second christmas truce, king's college london, jonathon riley

Everyman's Land: The Second Christmas Truce, 1915

Jonathon Riley - King's College London


Much has been written about the Christmas Truce of 1914, which was well covered by the press at the time; however, a second truce which occurred in December 1915, and which involved a Welsh battalion, was suppressed. Word of it began to surface in the early 1930s but it is only in the last few years, and during 2014 in particular, that a detailed account has emerged.

In December 2014, at Frelinghien on the French- Belgian border, a remarkable commemoration took place. One hundred years before, Captain Clifton Stockwell of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and Captain Friedrich Freiherr von Sinner of the 2nd (Silesian) Jaeger Battalion, had met in No- Man’s Land to exchange compliments, beer and Christmas puddings. 1 On the same spot, their grandsons met and made the same exchange, watched by soldiers of the British and German

1 Frank Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, annotated by H. J. Krijnen and D. E. Langley, (Peterborough, 2004), pp. 45–7, and voice recording in the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ Museum (RWF Mus.); Captain J. C. Dunne, The War the Infantry Knew 1914–1919 (London, 1994), pp. 101–3; C. I. Stockwell’s diary and letters, cited in Major C. H. Dudley Ward, Regimental Records of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, vol. III, 1914–1918: France and Flanders (London, 1928), pp. 112–13 and in RWF Mus. 2708; account by Lieutenant M. S. Richardson, dated 31 December 1914, in The National Archives (TNA), WO 95/1365, 2 Royal Welsh Fusiliers’ (RW Fus.) war diary, August- December 1914.

armies, local people and visitors from Britain and Germany.2 By a strange irony, given the prominence in popular mythology of games of football played in No- Man’s Land at Christmas 1914, the spot where they met is now a soccer pitch.

That first Christmas truce has become a symbol of reconciliation, a glimmer of the light of common humanity among a mass of darkness. Even at the time, although officially frowned upon, the truce was much covered in the press – including The Daily News, 3 Daily Mirror, 4 Manchester Guardian 5 and the Illustrated London News 6 – and there was an understanding, even though anti- German feeling was running high at home, that where chance threw men together in war, even when they were on opposing sides, there was a companionship based on shared experience. The poet Siegfried Sassoon, another Royal Welsh Fusilier, commented, as did others, that there was often more comradely feeling between the soldiers of the opposing armies, who shared the same dangers and privations, than between soldiers and civilians. Sassoon was in no doubt, for example, that troops would relish the opportunity to take on the pro- war press, or politicians in safe billets, rather than the Germans. 7 Robert Graves, like Sassoon, served in the1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (RW Fus.) and remarked that the men at the front loathed striking munitions workers at home far more than they hated the Germans, and would be ‘only too glad of a chance to shoot a few’. 8

Long after the war, in 1962, Graves wrote a short story on the truce. 9 He did not reach France until early in 1915 and so had not been present at the first Christmas Truce. He did, however, know the soldier- writer Frank Richards, who had been present at the 1914 truce and helped him

2 Warren Hastings, ‘Descendants at site of WW1 Christmas Truce’, Daily Mirror, 15 December 2014.
3 ‘Foes in trenches swap pies for wine’, Daily News, 1 January 1915.
4 ‘An historic group’, Daily Mirror, 1 January 1915, and Leader, 2 January 1915.
5 ‘Christmas truce at the Front’, Manchester Guardian, 31 December 1914; ‘The amazing truce’, Manchester Guardian, 4 January 1915; and ‘Christmas Day in the trenches’, Manchester Guardian, 6 January 1915.
6 Illustrated London News, 9 January 1915.
7 See, for example, Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Fight to a finish’, Cambridge Magazine, 27 October 1917.
8 Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (London, 1929), p. 296.
9 Robert Graves, ‘Christmas truce’, in The Shout and Other Stories (London, 1978), pp. 99–115.

write his account of the war in ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’. The story portrays a fictional infantry regiment, but the events of December 1914 that he describes are very clearly those at Frelinghien – albeit an amalgam of what 2 RW Fus., their neighbours in the line, the Seaforth Highlanders and, indeed, the Germans, had experienced. In his story, Graves went on to describe a second truce, at Christmas 1915, in which the same two battalions again ended up facing each other in the line and in which the survivors again meet in No- Man’s Land.

