Herts and the Christmas Truce 1914
PUBLISHED: 11:04 09 December 2014 | UPDATED: 11:42 09 December 2014
© The Art Archive / Alamy
What really happened at The Christmas Truce of 1914? Historian Debbie Coupland looks at the extraordinary events on the Western Front during the first December of the Great War
Of all the duties that any solider dislikes the most, perhaps that of being on sentry duty would be ranked at the top of the list. Especially either early in the morning – known musically as Reveille – or at dusk – when the Last Post is now sounded. This is because tactically, being on guard during early morning fog and mist, and late evening dark and gloom, are the best times for an enemy to spring an ambush or lightning attack. And why soldiers found asleep at their posts during either of these duties are punished more harshly than for some other crimes.
So, imagine the fear and concern British soldiers in the trenches of France and Belgium felt on the evening of December 24, 1914, as they began to discern unusual lights and worrying movements coming from the German trenches across No Man’s Land.
By that evening the British Expeditionary Force, the nation’s professional army, had been in the field for exactly four months (the opening shots of the war between Britain and Germany having been exchanged on August 24). During this time, British troops had conducted a strategic, military withdrawal from the French and Belgian borders in the north to just outside the northern suburbs of Paris in their efforts to stop the invading German armies.
Having been halted finally at the Battle of the Marne in September, the Germans had begun efforts to outflank their British rivals and connect their line of trenches with key ports on the Belgian coast. It is wise to remember that those trenches were not the highly-engineered fortresses they would become; rather they were rudimentary, offering little more protection than against a sniper’s bullet and very much at the mercy of the weather, which was very wet and cold. Princess Mary’s Christmas Box
If you have seen the film Oh What a Lovely War, you may have taken away the impression that British soldiers in their inhospitable trenches had forgotten that it was the Christmas season. While this idea offered the filmmakers a great opportunity to further inject pathos and bawdy songs, it is not the historical truth.
Innumerable war diaries – those daily, handwritten accounts of where each military unit was and what its activities and orders were – show that those scheduled to be in the trenches on duty between December 24-26 had been served a Christmas dinner in advance, according to tradition, by their officers. All these soldiers had also received a Christmas gift from the king and queen. Now known as the Princess Mary Christmas Box (pictured), this was a small brass box embossed with a relief of George V and Queen Mary’s 17-year-old daughter, who had lent her name to a fundraising campaign designed to ensure that every person in uniform serving with British forces overseas should receive ‘a gift from the nation’.
Eventually some 430,000 of these boxes were distributed, including to nurses, prisoners of war and those families whose relatives had been killed in the conflict. The gifts included pipe tobacco, cigarettes, pencils, sweets, spices and chocolates as well as a card offering Christmas greetings.
German Christmas lights
We should remember that Christmas as we celebrate it now, was still very much a German import in 1914. Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert brought from his homeland to the royal family and the nation the idea of a Christmas tree laden with lights and small gifts.
So it should be no surprise to learn that that December, the German royal family had arranged that all German troops in their trenches would receive a small Christmas tree with either candles or lamps, enough to bring extra light and some joy at intervals along the front line.
It was these lights that British sentries first reported seeing in the gathering gloom of Christmas Eve and which they feared were the precursor to a Christmas Day attack. Instead, what happened was altogether different.
A great deal has been written about this extraordinary event and great myths have arisen from the bare bones of the essential truth; that British and German soldiers met in No Man’s Land along the Western Front over the Christmas period. In some parts of the line, small truces were observed as early as December 23. But on the whole, while in some sectors it became obvious to both sides that military activity was slowing down – as much because of the appalling weather as in honour of the season – the truce reported in the Illustrated London News in January 1915 began early on Christmas Morning.
Initially, given there had been continuous, severe fighting all along the front in the run up to Christmas, this meeting was conducted under the banner of an official ceasefire, the purpose being the ages old one of giving each side a respite to retrieve and bury their dead without fear of further attack. At some points along the line the distance between the opposing trenches was so narrow, it would have been impossible for British and German soldiers not to be present near each side’s burial services. It is often suggested, because burial parties were made up predominantly of other ranks, that the truces were driven by ‘the lower orders’ who, it might be supposed, shared more socialist, democratic political views. However, as the many private accounts and public photos recall, all ranks were involved and indeed mixed easily together.
It was not a huge leap, then, for the men on each side, in such close proximity, to greet each other in the spirit of Christmas and even go on to share among themselves their extra gifts of food and drink. As a football would have been an essential piece of equipment in someone’s kit, it would have been no trouble to fetch it, and so begin one of the most extraordinary kick abouts in history.
In sectors where truces were even more spontaneous, it was usually because German troops had started to sing carols. In the spirit of the moment, ‘Jerries’ raised themselves above the parapet in order to persuade the ‘Tommies’ to reciprocate. It took some time before British troops were convinced that it was not a ruse by the Germans – either to gain vital information about the troops opposite or to inflict heavy casualties upon an unarmed enemy.
It is also true that in some sectors, while troops facing one another directly were happy to ‘meet in the middle’, units supporting them to the left and right, with whom communication would have been difficult in the early morning mist and immediacy of the moment, fired upon the oncoming enemy troops. So there was, extraordinarily, carol singing, kick abouts and sharing of gifts between opposing troops that first Christmas of the Great War – unprecedented events – but the idea that everyone on both sides put down their arms and indulged in fulsome games of football is a misnomer. The ceasefire was not consistent along the length of the Western Front and, where it was not observed, it should be remembered that soldiers were killed over the Christmas period.
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 92 soldiers died on Christmas Day 1914, among them two Hertfordshire men, serving with the 1st Battalion Hertfordshire Regiment.
It is unusual for a war diary to record the names of soldier casualties – according to the social mores of the time, only officer casualties are listed by name on a daily basis. So, while some of this number may well have died in hospitals from injuries received previously, the fact that the Hertfordshire Battalion’s war diary records these men’s deaths by name, suggest that they were killed outright.
They were Lance Serjeant Thomas Edward Gregory and Private Percy Henry Huggins. Thomas, at 36-years-old, left his widow at 135, St James’ Road, Watford; while Percy’s mother – who was already a widow to her husband Walter from Ware – lived in South Norwood. Percy was just 23 years of age. They are both now buried, side by side, in the Le Touret Military Cemetery in France.
The Christmas Truce was never to be repeated and many historical commentators now observe that the violence which came to characterise not only the remaining four years of the First World War but the entire 20th century, began as the truce ended on the morning of December 27 1914.
Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. She has put her passion for history into running bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium with her company Great War Tours. Visit greatwartours.co.uk or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 0800 9700 711 for more details.