January 7th, 1915: Maryport Private on the Christmas Truce. Fraternizing with the Germans.
“It was a ripping parcel and we had a grand time over it. To crown all, one of the fellows sharing my “buggy hut” had a parcel on the same day and we combined and invited four more pals, one of whom had a box of Tom Smith’s Christmas crackers sent out, which we cracked, and it added to the fun immensely. Christmas in the trenches! What a time? “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” It is hardly to be believed, but nevertheless it is quite true that such was the case this Christmas. Who can realise it? It will astound everyone who hears about it, which everyone will do in good time. Of course I am speaking about the part of the firing line we are situated in. On Christmas Eve at four p.m. we had orders that unless the “enemy” advanced we were not to fire, and the same applied to Christmas Day. Whether the Germans had the same order or not I don’t know but no shot was fired on either side. In Christmas Eve we shouted “Compliments of the Season” to each other, and passed pleasant remarks. We sang the “Austrian Anthem” and they replied with “God save the King.” On Christmas Day after service in the trenches, we went halfway and we shook hands, and had a fine crack with them. Quite a number of them speak English. I got one’s autograph and he got mine, and I exchanged a button with another, and exchanged cigs and got cigars galore. Altogether we spent a very pleasant two hours with them, and found them a nice lot of fellows. Men, every one of them, and white ones, too. There is heaps more I should like to tell, but I know it would never get passed so it will have to wait.
January 15th, 1915
The following are extracts from the letter of a soldier at the front to a Whitehaven lady. The headings are our own:-
A War Of Endurance
When he left the trenches on the night of January 2nd there was anything from two to five feet of water and mud. I was very glad to get out of them for a rest, but I was very sorry for the poor fellows who had to take our places. But the trench has got to be held if we have to stand up to the neck in water; and things must be just as hard for the Germans, and if they can put up with it I am sure an English soldier can. We will never let them beat us at anything now we are on more equal terms. At the early stages of the war they outnumbered us by ten to one, but now we have far more troops out we are about equal. We have had a stay of twenty-one days in the trenches this time – rather a long time, considering the weather.
Christmas Fraternising: Prussians and Saxons contrasted.
We had a rather sad occurrence on Christmas Day directly in front of our regiment there were two German regiments. On our right was a regiment of Prussian Guards and on our left was a Saxon regiment. On Christmas morning some of our fellows shouted across to them saying that if they would not fire our chaps would meet them half-way between the trenches and spend Christmas as friends. They consented to do so. Our chaps at once went out and when in the open Prussians fired on our men killing two and wounding several more. The Saxons, who behaved like gentlemen, threatened the Prussians if they did the same trick again. Well, during Christmas Day our fellows and the Saxons fixed up a table between the two trenches and they spent a happy time together, and exchanged souvenirs and presented one another with little keepsakes. They said they did not want war, and think the Kaiser is quite in the wrong. They were continually falling out with the Prussians – they are the people who are the cause of the war. They hate the English very much indeed. I hope this war will not last long, but our chaps have behaved splendidly all through, and although they have suffered terrible hardships, they have always worn a smile again.
February 18th, 1915
A Coincidence of war
A local reservist, Mr Kirkpatrick, of Distington, relates that being on service in France he was amongst those detailed to guard a column of German prisoners. Marching alongside he was suddenly accosted by a voice from the ranks of the captives: “Hallo, Jack, how’s all going on in Whitehaven? How’s Teddy Atter, and all of them?” Then the prisoner revealed himself to his astonished custodian as a German who was at one time in the service of the then existing West Cumberland Club as a waiter or page, who had recognised in the English soldier a face once locally familiar to him.
February 18th, 1915
Whitehaven Men At The Front
Private Dixon, 9100, D Company. Head Quarters Staff, 2nd Border Regiment British Expeditionary Force, writes us:- “Just a line from a few of the Whitehaven lads out at the front. We get your paper sent to us every week, and are very pleased to read the news of the dear old home. There is quite a good number of Whitehaven lads out here, but a few have “gone under.” Our regiment has had it very tough since they came out. We numbered about 1,300 when we left home, and now there is only about 150 left, and I happen to be one of the lucky ones. I am proud to say our regiment heads the list in our brigade for distinguished conduct medals. At Christmas we got quite friendly with the Germans. There was no firing on both sides for about ten days, and we used to go over the trenches and talk to them and exchange souvenirs, but every one we spoke to that could speak English said they wished it was over. I was surprised when one told me he had a wife in Piccadilly and another said he drove a taxi at Fulham. We’ve started scrapping again; and I can tell you it is not very nice in the trenches up to the knees in water. We do four days in the trenches and then go to billets for four days. We are all quite cheerful and confident of success so we just say the old saying “What odds, so long as we’re happy?” Well I must draw to a close, and wishing your paper every success – We remain, “A few marrows* fra Whitehaven.”
