The Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Great Christmas Truce

The Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Great Christmas Truce

Lt-Gen Jonathon Riley tells a familiar and much mythologised story


As Christmas 1914 approached, there were moves towards some sort of truce or armistice. Pope Benedict XV proposed the idea in early December (1) and the Germans accepted almost at once, with the proviso that everyone else did the same. That was a forlorn hope, but in all armies there were preparations for the troops’ Christmas.

2nd Battalion the Royal Welch Fusiliers were ordered into the line at the village of Frelinghien on the French/Belgian border on 25 November. In front of the village of Frelinghien, commanding A Company of 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers, was 35-year-old Captain Clifton Inglis Stockwell, who had been commissioned in 1899. On the other side was the machine-gun company of the 2nd (Silesian) Jaeger-Battalion which was serving with 133rd Saxon Infantry Regiment, commanded by the 39-year-old Baron Friedrich von Sinner.

The War Diary of 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers and C. I. Stockwell’s personal diary report the events of the morning of 25 December: (2)

Both sides got a bit venturesome and looked over the top; then a German started to walk down the tow-path toward our lines . . . Later the Germans came boldly out of their trenches, but our men were forbidden to leave theirs, so they threw out tins of bully, and plum and apple jam etc. . . . the Saxons were shouting, ‘Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight today. We will send you some beer.’ … I climbed over the parapet and shouted, in my best German, for the opposing Captain to appear. We finally met and formally saluted … We agreed not to shoot until the following morning… (3)

On the German side, 21-year-old Lieutenant Johannes Niemann was commanding a platoon of the 3rd Battalion of the 133rd Regiment:

Everywhere hand-shakes were given . . . Then there were exchanges, everything, what everybody just had with himself: tobacco, chocolate, schnapps, order ribbons and many more . . . (4)

Accounts of the truce began to appear in the press. The London Daily News and the New York Times broke the story on 31 December; pictures followed in the Daily Sketch, Daily Mirror and Daily Graphic and a steady stream of articles and features ran on until the end of January. Official reaction to the events was firmly disapproving. Sir John French wrote:

When this was reported to me I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account …

In spite of official attempts to crack down, there was a second, shorter, truce at Christmas 1915 involving the Royal Welch Fusiliers. There was little, if any, attempt at a truce in 1916 and none whatsoever in 1917. Fellow-feeling there might be, a degree of chivalry even, but by the end of the second year of war there was no hope of fraternization.

The Royal Welch Fusiliers Regimental Museum Trust (RWF) collaborated with the Saxon Army Museum, Dresden, Bodelwyddan Castle Museum Trust, Commune d’Armentières and Commune de Frelinghien in France, and Commune Comines-Warneton in Belgium to create a travelling exhibit about the truce as well as a series of events culminating in a centenary event at Frelinghien in December 2014, where the grandsons of those two company commanders, Von Sinner and Stockwell, met in what was then No-Man’s Land.

This project, made possible by the help of CyMAL, the Welsh Government and  the Dulverton Trust, marks a defining moment of Welsh and European history. It is a rare example of a First World War commemorative event that is also celebratory, reflecting as it does the common humanity between peoples in the midst of carnage.

 

© Jonathon Riley 2015.