Anniversaries take many forms, some celebrate joyous occasions whilst others commemorate rather more sombre times. The media are ever anxious to remind us of events from our past, be they national triumphs or disasters, royal events, sporting achievements or dates marking the birth or death of the great and the good. Some of these events catch the public imagination while others are quickly forgotten. Two events that did much to shape the past century have frequently featured in these commemorations in the past few years; namely the beginning and end of the two World Wars.
2004 saw the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and stories were told of the Christmas Truce of 1914 and football matches which took place on the front line between the opposing troops. Of course, memories fade and are apt to become distorted with the passage of time and precious few of the survivors who would have witnessed those scenes at first hand are still with us. The highlighting of these events led a small group of amateur military historians to set up a project to discover the facts behind the myths and legends which have grown up over almost a century. Nowadays there would be reporters on the spot to provide almost instantaneous, graphic accounts but in those early days news travelled much more slowly. The project team sought to investigate the truce and the apparent fraternisation between the troops by obtaining reports from all parts of the country, including anything that could be obtained from local newspapers. I agreed to assist in some small way by scouring the local newspapers for this part of Hertfordshire, The Hertfordshire Mercury and The Herts Advertiser and St Albans Times.
Most of the reports I found in local papers were actually extracts taken from letters sent by soldiers at the front to friends and family back home. I found, in the newspapers covering the first couple of weeks of the New Year, reports of conditions in the trenches over the Christmas period from five local servicemen serving in the 1st Herts Regiment.
A young private who had been a pupil at St Albans School and a member of the O T C reported that his Company went into the front line trenches on Christmas Eve and spent Christmas and Boxing Day there. Apparently they had been expecting an attack but all was quiet over the “holiday period”. He was most positive in his comments and added, “snipers abound here, but our heavy guns are much superior to the enemy’s and have done enormous damage. Our trenches are wonderfully made and would be hard to take, I think. All St Albans Old Boys are safe and well.”
Four other local men echoed similar sentiments in their letters home to family and friends. They all appear to have accepted their situation very philosophically and with great patriotism. One stated “we had the pleasure of being in the trenches on Christmas Day”, adding, “two of our chaps got killed on Christmas Day”. Apparently one of these was a Watford man, Lance-Sgt T E Gregory, the other was Pte. Percy Huggins whose home town was not mentioned. In their letters they estimated their distance from the German trenches to range from 600 to 200 yards but those killed were said to be only 20 yards from the enemy. The reports clearly indicate that activity at the front was at a very low level for several days over the “festive” period. One St Albans man told his friend back home “the Germans didn’t worry us much but they did make an attack on our right about ten minutes to twelve on New Year’s Eve so we saw the New Year welcomed in, in the trenches”.
The main content of the letters centred around their Christmas fare, bread and jam and cheese and a small piece of cold bacon for breakfast; then dinner consisted of cold meat with vegetables and a piece of plum pudding provided by the “Daily News Fund”. Several also referred to what one of the men described as “our greatest pleasure of all …… a lovely card from their Majesties the King and Queen wishing us a happy Christmas and a safe return …. which we shall always treasure”. Yet another sent the card with his letter home adding “I want you to keep it for me until I come home, which I hope to have the luck to do”. These letters display considerable stoicism and not a grain of criticism. Could this have been on account of the fact that they knew that if they said anything of a critical or sensitive nature it would have been censored?
In addition to these reports from local lads serving in the Hertfordshire Regiment there was a very lengthy report sent by a former Hertford soldier, serving in The London Rifle Brigade, in a letter written on Boxing Day to his mother in Welwyn. This gave a very graphic account of horrific conditions at the front and the camaraderie that kept the men going.
“On Christmas Eve at about 4 p.m. we were in a line of advance trenches waiting to be relieved when we heard singing and shouting coming from the other trenches at right angles to us which line a hedge of the same field. Then the news filtered down. German and English officers had exchanged compliments and agreed on a truce and then started giving one another a concert. We all sang every song we could think of, a bonfire was lit and everyone walked about as though it were a picnic. After we were relieved and got back to the breastworks (about 200yds?) behind the firing-lines we could hear the German band playing ‘Old Folks at Home’, ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’. On Christmas Day men and officers went in between, and even entered each other’s trenches and exchanged smokes and souvenirs. I am sorry we were relieved; it must have been a marvellous sight. All I could manage was a German cigarette given me by one of our platoon who accompanied our platoon officers to the line. One regiment, I hear, tried to arrange a football match for this afternoon, but I don’t think that came off. We are opposed to Saxon regiments and the whole affair is most striking, when you consider that a week ago today there were some hundreds of casualties through the attack and the dead still lie between the trenches. By this truce we were able to get the bodies and the Germans were good enough to bring our dead out of some ruined houses by their trenches so that we could give them burial here.
