At this time of year posts inevitably crop up on social media mentioning the Christmas Truce of 1914. Sadly much of it is incorrect, with mass football games between British and German troops topping the naughty list of duff history. Thankfully there are some First World War stalwarts fighting the good fight and who seek to set the record straight. They include Simon Jones, who has written a blog about the truce, and Chris Baker, whose encyclopedic Long Long Trail site has a page dedicated to the truce. Over on Twitter Steve Smith can be seen trying to correct the mistruths.
During the course of my research into The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) in the war, I have come across a few references to the truce. Whilst my research mainly focuses on the 1st Battalion, at Christmas 1914 it was still recovering from its losses at Gheluvelt at the end of October and had a quiet Christmas out of the line.
However, the other regular battalion of the regiment, the 2nd, was not so fortunate. December was spent in and out of the line. A raid was carried out on the night of 14 December and the battalions supported an attack by the 2nd Royal Warwickshire Regiment on the 18th. The CWGC database records 41 fatalities for the month.
At daybreak on 19 December the Germans initiated an armistice for collecting wounded and burying the dead from the action the previous day. However, it ended on a sour note when it was discovered that two officers (Second Lieutenants Rought and Walmisley) and seven stretcher bearers had been enticed into the German trenches and taken prisoner. Two photos from that day can be seen in the Surrey History Centre collection here.
Given the events of the 19th, it is therefore perhaps surprising that another truce was entered into on Christmas Day. The war diary contains a narrative of what happened, written by Major Leonard Markham Crofts, who went on to command 1st Battalion until being wounded in late-December 1917:
‘At 11.0 am an armistice began – It started opposite the left of the Wiltshire Regiment – the Regt 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. Ramsay previously reported missing was found near the German trenches and taken back to the dressing station to be buried in the churchyard.
The Germans were nearly all belonging to the 55th Regt. Several staff officers also came over. These were quite a different class to the infantry officers, who were of a very low class. All 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 4.0 pm with agreement to resume it at 9.0 am following morning as dead were not all buried.
Boxing Day: armistice recommenced as arranged at 9.0 am. 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 lately 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 1.0 pm 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 Regt, men of the 7th, 15th and 22nd Regiments were noticed. Armistice concluded at 3.30pm.‘
Another account of the truce appeared in the West Surrey Times on 16 January 1915. Private S Brookes wrote:
‘On Christmas Eve’ he said ‘the Germans shouted out they wanted to play us the ‘English football’ on Christmas Day – but the match did not come off. They started to come out of their trenches about 8.30 on Christmas Day, waving a white flag and shouting “Inglee! Come on Inglee.” They also waved their hands, but we shouted back “No.” The Germans then said “We come half-way and you come half-way.” Then some of English troops got out of the trenches and went towards them. They met in the centre and exchanged cigarettes and chocolates, and coat buttons and ammunition as souvenirs. I had some cigarettes and chocolate from a Prussian Guard, and cut a button of my coat in exchange for a round of ammunition which I gave to the orderly in the Anglo-American Hospital at Boulogne.’
A final account, written by James Bertram Coates, at the time a Second Lieutenant but later a Colonel in the regiment, was published in the regimental journal in 1972. In it Coates recalled:
‘There has been adverse criticism of that “Armistice”, and it may have been justified. My recollection is that ours was very properly conducted. I do not remember exactly how it started. Some on both sides started to move out of the trenches in daylight and drag back wounded, I think. I am pretty certain that the Germans moved out first as many of the dead and wounded were in front of their wire. I remember being told to use the opportunity to learn the lie of the land against going out on night patrol later. This I did and it was very useful when I was sent out one night soon afterwards. I do remember:
- Wondering how we were going to start fighting again when we were out there at the grave and talking to the Germans!
- That suddenly, when the dead were buried, with a short service to the best of my recollection, both sides went straight back to their trenches and things went on as before.’
There may well be other accounts from men of the 2nd Battalion out there. As it stands Crofts’ recollection is probably the most accurate, written close to the event and untainted by the accounts that would begin to appear soon after Christmas, and that filtered their way into the press and popular memory.