see it in the “Sentinel” in due course. We had a fine Christmas box from Princess Mary, and one from the “Staffordshire Sentinel,” containing a pound box of chocolate and a New Years’ gift from the same source, of 20 packets of cigarettes and eight ounces of tobacco, in addition to which we also had eight packets of cigarettes from B company of the North Staffords at home.”[12]

On 25 January, 6005 Sergeant John James Kidd, who served in “D” Company,  wrote to a newspaper in Derby and recounted his experiences since landing at St Nazaire in September 1914. He had this to say regarding the truce:

“On Christmas Eve our men commenced singing, and very shortly afterwards the Germans were heard to be doing the same. I ought to say here that our trenches were only a matter of 60 or 70 yards apart. Shortly afterwards the Germans were heard shouting the usual compliments of the season, to which our men replied. As a result a sort of informal truce sprung up, and on Christmas Day both ours and the Germans left the trenches and met half-way and began to exchange tobacco, cigars, souvenirs, etc; but, of course, this is all over now, and we are blazing away at each other as usual.”[13]

As news of the events that had taken place over Christmas 1914 began to reach home, and letters written by soldiers were published in the local and national press, there was a perception that the informal truces between British and German troops during Christmas 1914 had taken place on all parts of the front. That impression still persists today. One soldier serving with the 3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, whose battalion served in a sector where fighting had continued, wrote angrily to a friend refuting this, and his letter was published in The Walsall Observer on 23 January 1915:

CHRISTMAS IN THE TRENCHES.

“Private G. Taylor, who is with the Expeditionary Force, writing to a friend in Walsall, after thanking him for what he and his friends had done for the soldier’s wife and family, goes on to say:

“I am going to tell you some first-hand news. There is no doubt you have seen in the papers where our troops and the Germans played football and exchanged cigars and cigarettes on Christmas Day, but on no account believe this. I happened to be in the trenches on Christmas Day, and if a German had offered to expose himself for three or four seconds, his daylight would have been put out and in quick time by any of our regiment. They would not half look out. Bill, and the people who put some of these letters in the paper ought to be burnt, as they know when they are doing so they are all lies. According to the way some of the papers read, people would think we are on a pic-nic instead of fighting a modern army, with modern equipment, and as full of treachery as hell is full of devils. They have come the white flag trick on us. But we don’t feel like playing football when we come out of the trenches, which are nearly two feet deep in water and mud, so I will leave you to guess how one feels after he has been standing in that for two or three days. I live in hope of being with you shortly, as they are fighting like a beaten army, and it is impossible for their country to stand the strain much longer, I should thing (sic). I now close my letter, wishing you best of luck – Yours truly, G. TAYLOR, D Coy, 3rd Bat. British Expeditionary Force. ‘Play up, Walsall!’ and ‘Roll on, England!’”

A few weeks later a soldier from the 1st North Staffords, penned a response that was printed in The Walsall Observer on 20 February 1915:

THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE.

“We have received the following letter from a Lance-Corporal of the North Staffords at the Front:-

Sir – Reference your paper dated January 23, re Private G. Taylor, 3rd Battalion British Expeditionary Force (sic). Will you please all me through the medium of the “Observer” to contradict the letter which appears in your paper. I also was in the trenches on Christmas Day, and personally interviewed the Germans. I cannot think why G. Taylor should condemn people who wrote home regarding the truce at Christmas, and regardless of what regiment he belongs to he should first make the acquaintance of what regiments took part in it, also, if he refers to Army Orders, which I believe have been issued to the effect, “That nothing of this kind of thing must take place again,” I am afraid that he cannot then condemn us all as telling lies, for the statements are only too true.

Yours, etc.

X.Y.Z.”

Another myth that has grown over the years is that organised games of football took place along the front during the truce. There is scant evidence to support these claims, and the contemporary eyewitness accounts written by soldiers of the 1st North Staffords make no mention of any impromptu match taking place at Rue du Bois. Nevertheless, the legend has grown over the years, and a reference to a game of football taking place on the North Staffords’ sector of the line crept into the testimony given by a former soldier who was with the battalion at Christmas 1914.

In 1974, James Prince was interviewed by the BBC about his recollections of the truce at his home in Cardiff. In 1914, he was a Lance-Corporal with the 1st North Staffords, his regimental number being 8194. Drafted to France on 3 December, he had joined the battalion shortly before it entered the front line at Rue du Bois on 11 December. While some of his recollections given during the interview do tie in with contemporary accounts and what was recorded in the Battalion History, his reference to a “football match” does not and there can be no doubt, based on the extensive material available that was written during and within days of the truce by other soldiers of the 1st North Staffords, that Prince was mistaken, and that his memory of his comrades playing football with the Germans was a false one. Prince was severely wounded five days after his nineteenth birthday and as a result of having one of his legs amputated below the thigh was discharged on 26 September 1915 and issued with a Silver War Badge. He went on to serve with the Home Guard during the Second World War and became treasurer of his local branch of the Royal British Legion in Cardiff. The interview was broadcast during the “Good Morning Wales” programme on BBC Radio Wales on Christmas Eve 1974 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the truce.