I personally, shall be very pleased, when we go up tomorrow night not to have that sight before us again. Now for my Christmas. On the evening of 23rd we got orders for advance trenches. In some places we were in water so that you did not lift your feet out but waded. The dug-outs were in a rotten state, wet inside, surrounded by water, and not high enough to sit up in. Even whilst I was on guard, one hour on, two off, it rained of course and then tried to freeze. In the morning biscuits and sardines for breakfast were washed down by water, as there was no room or material to get a fire going. Christmas Eve, was a beautiful day, cold of course but no rain and our spirits improved. Then the incidents happened that I have already described, and I was positively happy.
We were relieved by my old friends in No. 6 platoon but when we got to the breastworks they wanted two volunteers to go with two stretcher bearers to bring in a poor chap of No. 7 platoon who was sniped at about 2.30, just an hour or so before the truce. I am not vengeful but I was jolly glad to hear that a Somerset chap waited for the sniper and got him. Instead of crossing round by the hedge we were able to carry him straight across the field. We had to go all through the mud up to headquarters, and when I got back to the breastworks again the singing coming from the lines sounded fine.
Contrary to regulations, because of the truce and the fact that I had got wet through carrying the stretcher I took my boots and puttees off before cuddling in. In the morning boots, socks and puttees were all like boards and I was sorry I ever took them off, especially as we had to ‘stand to’ at 6 a.m. At about 7 a.m. I wandered down to the breastworks to some regulars to borrow a billhook. It was immediately ‘damn the billhook; sit down and have a bit of breakfast with us, corporal’. I did, and by gum they know how to cook. I was chatting to them till nearly 9 and you cannot imagine what ripping chaps they are. The nearest I can say is that they are one of the most famous county regiments, came out 1200 strong and have about 130 of their original number left. Just think of it!” He went on to describe how he then volunteered to join the party to dig the grave of the chap who had been hit by a sniper the previous day and tearfully attended the brief funeral service.
The clearest picture of fraternisation between the British and German troops came in a letter sent home to his family in Bishops Stortford by Rifleman C H Brazier of the Queen’s Westminsters. It is all the more remarkable as the events described took place in fields which would have been strewn with the dead just a few days earlier and probably would be again when hostilities resumed. His account began “we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and (it) was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches,. Halfway they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ. On Christmas Day we all got out of the trenches and walked about with the Germans, who, when asked if they were fed up with the war said ‘Yes, rather’. They all believed that London had been captured, and that German sentries were outside Buckingham Palace. They are evidently told a lot of rot. We gave them some of our newspapers to convince them. Some of them could speak English fairly well. A hundred yards or so in the rear of our trenches there were houses that had been shelled. These were explored with some of the regulars and we found old bicycles, top-hats, straw hats, umbrellas etc. We dressed ourselves up in these and went over to the Germans. It seemed so comical to see fellows walking about in top-hats and with umbrellas up. Some rode the bicycles backwards. We had some fine sport and made the Germans laugh. No firing took place on Christmas night and at four the next morning we were relieved by regulars. I managed to get hold of a German ammunition pouch and bayonet but the latter I have thrown away, as it was so awkward to carry. I intend bringing the pouch home with me – when I come home.” From this description of the friendly activity that took place it is not difficult to imagine that an informal football match could have developed if a suitable ball had been among “trophies” discovered in the deserted houses nearby.
While these men were making the best they possibly could of Christmas on the front line thousands more, stationed in towns throughout this country, were preparing for embarkation to the various theatres of war during the early months of 1915. In Hatfield young men from the 17th and 20th battalions of the London Regiment, along with a unit from the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), were probably spending their first Christmas away from home with little idea of what might be lying ahead of them in the coming months. It is reported that no Christmas leave was granted for the troops but an appeal went out to the residents of the town and judging from the menu the men enjoyed on Christmas Day it is clear that the townsfolk of Hatfield responded in a positive way. On Christmas morning all the men attended a church service, those from the London Regiment at the Parish Church and the RAMC at Newtown Church (St Luke’s). All the troops spent the day at the Public Hall on the Great North Road where, at 8 o’clock, breakfast was served, comprising pork sausages, bread and butter, jam and tea. At 2 o’clock the lavish and appetising spread consisted of roast turkey, goose, chicken, pheasant, roast leg of pork, roast and boiled potatoes, cabbage, sprouts and turnips followed by plum pudding with brandy sauce. This was all washed down with beer and mineral waters. It seems incredible that they had room for the tea of bread and butter, mince pies, iced cake, buns, celery and jam, which followed at 5.30.
To round off the day there was a concert in the Public Hall led by the choir of the RAMC with contributions from all ranks with songs, both serious and humorous, recitations and monologues and closing with the National Anthem. After such a day of feasting we can but wonder how fit the majority of the audience would have been to participate in singing the choruses during the concert though and I would imagine that the music interspersed with the odd snore from time to time! The report in the press assures the reader that the troops remained cheerful and spent a very happy Christmas Day. However, the relaxation did not extend long as we learn that on Boxing Day morning the men of the London Regiment marched to St Albans to practise “entraining” at the City Station in preparation for their departure from the district the following week.
For the troops at the front and those undergoing training, as they prepared to join their colleagues overseas, 1914 was a very different Christmas from anything they had previously experienced. We know that for those who survived the conflict it would be another four years before they would enjoy a peacetime Christmas but sadly for far too many it was to be their last.