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The Christmas truce

24 Dec

The iconic image of Christmas in the Great War is the 1914 Christmas truce.  Londoner Cyril Drummond took part in this historic truce on the Western Front while serving as a Royal Artillery officer and took this amazing photo of men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment fraternising with soldiers from the 134th Saxon Regiment:

Men of Warwickshire and Saxony meet in No-Man's Land - (c) IWM

Men of Warwickshire and Saxony meet in No-Man’s Land, photo by C.A.F. Drummond – (c) IWM

The Warwickshires were not the only ones, of course. The excellent Long, Long Trail page about the truce lists battalions from six British and Indian Divisions that took part, units that included the London Rifle Brigade (1/5th Londons), the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (1/16th Londons) and Kensingtons (the 1/13th Londons, whom we’ve met in Eric Kennington’s wonderful war art). Rather than try to tell the story, which other websites already do well, here are a few accounts from those London units:

Eighteen-year-old William Henry Francis Ollis of the Queen’s Westminsters wrote to his family in Croydon about the truce (the letter was published in the local paper and reproduced on the excellent Christmas Truce website):

What an extraordinary effect Christmas has on the world. Peace and goodwill amongst men during peace time one can quite understand but peace and goodwill amongst men who have been murdering one another for the past five months is incredible and if I had not seen for myself the effects of Christmas on these two lines of trenches I should never have believed them. All day yesterday the German snipers were busy and unfortunately to some effect…(censored)..progressing well. That is by the way. The point is that when darkness fell all firing ceased. The Germans sang and shouted and cheered, and we sang and cheered. We called Merry Christmas across to one another. The German lines were lit up with huge flares and we could see each other plainly. A few hours before we were jolly careful to keep our heads below the parapet and now we were sitting on it, throwing cigarettes and tobacco to our enemies who wandered out into the middle of the lines. In some places we are only about 100 yards from them and we kept up conversation all night. By the way they offered to play us at football. I shall be able to tell you heaps more about the wonderful change that has come over with the dawn of Christmas when I get back. Today not a shot has been fired and the frost is still thick on the ground. Quite a welcome change after the wet. We are quite happy and hope you are the same. Your ever-loving ‘Terrier’ Billy.

Corporal Leon Harris, who had come to London before the war to work in Selfridge’s, wrote home to his parents in Exeter of the experience he and his comrades in the Kensingtons had, beginning on Christmas Eve (also published in the local press and  reproduced on the excellent Christmas Truce website):

This has been, the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck. We were in the trenches on Christmas Eve, and about 8.30 the firing was almost at a stand still. Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘a happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches. Some of our men met some of theirs half way, and the officers arranged a truce till midnight on Christmas Day. It was extended till Boxing day night and we all went out and met each other between the two lines of trenches, exchanging souvenirs – buttons, tobacco and cigarettes. Several of them spoke English. Huge fires were going all night and both sides sang carols. It was a wonderful time and the weather was glorious on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – frosty and bright with moon and stars at night.

The account of a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade is reproduced in a Guardian article on the subject:

First of all I must describe in detail what will, I believe, live in history as one of the most remarkable incidents of the war.

On Christmas Eve at about 4pm, we were in a line of advance trenches waiting to be relieved, directly it was dark, when we heard singing and shouting coming from the other trenches at right angles to us which line a hedge of the same field. Then the news filtered down. German and English officers had exchanged compliments and agreed on a truce, and then started giving one another a concert. We all sang every song we could think of, a bonfire was lit and everyone walked about as though it were a picnic. After we were relieved and got back to the breastworks (about 200yds?) behind the firing-lines, we could hear the German band playing Old Folks at Home, God Save the King and Onward, Christian Soldiers.

On Christmas Day, men and officers went in between, and even entered each other’s trenches and exchanged smokes and souvenirs. I am sorry we were relieved; it must have been a marvellous sight. All I could manage was a German cigarette given me by one of our platoon who accompanied our platoon officers to the line. One regiment, I hear, tried to arrange a football match for this afternoon, but I don’t think that came off. We are opposed to Saxon regiments and the whole affair is most striking, when you consider that a week ago today there were some hundreds of casualties through the attack and the dead still lie between the trenches.

By this truce we were able to get the bodies and the Germans were good enough to bring our dead out of some ruined houses by their trenches, so that we could give them burial here. I personally shall be very pleased when we go up tomorrow night, not to have that sight before us again.

One of Coulson’s comrades, David H W Smith, collected and kept the signature of one of the Saxon soldiers he met during the truce, Arthur Bock of Leipzig.

The truce was a refreshing change for those in the front line. But it did not last long and it was not repeated the next year, as the war ground on. For a few days at the end of 1914, though, some of the men on the front line broke the rules and met with their enemies as humans, many of them as Christians, all of them far from their families. A truly remarkable event.

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Posted by on 24 December 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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