The interview with James Prince can be listened to via this link: 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02gj6fx

Another account, though not of an eyewitness, was extensively reported on in December 2014, on the eve of the centenary of the “Christmas Truce.” The document in question was a letter written by Brigadier-General Walter Norris Congreve V.C., the General Officer Commanding 18th Brigade of 6th Division, to his wife. Donated by the Congreve family, it is preserved at the Staffordshire County Record Office and it was claimed that the letter had not been released to the public before. In fact, extracts taken from it had appeared in Terry Norman’s book based on the diaries of Brigadier-General Congreve’s son, William La Touche Congreve V.C., which had been published in 1982.[14]

Brigadier-General Congreve V.C., who was a Staffordshire man, had visited the Battalion Headquarters of the 1st North Staffords on Christmas Day, and he described the situation during the truce:

“Christmas Day 1914

Darling dear – as I cannot be with you all, the next best thing is to write to you for so I get closer. We have had a “seasonable weather” day – which means sharp frost & fog & never a smich (sic) of sun. I went to church with 2 of my battalions in an enormous factory room & after lunch took down to the N. Staffords in my old trenches at Rue du Bois Mother’s gifts of toffee, sweets, cigarettes, pencils, handkerchiefs & writing paper.

There I found an extraordinary state of affairs – this a.m. a German shouted that they wanted a day’s truce & would one come out if he did; so very cautiously one of our men lifted himself about the parapet & saw a German doing the same. Both got out then more & finally all day long in that particular place they have been walking about together all day giving each other cigars & singing songs. Officers as well as men were out & the German Colonel himself was talking to one of our Captains.

My informant, one of the men, said he had had a fine day of it & had “smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army, then not more than 18. They say he’s killed more of our men than any other 12 together but I know now where he shoots from & I hope we down him tomorrow.”

I hope devoutly they will – next door the 2 battalions opposite each other were shooting away all day & so I hear it was further north, 1st R.B. playing football with the Germans opposite them – next Regiments shooting each other.

I was invited to go & see the Germans myself but refrained as I thought they might not be able to resist a General.”

Predictably, much of the press coverage mentioned Congreve’s reference to a rumour of the 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade playing football against the Germans, and concentrated on this rather than the more interesting detail contained in the letter regarding his conversation with a soldier of the North Staffords. As Congreve was some miles to the south of where the 1st Rifle Brigade were located, in Ploegsteert Wood, he was not present to witnessed the alleged football match, and evidence from accounts written by soldiers on the spot indicates that their primary concern was burying their dead comrades who had been killed on 19 December rather than indulging in a kickabout with their erstwhile foes.

As with many aspects of the “Christmas Truce,” the myths are focused upon and further embellished. The contemporary accounts provided by the soldiers of all ranks who took part are often ignored, and it is high time that their testimonies are revisited and their experiences are truthfully represented.

Footnotes:

[1] Lieutenant Vyvyan Vavasour Pope.

[2] Staffordshire Sentinel, 14 January 1915.

[3] Birmingham Daily Post, 5 January 1915 & Coventry Standard, 8 January 1915. Cecil Simnett was killed on 31 July 1917 and is buried at Perth Cemetery (China Wall): Plot II, Row H, Grave 46.

[4] Staffordshire Sentinel, 13 January 1915. Lockett had joined the North Staffords on 24 October 1910 and was promoted to Corporal later in the war. He was discharged due to wounds, aged 24 years and six months, on 2 November 1917 and issued with a Silver War Badge.

[5] Staffordshire Sentinel, 12 January 1915 & Yorkshire Post, 14 January 1915. Born on 7 October 1893, Arthur had been employed as an assistant to his father, who was an earthenware dealer, before joining the Army. Later promoted to Sergeant, he was awarded the Military Medal in 1916, the announcement being published in The London Gazette on 9 December. On 27 July 1917, Oakes was commissioned in the field and joined the 1st Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment as a Second-Lieutenant. He was later employed at the Headquarters London District Annexe at Carlton House Terrace in 1918, before being posted to 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion of The Northamptonshire Regiment at Templemore in County Tipperary, from where he applied for his 1914 Star on 23 July 1919. Arthur Oakes was sent the clasp and roses for his 1914 Star on 23 August 1921, by which time he resided at 45 Gordon Street in Burslem. He died in Rhodesia on 11 February 1974.