* Now spelt marras, it is a Cumbrian word for friends.
Carlisle Journal, Tuesday January 5th, 1915
Christmas at the Front
Amid the welter of bloodshed, bitterness and hatred in to which Germany has plunged Europe, it is some slight consolation to read in the letters of British soldiers at the front accounts of the humanising influence of Christmas on the combatants in the trenches. The Germans in this campaign have shown such a contempt not merely for chivalry but even for the rules of war as understood by civilised races that it is refreshing to find that among the private soldiers at all events the better instincts have not been altogether crushed by the horrors that have been perpetrated. Many accounts have been published of the strange and unexpected fraternising which took place between the British and German armies on Christmas day and the following letter from an officer in a Highland regiment which is published in the Times may be quoted as a fairly typical description of the curious incident.
You need not have pitied us on Christmas day; I have seldom spent a more entertaining one despite the curious conditions. We were in the trenches and the Germans began to make merry on Christmas Eve shouting at us to come out and meet them. They sang songs (very well); our men answered by singing Who were you with last night? and of course, Tipperary (very badly). I was horrified at discovering some of our men had actually gone out imbued more with the idea of seeing the German trenches than anything else; they met halfway and there ensued the giving of cigarettes and receiving of cigars and they arranged (the private soldiers of one army and the private soldiers of the other) a 48 hours armistice. It was all most irregular but the Peninsular and other wars will furnish many such exploits; eventually both sides were induced to their respective trenches but the enemy sang all night and during my watch they played Home Sweet Homeand God Save the King at 2.30am. It was rather wonderful: the night was clear, cold and frosty and across to our lines at this unusually miserable hour of need came the sound of such tunes very well played, especially by a man with a cornet who is probably well known. Christmas day was very misty and out came these Germans to wish us “a happy day”; we went out told them we were at war with them and that really they must play the game and pretend to fight; they went back but again attempted to come towards us so we fired over their heads; they fired a shot back to show they understood and the rest of the day passed quietly in this part of the line, but in others a deal of fraternising went on. So there you are; all this talk of hate, all this firing at each other that has raged since the beginning of the war quelled and stayed by the magic of Christmas. Indeed one German said “But you are of the same religion as us and today is the day of peace! It is really a great triumph for the church. It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.
Another officer on recording this incident remarks that “the whole thing is extraordinary. The men were all so natural and friendly,” and he adds that he “was astonished at the easy way in which our men and theirs got on with each other.” If this interchanging of courtesies leads to a softening of the feeling of malignant hatred towards England in Germany everyone will rejoice. There can be no peace till the issue which Germany has raised is settled but there is no reason why the horrors of war should be aggravated by the adoption of these methods of barbarism that German hatred of England seems to have prompted.
Carlisle Journal January 8, 1915
Extraordinary scenes on Christmas Day. Football match between British and German troops
The following is a copy of a letter received by Mr Harry Penfold, Brampton, from a friend in London who received it from an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the front, whose wedding he attended shortly before the outbreak of war:-
This has been a strange Christmas. All has been peaceful except for some occasional sniping on our right but none on our front. The most extraordinary scenes took place between the trenches. In front of our bit our men and the Germans got out of their trenches and mixed together talking, exchanging cigarettes etc. Some of our people actually went in to their trenches and stayed for some time being entertained by the enemy! The Colonel and the Adjutant of the 107th Saxon Regiment came out and talked to our people in a very friendly manner. All joined together in a sing-song each side taking it in turns to sing a song and finally they ended up with “God Save the King” in which the Saxons sang most heartily. This is absolutely true. One of our men was given a bottle of wine in which to drink the King’s health. The regiment actually had a football match with the Germans who beat them 3-2. These people said they would not shoot our men but warned them against those on their (Saxons) left. Some men of one of our regiments opposite them then went out of their trenches just as the others had done, but the enemy – now thought to be Prussians – told them to go back and fired on them before they had regained their trenches. The Saxons and our people opposite them have arranged a sing-song for tonight having mutually agreed not to reopen hostilities before midnight. The men in the trenches were singing carols last night. All the chickens in the countryside have been bought up for their Christmas dinner and yesterday I saw a machine gun wagon going through laden with barrels of beer! After all this has been almost a happy though strange Christmas.