1915 had been a year of battles which A. J. P. Taylor aptly described as having no meaning other than as names on a war memorial. 10 From the British point of view, it had been a year of bloodshed for no advantage, either on the Western Front or at Gallipoli. It was also the year that saw the first use of poison gas, the first Zeppelin raids on England, the sinking of the liner Lusitania and the rapid increase of submarine warfare. In France and Flanders in December 1915, a much larger British Army was holding a much longer stretch of the front and it was now under the command not of Sir John French, who had been in command at Christmas 1914, but of Sir Douglas Haig. Haig had only taken command of the British Expeditionary Force a few days before Christmas, on 19 December 1915 , 11 but he was determined that there would be no repetition of the events of 1914. Firm instructions were issued right down the chain of command, reminding everyone of the ‘unauthorized truce’ of the previous year and ordering that ‘nothing of the kind is to be allowed this year’. 12 Many divisional and brigade commanders issued orders that any German showing himself was to be shot. 13 On the German side, too, there were orders against fraternization, threatening the direst consequences: any visits, agreements not to fire on each other and exchanges of news or souvenirs were not only strictly

10 A. J. P. Taylor, Illustrated History of the First World War (London, 1974), pp. 62–3.
11 Gary Sheffield and John Bourne (eds), Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters, 1914–1918 (London, 2005), p. 173.
12 See, for example, the signal issued by Major- General Sir Charles Barter, GOC 47th Division, cited in Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce (London, 1994), p. 198.
13 Brigadier W. Thwaites, Commander 140 Infantry Brigade, for example, passed on his GOC’s instructions in this way: Brown and Seaton, Christmas Truce, p.198.

forbidden, but would be counted as ‘verging on high treason’ – in other words, a capital crime .14

So is there any truth in Robert Graves’s story? At Christmas 1915, both the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers were out of the line, resting. 15 Thus far, Graves is wrong. However, there was a Royal Welsh Fusilier battalion in the line: the famous 15th Battalion, the 1st London Welsh, in which served many other notable literary figures of the war: Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, author of Up to Mametz (1931); Wynn Wheldon, father of Sir Huw, later controller of the BBC; David Jones, whose iconic (but difficult) work In Parenthesis (1937) is based on his experiences with 15 RWF. Then there was Bill Tucker, whose book, The Lousier War, is one of the few accounts we have of life as a prisoner of war in Germany during the Great War; Tucker later worked for many years on The Times and helped launch The Times Atlas of the World. There was also Harold Gladstone Lewis, who wrote Crow on a Barbed Wire Fence in 1973. Last, there was the shepherd and bard from Trawsfynydd, Ellis Humphrey Evans, or Hedd Wyn, who was killed on Pilckem Ridge in 1917.

15 RW Fus. was a war- service battalion and it had arrived in France in November 1915. 16 It had seen no serious action thus far and had no reason to feel animosity towards the Germans on a personal level – with the exception of those who had lost friends or brothers in other battalions. Just before Christmas the battalion was in the line at Laventie, just a few miles south of Frelinghien. Here, in the cold and wet of December, the line was described in the diary of an officer of a unit then holding the sector, Captain Carlos ‘Pip’ Blacker of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards:

It consisted of a line of breastworks through which you could keep watch and shoot. The view through one of these loopholes was not inspiring. Across a stretch of no- man’s- land you beheld a conspicuous line of enemy breastworks which looked pale grey in the middle distance …At the foot of both lines ran narrow belts of rusty wire which looked dark against the grey sandbags beyond. And between those two belts lay a

