A year ago, at Frelinghien on the French-Belgian border, a remarkable commemoration took place. 100 years before, Captain Clifton Stockwell of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, and Captain Friedrich von Sinner of the 2nd (Silesian) Jaeger Battalion, had met in no-man’s land to exchange compliments, beer and Christmas puddings. On the same spot, their grandsons met and made the same exchange watched by soldiers of the British and German armies, local people and visitors from Britain and Germany. By a strange irony, the spot where they met is now a football field.
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 Telegraph, Manchester Guardian and the Illustrated London News – 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 shared companionship based on experience. The poet Siegfried Sassoon, another Royal Welch 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 striking munition-workers at home, rather than the Germans.
Long after the war, in 1964 in fact, the poet and writer Robert Graves wrote a short story on the truce. Graves, like Sassoon, had served in the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, although he did not reach France until early 1915. He did, however, know the soldier-writer Frank Richards who had been present at the first Christmas Truce in 1914, and helped him write his account of the war in ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’. The story portrays a fictional infantry regiment, but the events he describes are very clearly those at Frelinghien – albeit an amalgam of what 2 R.W.F., their neighbours in the line, the Seaforth Highlanders, and indeed the Germans, had experienced. Graves went on in his story 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. From the British point of view, it had been a year of bloodshed for no advantage both on the Western Front and 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 Luisitania, and the rapid increase of submarine warfare. In France and Flanders, 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 B.E.F. a few days before Christmas, on 19 December 1915, 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’. Many divisional and brigade commanders issued orders that any German showing himself was to be shot. On the German side, too, there were orders against fraternization, and threatening the direst consequences: any visits, agreements not to fire on each other, exchanges of news or whatever were not only strictly forbidden, but would be counted as ‘verging on high treason’ – in other words, a capital crime.
So is there any truth in Robert Graves’s story? Actually yes – up to a point. At Christmas 1915, both the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers were out of the line, resting, thus far, Graves is wrong. However there was a Royal Welch 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; Wynn Wheldon, father of Sir Huw, later controller of the BBC; David Jones, whose iconic (but difficult) work In Parenthesis is based on his experiences with 15 R.W.F. Then there was Bill Tucker, whose book The Lousier War is one of the few accounts we have of life as a PoW 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. Last, the Welsh shepherd and bard from Trawsfynydd, Ellis Humphrey Evans, or Hedd Wyn, who was killed on Pilckem Ridge in 1917.
15 R.W.F. was a war-service battalion and had arrived in France in November 1915. 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. The battalion 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. This dispersion solves the puzzle of why there are such differing versions of events among the witnesses in 15 R.W.F.
Llewelyn Wyn Griffith’s company, C Company, was assigned to the 1st Battalion 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’. On Christmas Eve, sounds of singing and merrymaking could be heard in the German trenches opposite C Company and the Coldstreamers, about 100 yards away, which were occupied by Catholic soldiers of the 13th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. 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’.
Another witness in 15 R.W.F. 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. 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 Welch 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.
Away 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 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.
Felstead, whose company was removed from Wyn Griffith’s, 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.
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 R.W.F. singing louder, to drown them out. The London Welsh sang ‘Casey Jones’, a song he particularly liked. Later that morning, however, the 3rd Grenadiers went into reserve and so Jones saw no more – but he did hear of the 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.
Recently, a previously unknown account has surfaced. This is the personal diary of Private Robert Keating, of 4 Rectory Close, Clapham, an under-age Private of about 16 years old in 15 R.W.F., 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. 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 Wurttemburg 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 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.
The personal diary of Captain Sir Iain Colquhoun, a company commander with the Scots Guards, supports this account. Colquhoun’s diary has been made available on open source through his local historical society, the Vale of Leven:
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 ¾ hour [three-quarters 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 ¼ 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 ½ an hour and the Germans retaliated on Sunken Road. I had to leave my dug-out five times during the night owing to shells.
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. 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 R.W.F. 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.
Keating too 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. . . .
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.
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.
. . . . . at 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.
Colqhuhoun’s dairy 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.
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, Colquhoun received a reprimand but this was not confirmed by Sir Douglas Haig.
So ended the Christmas Truce of 1915, which unlike that of 1914 passed unrecorded in the newspapers and magazines. It was the last such event of the war, other than 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.
© Jonathon Riley 2015.