Westmorland Gazette, January 9th, 1915
Second Border Man’s Christmas
Private J Graham of the 2nd Border Regiment writes from France:- It is cold in the trenches; in fact bullets are a secondary consideration to the cold, rain and mud. On Christmas Day we had a small armistice for the purpose of burying the dead – and there were plenty of them. It was not real armistice but a kind of mutual arrangement. I had a few words with a chap who had worked at the Savoy Hotel. He is under the impression that the French and Russians are beaten, and that we are the only block between them and England. He was quite confident that the war would be finished in three weeks and that we were a beaten army. They are absolutely in the dark as regards the proper state of things.
Westmorland Gazette, January 9th, 1915
“Eyewitness” – issued by Press Bureau
In Fighting and Festivities: “Xmas come and gone and nothing changed.”
In our centre the only incident was the capture of two of the enemy who came across to our trenches ostensibly to wish us the compliments of the season.
Carlisle Journal, January 8 1915
The Border Regiments Experiences. The Christmas Armistice. Extraordinary Situation.
An officer of the 2nd Border Regiment at the front writes in a private letter, dated January 1st:-
Things have been very quiet in the trenches for our Division since Christmas Day, and scarcely any firing has been going on, both sides standing up and openly draining and repairing their trenches, and bringing up wood and sandbags from the rear. We shout across at each other if we object to anything the other fellow is doing, get under cover by muutal consent every now and then, and loose off a few shots, and then go on repairing trenches. On Christmas Day the Padre of the 6th Gordons had a joint service between the trenches, which here are quiet close together, and a corporal of the same regiment was shaved by a German who said he was a barber in Southampton. Opposite our own trench a Savoy waiter shouts out every morning to know if we are up yet. It really is most extraordinary as these same men on the morning of December 19th, deliberately shot all our wounded who were lying close to the barbed wire in front of the German trenches, and were eventually brought into our trenches after being out for 75 hours. In spite of this I believe they are all doing well.
How the truce was observed
Another office of the Border Regiment, in a letter to a friend in Carlisle, says: Life is very peaceful here at present, as we have had a mujtual truce with the Germans in front of us since Christmas morning. Our trenches are only about 100 yards away from the enemy’s and every day since Christmas we’ve been talking to them in the ground between. In normal times it’s certain death to show your head above the parapet for more than four seconds, but now both sides are walking about openly and digging. On Christmas morning the Germans gave us a burst of machine gun and rifle fire for about ten minutes and then shouted across “A Merry Christmas”. Then one of the Germans got up and we picked him off. Then one of Gordon Highlanders (on our left) got up and he was picked off. Then about 20 of ours and the same number of the Germans got up together, and we arranged a truce for Christmas Day. This armistice has continued so far, and we have no desire to start scrapping again. Firing does no good, as both the Germans and ourselves are very strongly entrenched, and artillery is the only thing that can shift either of us. When firing is going on ration and water parties have to use communication trenches to reach the firing line. When no firing is taking place these fatigues are able to walk across country to the firing line which saves a great deal of time. The trenches are not too bad if only the rain were a little less attentive. This district is wetter than the Lakes and as the soil is very clayey the mud is more than usually adhesive.
A Private’s Tribute to Captain Lamb
Private J Graham, of the 2nd Border Regiment, writing from France to his parents at Sowerby, near Thirsk, says: It is cold in the trenches; in fact, bullets are a secondary consideration to the cold, rain and mud. On Christmas Day we had a small armistice for the purpose of burying the dead – and there were plenty of them. It was not a real armistice, but a kind of mutual arrangement. I had a few words with a chap who had worked in the Savoy Hotel. He is under the impression that the French and Russians are beaten, and that we are the only block between them and England. He was quite confident that the war would be finished in three weeks, and that we were a beaten army. They are absolutely in the dark as regards the proper state of things. We go into the trenches for four days, and then in billets the next four, and we can do with the rest. It is hard to believe how four days in the trenches knocks one up. I had a nice present from Lady Mayo (the writer was footman to Lady Mayo before being called up on the Reserve) – a beautiful pair of pants and vests, the best I have ever seen – and I have heaps of fags sent me. Did I tell you we had a little affair on the 18th. We lost 175 and four officers. One Officer, Captain Lam, was a grand man, a perfect hero I believe. It was hell while it lasted – only about an hour.