14 General Order from GHQ Spa, dated 12 December 1915.
15 Dudley Ward, Regimental Records of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, vol. III, pp. 159, 161.
16 A Concise History of the 15th R.W.F. (1st London Welsh) (R.W.F. Mus 3048/B), p. 4.

mostly featureless waste, patched with dead goosefoot and docks and pocked with shell- holes, the deeper ones half- filled with slimy water… A confrontation, winding away into seeming infinity on each side, alive with watchfulness. 17

15 RW Fus. was not all together in the line, but each of its companies was under instruction from a different battalion of 2 Guards Brigade, and it was thus spread along a lengthy stretch of the line. 18 This dispersion solves the puzzle of why there are such differing versions of events among the witnesses in 15 RW Fus. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith’s company, C Company, was assigned to Blacker’s battalion, 1st Coldstream Guards, and he recounted in Up to Mametz that Haig’s orders had been received: ‘We must confine our goodwill not only to fellow Christians’, he wrote, ‘but to Christians of allied nationality. We were to remain throughout possessed by the spirit of hate, answering any advances with lead.’ 19 On Christmas Eve, sounds of singing and merrymaking could be heard in the German trenches opposite C Company and the Coldstreamers, about one hundred yards away, which were occupied by Catholic soldiers of the 13th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. 20 These men were reservists, dragged, probably unwillingly, from their civilian lives; they were also more easy- going as a people than the stern, Protestant Prussians. Soon, shouts of ‘Merry Christmas, Tommy’ were heard. These were answered with shouts of ‘Merry Christmas, Fritz’. 21 Blacker confirms this account, saying that:

...the German breastworks were near enough for verbal exchange to be possible between the two sides…I recall someone shouting across ‘What have you got for dinner today Fritz?’ The reply sounded like ‘a fat goose’ (more Germans spoke English than our people spoke German). Fritz was invited to come over, but at this stage there was no movement. 22

17 John Blacker (ed.), Have You Forgotten Yet? The First World War Memoirs of C. P. Blacker (Barnsley, 2000), p. 68.
18 TNA, WO 95/2556/1, 15 RW Fus. war diary, 1 December 1915–28 February 1918.
19 Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, ed. and annotated by Jonathon Riley (Barnsley, 2010), p. 13.
20 Hermann Cron, Imperial German Army 1914–18: Organisation, Structure, Orders- of- Battle [first published 1937] (London, 2001), p. 111 – 116.
21 Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz, p 14.
22 Blacker, (ed.), Have You Forgotten Yet?, p. 75.

Another witness to the exchanges on Christmas Eve in 15 RW Fus., but further up the line, was Private Bertie Felstead. Felstead died at the age of 106 in 2001, the oldest man alive in Britain and the last witness of these events. 23 Felstead was in D Company, attached to the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards. In later life, Felstead remembered how the German soldiers opposite sang, in German, a hymn which shared the same tune with the Welsh hymn ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’. This was probably the German version of the hymn ‘Go my Children with my Blessing’ (‘gehen meine Kinder mit meinem Segen’). Their choice – probably a lucky chance – was taken as a much- appreciated acknowledgment of the nationality of the opposing company, and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers responded by singing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ – another detail used by Robert Graves in his fictional account. After the night’s carol singing, Felstead recalled that feelings of goodwill had so swelled up that at dawn, Bavarian and British soldiers clambered spontaneously out of their trenches. Shouting such greetings as ‘Hello Tommy’ and ‘Hello Fritz’, they at first shook hands in no- man’s- land, and then presented one another with gifts. German beer, sausages and spiked helmets were given, or bartered, in return for bully beef, biscuits and tunic buttons. A similar account is provided in the diary of the Company Sergeant Major of D Company, John Bradshaw, a native of Lampeter in Cardiganshire, 24 which has only recently come to light.

