Originally from the Illustrated London News
By Christmas 1914 Frederick George DAY, Sydney GUNNELL and Edwin DAY had all sadly been killed serving King and Country in the First World War leaving only Walter SIMS and James PIKE from St Mary Bourne’s Old Contemptible’s still alive. Walter my 3 * Great Uncle and James as part of the 1st Hampshire Regiment were to take part in the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Unfortunately, the war diary for the 1st Hants has no more than a note in the margin for the truce which states “On Xmas Day an informal truce began with the 133rd Saxons, XIX Corps opposite us & continued till the New Year”. However, all is not lost as using Private Edward ROE’s “Diary of an Old Contemptible” and the book “Good Old Somersets, An ‘Old Contemptible’ Battalion in 1914” along with a letter from a Bandsman Fred BREWER of Broughton, Hants also in the 1st Hants published in the Andover Advertiser on the 15th January 1915 a picture of life at the front over Christmas will emerge.
BREWER in his letter talks of the singing and exchanging of gifts as is mentioned in many articles and videos regarding the truce. Interestingly he also mentions how it was a chance for them to bury their dead and how it was a treat to be able to walk about without having to dodge bullets.
NOTE: Fred BREWER was like James PIKE a Bandsman in service prior to the war. Clearly from his letter he was a Stretcher Bearer, it is quite likely that James too fulfilled this role.
A famous football match also occurred during the truce, this is not mentioned in BREWER’s letter but that is because it would have occurred at a different location to where the 1st Hants were.
Private ROE of the East Lancashire Regiment wrote in his diary:
“25th December Christmas Day: At midnight firing ceased as if by mutual consent. As I stood on the fire step, gazing out into no-man’s-land with the point of a spare bayonet underneath my chin in case I might doze, I prayed to God (if there was a God?) in his infinite goodness and mercy to end this slaughter and misery and bring peace and goodwill to all mankind.
At 5.00 am word had passed down the trench that the Hampshires and the Germans were our fraternizing in no-man’s-land. ‘Impossible, who’s leg are you pulling?’ ‘If you don’t believe me, go down and see for yourself’. And there they were, sure enough, British and German warriors in no-man’s-land, unarmed, talking to each other and exchanging souvenirs. There is a Christ after all.”
ROE diary describes the conditions of the truce as follows:
- Any action taken by the Artillery of either Army did not break our truce as we had no control over Artillery.
- If either side received an order to fire, they would fire the first three rounds high in the air so as to give the other side time to get under cover.
- The German machine gunners had to expend a limited amount of ammunition daily. They would fire high and blow a shrill warning blast on a whistle before firing. This waste of ammunition would take place every evening, if possible, between the hours of 5.00 and 6.00 pm.
- Neither side were allowed to erect barbed wire entanglements in front of their trenches.
- If either side fired a shot with intent to kill, the truce was declared off.
“Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men”
Some views of Christmas Day from men of the Somerset Light Infantry:
“Christmas Day! Received plenty of gifts of puddings and cakes, including Princess Mary’s gift containing tobacco, cigarettes and a pipe. These I gave away but kept the case. Had a walk around Ploegsteert, for the roads are hard after the frost. … (Arthur Cook)”
Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift
“A very curious state of affairs reigned here on Christmas Day, I don’t know how it started but anyhow Germans and English were walking about in between the two trenches, hobnobbing and exchanging cigarettes etc. … You couldn’t hear a shot fired the whole day anywhere and it was awfully hard to realise that there was a war on until they came for a fatigue party from our company to bury the dead that had been brought in. Christmas Day was a beautiful cold frosty day with nearly all the mud frozen up; it was nice for a change. … On the whole I had a jolly good Christmas … (Edward Packe)”
Episode 10 (The Christmas Truce) of Voices of the First World War on BBC Radio 4 is interesting and worth listening to if you have a spare 15 minutes.
We don’t know exactly what Walter and James did on Christmas Day but they too would have received Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift and no doubt gifts from home. They may have taken part in exchanging of gifts with the German’s they may have helped to collect the dead from No Man’s Land. But regardless at least for a short period of time they and all those involved on both sides were able to relax slightly and enjoy some time without the horrors of war.
1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment – War Diary (1914) – WO 95/1495/1. “http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/.” Aug-Dec 1914. The National Archives. PDF. 10 May 2014.
Gillard, Brian, ed. Good Old Somersets. An ‘Old Contemptible’ Battalion in 1914. Leicester: Matador, 2004. Google Books.
Roe, Edward. Diary of an Old Contemptible. Private Edward Roe, East Lancashire Regiment, From Mons to Baghdad, 1914-1919. Ed. Peter Downham. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2004. Kindle Book.
 Andover Advertiser, Broughton section. Letter from Bandsman Fred Brewer of Broughton describing the Christmas Truce. Published 15th January 1914.