[6] Liverpool Daily Post, 4 January 1915. Philip Dawson Harris was the second son of Arnold Elsmere Harris, J. P., and Florence Harris. Philip was commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant in the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion on 11 February 1911, having previously held the rank of Sergeant in the Birmingham University Contingent of the Officers Training Corps and was married to Gertrude Maria Harris. Captain Dawson was killed on 21 March 1918, aged 29, and is commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial.

[7] 9483 Corporal Joseph Seal had been killed on 2 November 1914. He has no known grave and is commemorated on Panel 8 of the Ploegsteert Memorial.

[8] Tamworth Herald, 9 January 1915. Harper was promoted to Sergeant and was awarded the Military Medal, notification of the award being published in The London Gazette on 13 September 1918. He went on to serve with the 2nd Battalion after the war and was issued with the clasp and roses for his 1914 Star on 23 December 1921.

[9] Tamworth Herald, 23 January 1915. Severely wounded near Hooge, Pointon died at No. 10 Stationary Hospital at St Omer on 25 August 1915, and his death was reported in The Tamworth Herald on 4 September: “On Thursday morning, Mr Albert Pointon, 34 Bolebridge street, Tamworth, received intimation of the death of his son, 9429 Sergeant Alec Pointon, 1st North Staffordshire Regiment. The official notice stated that he died from wounded received in action near Ypres at the stationary hospital, St Omar (sic), on August 25. By a sad coincidence, the news came on the late sergeant’s parents on his 23rd birthday. He joined the Army on December 27, 1910, and was promoted to the rank of sergeant eighteen months ago. At the outbreak of the war he was stationed at Buttevant, Ireland, and was senior clerk in the orderly room. Enclosed with the record of Sergt. Pointon’s death was a note from Lord Kitchener, conveying the sympathy of the King and Queen.” The son of Albert and Sarah Pointon, Alec is buried at Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery: Plot II, Row A, Grave 21.

[10] Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel, 14 January 1915. Christmas 1914 was Charles Lightfoot’s last. He was killed on 12 March 1915 during his battalion’s successful attack on the hamlet of L’Epinette. Aged 20, Charles was the son of William and Margaret Elizabeth Lightfoot and is commemorated on Panel 8 of Ploegsteert Memorial. He had joined the North Staffords in 1912 and previous to his enlistment had been employed as a shop assistant at Mellroy’s in Hanley.

[11] Staffordshire Sentinel, 14 January 1915. Frederick Cornes had joined the North Staffords on 15 March 1911 and was later appointed an Acting Sergeant. He was transferred to The Durham Light Infantry and posted as a Corporal to the 15th (Service) Battalion. Cornes was discharged on 28 March 1919 and issued with a Silver War Badge. He was sent the clasp and roses for his 1914 Star on 11 April 1922.

[12] Staffordshire Sentinel, 13 January 1915. Born at Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1881, Harry Shufflebotham was employed as a labourer of the Coach and Waggon Department of the North Staffordshire Railway at the outbreak of the war, and was drafted to France on 22 October 1914. He was transferred to The West Yorkshire Regiment on 6 May 1915, and went on to serve with 2/6th Battalion of The Durham Light Infantry and 955th Company of the Labour Corps before being posted to the 43rd (Garrison) Battalion of The Royal Fusiliers, which provided guards to the five Army Headquarters in France. Harry Shufflebotham was employed by the London and North-Western Railway after the war and died in 1962.

[13]Derby Daily Telegraph, 8 February 1915. Born at Coton-in-the-Clay in April 1882, John was the son of George and Mary Ann Kidd and was a Reservist. He had originally attested for the 4th (Militia) Battalion of The North Staffordshire Regiment at Derby, and at the time of his enlistment his parents were living in Tutbury.  He was soon sent to South Africa, and for his service fighting the Boers was issued with the Queen’s South Africa Medal with clasps for Cape Colony and Transvaal, and the King’s South Africa with clasps for South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902. By 1911, Kidd was married and lived 64 Campion Street in Derby with his wife, Annie, and their young daughter, but three years later they resided at 60 Stanhope Street. He was employed as a labourer by Midland Railways at the outbreak of the war, and on being mobilised was posted to the 1st North Staffords. Sergeant Kidd was severely wounded while serving in the trenches at L’Epinette in March 1915 and was evacuated to No. 13 General Hospital at Boulogne. He died there of his wounds on 23 March and is buried at Boulogne Eastern Cemetery: Plot III, Row D, Grave 53.

[14] T. Norman (ed.) “Armageddon Road: A V.C.’s Diary 1914-1916 (London, William Kimber, 1982) pp. 96-97.

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