In C Company’s area, Wyn Griffith recounted his memories of a very similar scene:

As soon as it was light, we saw hands and bottles being waved at us, with encouraging shouts that we could neither understand nor misunderstand. A drunken German stumbled over his parapet and advanced through the barbed wire, followed by several others, and in a few moments there was a rush of men from both sides, carrying tins of meat, biscuits and other odd commodities for barter... this was the first time I had seen No Man’s Land, and it was now Every Man’s Land, or nearly

23 ‘Bertie Felstead: the last known survivor of no- man’s- land football died on July 22, 2001 aged 106’, The Economist, 2 August 2001; ‘Last soldier recalls the Christmas truce’, Sunday Telegraph, 22 December 1996; ‘Match of the century’, Daily Mail, 9 November 1999; Felstead’s obituaries in: The Times, 26, 28 July 2001; Daily Telegraph, 26 July 2001.
24 Diary of WO II (C.S.M.) John Bradshaw, held by his grandson, Mr John Griffiths.

so. Some of our men would not go, and gave terse and bitter reasons for their refusal. The officers called our men back to the line, and in a few minutes No Man’s Land was once more empty and desolate. There had been a feverish exchange of souvenirs, a suggestion for peace all day and a football match in the afternoon, and a promise of no rifle fire at night. All this came to naught. 25

Blacker also recounted the events in this part of the line in his diary:

Loudening noises of shouts and singing came across no- man’s- land, and when there was enough daylight figures could be seen moving about between their breastworks and wire. Our people followed suit. The Germans then came out in front of their wire. Our people did the same. No shooting anywhere. Both sides then gained in boldness until there was quite a crowd in no- man’s- land… he two sides exchanged cigarettes and other souvenirs, including buttons and badges…

The conversation, which was amiable, went on for about five minutes. It was brought to an end by a burst of shrapnel overhead. 26

Felstead, whose company was removed from those of Wyn Griffith, remembered that there was a soccer match of sorts:

It wasn’t a game as such, more a kick- around and a free- for- all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably half an hour. 27

David Jones was in B Company, attached to the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards. He recalled that on Christmas morning he heard the Germans singing Christmas carols and the cockneys of 15 RW Fus. singing louder, to drown them out. The London Welsh sang ‘Casey Jones’, a song he particularly liked. 28 Later that morning, however, the 3rd Grenadiers went into reserve and so Jones saw no more – but he did hear of the

25 Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz, pp. 14–15.
26 Blacker, (ed.), Have You Forgotten Yet?, pp. 75, 76.
27 Richard Alleyne, ‘Veteran of 1915 soccer game dies’, Daily Telegraph, 26 July 2001; Bertie Felstead, ‘Football made us friends for a day’, Western Mail, 12 November 1999.
28 Thomas Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War (London, 2012), pp. 71–2.

meetings in no- man’s land and wrote of it in his epic poem,‘Anathemata’:

I saw and heard their cockney song salute the happy morning; and later, this same morning... walking in daylight, upright, through the lanes of the war- net to outside and beyond the rusted trip- belt, some with gifts, none with ported weapons, embraced him between his fossa and ours, exchanging tokens .29

Recently, another previously unknown account has surfaced. This is the personal diary of Private Robert Keating, of 4 Rectory Close, Clapham, an under- age private, about sixteen years old, in 15 RW Fus., who later transferred to the Royal Engineers, and survived the war. He re- joined the Army in the 1920s and by 1942 was a Regimental Sergeant Major; he was afterwards commissioned as an officer in the Intelligence Corps. He died in 1967. In 1915, Keating was in A Company, assigned to the 1st Battalion Scots Guards who were opposite No. 246 Wurttemberg Reserve Infantry Regiment – Catholic soldiers again, but from the Rhineland, not Bavaria, and also reservists. 30 Keating recorded what had happened after the morning stand- to and breakfast were over on Christmas Day:

Had breakfast after which we shouted greetings to the Germans over the way. We shouted come over – they shouted come over. We stood up and saw them walking on their parapets then some of the Jocks ran across & Gordon [unidentified] and I. The officer was shouting come back! – come back! But we took no heed & went on.

The Germans who turned out to be the Württemburg Reserves crowded round us & chatted about old England – one fellow we were talking to was born in Northampton & was longing for the day when he could return. They said the war would end in a few months in our favour & that they were absolutely fed up with everything generally. Just as we were exchanging souvenirs the blooming artillery started and you should have seen us run: - Heaps of fellows we[re] caught in the barbed wire, but really there was no danger to us as the shells were dropping on the German trenches. The reason why we rushed back was because our

29 David Jones, The Anathemata (London, 1951), p. 216.
30 Reichsarchiv Militär- Verlag (Berlin, 1927), S. 71, pp. 146–7.

artillery firing on the Allerman [i.e. Allemands, or Germans] might entice their snipers to fire on us. However, this was not so. Before leaving the Germans one of their officers told one of ours that they would not fire another shot for two days if we did the same, and believe me or believe me not, on our part of the line not a single shot was fired until we were relieved by the Irish Guards on Sunday evening [26 December]. Well, to revert, at 12 noon I was told off for fatigue duty with about two dozen other Scots, we had to . . . get a thousand sand- bags… Arriving back in the trench at 2.30 p.m. I dumped my load and joined a party who were burying a dead Scot in ‘no- man’s- land’. We intended burying a lot of fellows but owing to our artillery fire we had to abandon the attempt. 31

The personal diary of Captain Sir Iain Colquhoun, a company commander with the Scots Guards, supports this account:

Stand to at 6.30. Germans very quiet. Remained in Firing Trenches until 8.30. No sign of anything unusual. When having breakfast about 9 am a sentry reported to me that the Germans were standing up on their parapets and walking towards our barbed wire. I ran out to our firing trenches and saw our men looking over the parapet and the Germans outside our barbed wire.

A German officer came forward and asked me for a truce for Xmas. I replied that this was impossible. He then asked for 3/4 hour [threequarters of an hour] to bury his dead. I agreed. The Germans then started burying their dead and we did the same. This was finished in ½ hrs time. Our men and the Germans then talked and exchanged cigars, cigarettes etc for 1/4 of an hour and when the time was up I blew a whistle and both sides returned to their trenches.

For the rest of the day the Germans walked about and sat on their parapets. Our men did much the same but remained in their trenches. Not a shot was fired. At night the Germans put up Fairy lights on their parapets and their trenches were outlined for miles on either side. It was a mild looking night with clouds and a full moon and the prettiest sight I have ever seen. Our machine guns played on them and the lights were removed. Our guns shelled heavily all night at intervals of 1/2 an hour

31 Robert Keating’s Diary, vol. 1, 1 December 1915–6 July 1916, RWF Mus. 9203.

and the Germans retaliated on Sunken Road. I had to leave my dug- out five times during the night owing to shells. 32

Further attempts at peace- making were quickly stamped out. Wyn Griffith recalled an irate brigadier, spluttering up the line, throwing out threats of courts- martial and ordering an extra dose of military action that night. 33 This was very likely to have been Brigadier- General Lord Henry Seymour, the Commander of 2 Guards Brigade. Private Harold Diffey, another soldier of C Company 15 RW Fus., who survived the war and who also remembered the truce, recounted the same episode in a letter home:

After about 20 to 30 minutes a Staff Officer with red tabs… and a vociferous sergeant- major appeared yelling, ‘You came out to fight the Huns, not to make friends with them.’ So our lads reluctantly returned followed by a salvo from our 18-pounders which ended the episode. 34

Keating also recorded Seymour’s arrival:

The remainder of the day we spent in shouting to the Germans. Meanwhile the Brigadier General came round the trenches and told every fellow to shoot any German he saw…no one took any notice of this order and carried on as usual… 35

Keating went on to record what had happened on Christmas Night:

[That evening] we were roused out by the Scots and dragged on to the parapet where we found all the Welsh fellows gathered. Here we were, Welsh and Scots all, clustered round the burning brazier which was placed on the outer parapet. The Germans were sending up star lights and singing – they stopped, so we cheered them & we began singing Land of Hope and Glory – Men of Harlech et cetera – we stopped and they cheered us. So we went on till the early hours of the morning. 36

32 Colquhoun’s diary has been made available on open source through his local historical society, the Vale of Leven: Sir Iain Colquhoun’s Dairy,, accessed 20 November 2015.
33 Wyn Griffith, Up to Mametz, p. 14.
34 Letter from Harold Diffey in RWF Mus. 7133f.
35 Keating’s Diary, vol. 1.
36 Keating’s Diary, vol. 1.

Firmer measures were clearly needed to enforce the approved martial spirit, and Keating’s diary of Boxing Day recorded that after the morning routine,

...The Germans were not firing but no- one got on the parapet although many heads were above. Orders were issued out that if any man was seen waving or heard shouting they would be put to the wall at once [i.e. shot] – this order put an end to our fun 5.30 p.m. the Irish Guards relieved us but before going we were told not to mention anything of what happened in the trenches yesterday and today. 37

Colqhuhoun’s diary recorded what happened to him on Boxing Day:

Fine day. No rifle firing, but no Germans showing. I went at 10 a.m. to Winchester House to explain to a Court of Inquiry my conduct on Christmas Day. The Brigadier (who came round my trenches 10 mins after my truce was over) didn’t mind a bit but the Major General [Lord Cavan] is furious about it. The Coldstreams and our 2nd Batt are also implicated. Relieved by the 1st Irish Guards. Marched out by platoons down Sunken Road and Sign Post line to Rouge Choistre. Dropped the R.W.F. and marched via Rouge Bailleul to La Gorgue at 7 p.m. and billeted there. 38

Later, both Colquhoun and the acting Commanding Officer of 1 Scots Guards, Captain Miles Barne, were tried by court- martial. Barne was acquitted of all charges, while Colquhoun received a reprimand, but this was not confirmed by Sir Douglas Haig – possibly because Colquhoun was related by marriage to the prime minister, Herbert Asquith. 39

So ended the Christmas Truce of 1915. It did not receive the extensive coverage of 1914, but soldiers’ letters home, at least those that escaped the censor’s pencil, certainly recorded it. One such letter was published in the Wrexham Advertiser in January 1916:

37 Keating’s Diary, vol. 1.
38 Sir Iain Colquhoun’s Dairy,, accessed 20 November 2015.
39 Brown and Seaton, Christmas Truce, p. 205.

It was a memorable Christmas Day in our trench as we had a truce with the enemy from Christmas Eve until Boxing Day morning. Not a shot was fired – quite a change with no lead flying around. The truce came about in this way. The Germans started singing and lighting candles at 7.30 on Christmas Eve, and one of them challenged any one of us to go across for a bottle of wine. One of our fellows accepted the challenge and took a big cake to exchange. That started the ball rolling. We then met half way to shake hands and exchange greetings with them. The Germans seem to be very nice chaps, and said they were awfully sick of the war. We were out of the trenches all day Christmas Day collecting souvenirs. 40

It was, however, the last such event of the war, other than the sort of informal truces to bury the dead and recover the wounded, which had been a feature of warfare for centuries and which lingered on in the Great War. There was little, if any, attempt at a truce over Christmas 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.

40 ‘Letter to friends in north Wales’, in Wrexham Advertiser, 9 January 1915. See also ‘Nadolig yn y ffosydd’, Y Dinesydd Cymreig, 13 January 1915.

© Jonathon Riley 2015.