OUT of the hundreds of Christmas Truce letters transcribed to date, the letter by Private Frederick W Heath (transcribed by Marian Robson) is perhaps the most remarkable. A beautifully-written account from the start of the truce until its end. But sadly we knew nothing about Private Heath apart from his name and that his letter was published in the North Mail on Friday, January 9. Now, thanks to the hard work of volunteers Charles Woollam and Gill Joye his story can be told...
By Charles Woollam and Gill Joye
At 9.30 am on 13 October 1917, soldiers of 1st/13th Battalion of the London Regiment heard the sound of aircraft engines above their trench at Quéant, near the town of Arras on the Western Front. Looking up, they observed a lone de Havilland BH5 bi-plane of the Australian Flying Corps being chased by four enemy aircraft. Forced out of the sky, the pilot crash-landed his stricken machine in No Man’s Land some 400 yards in front of the British front line. Badly wounded, Lieutenant Douglas Morrison crawled into a shell hole for cover from the barrage of machine gun and rifle fire that immediately opened up from the German front line. It had been fifteen days since Morrison first set foot in France.
Amongst the soldiers of the London Regiment who witnessed Morrison’s crash was Captain Frederick William Heath, holder of a Military Cross from the King’s New Year Honours List in January 1917 who, with complete disregard for his own safety, immediately clambered out of the British trenches and set off to rescue the downed airman. Under heavy fire, Captain Heath made it to within a few yards of Morrison’s shell hole and discovered that the pilot was too badly injured to move. Despite being wounded during the attempted rescue, Heath managed to crawl back to the British lines and arranged for a rescue party to bring the bleeding pilot in.
Douglas Morrison had gunshot wounds to his right knee and had badly fractured his leg during the crash and, despite having the damaged leg amputated, died as a result of his wounds at a casualty clearing station on 29 October 1917. For his part in the London Regiment’s gallant rescue, Captain Heath was awarded a bar to his Military Cross, announced in the London Gazette on 3 April 1918. The citation read: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. One of our aeroplanes was brought down in "No Man's Land" about 400 yards in front of his position, and the pilot was reported to be in a shell hole badly wounded. He at once went out in daylight, under enemy rifle and machine gun fire, and crawled to within twenty yards of the pilot, when he was himself wounded. He found that the pilot was too badly wounded to be moved, and promising that help would be sent, he then returned to our lines. He showed the greatest disregard of danger, and his action set a splendid example to all”.
Frederick William Heath was born in the last months of 1888 at Buxton in Derbyshire, the youngest child of Bertha and Albert Heath, coal merchant and ironmonger, who later moved to The Wirral, where the young Frederick was a boarder at Calday Grange Grammar School.
It is not known when Frederick volunteered for service in the 13th (County of London) Princess Louise's Kensington Battalion of the London Regiment (universally known simply as “The Kensingtons”) but he embarked with them for Le Havre on 3 November 1914 and it is probable that Heath served with them as a Territorial before the war. The Battalion was part of Sir John French’s British Expeditionary Force and, after a fortnight’s training, the Battalion first entered the trenches at Fauquissart, to the north east of Neuve Chappelle, on 18 November. The Battalion stayed in this area until 1 March 1915, with two companies in the line rotating with two in reserve at three week intervals.
Private Heath was a member of B Company and, as luck would have it, A and B Companies relieved C and D Companies at a place called Le Picantin, to the east of Laventie, on 23 December 1914. It had been raining steadily for the past four weeks and the trenches were in very poor condition but Christmas Eve was a fine day. At dusk, the men of the Kensington Battalion were surprised to be hailed by German soldiers: “Englishman, Englishman, Happy Christmas to you” and shortly afterwards, brightly-lit Christmas trees started to appear along the German parapet. The following day, the Kensingtons mingled with their foe in No Man’s Land and learned that the opposing troops were the 158th Infantry Regiment.
Early in the New Year, Heath received his commission as a Second Lieutenant and other promotions followed swiftly. Whilst a Lieutenant, he was given the rank of Acting Captain in June 1916 and was made an Acting Major during a stint at Battalion Headquarters in December 1917, then serving as a company commander and, in early 1918, as Second-in-Command of the Battalion.
Heath was clearly a conscientious, gallant and successful officer but caused some consternation on 19 March 1918, when The Kensingtons were in the front line near Vimy Ridge, “standing to” for long hours in anticipation of the German Spring Offensive, later to become known as “Operation Michael”. As commander of C Company, Heath was obliged to send regular situation reports back to Battalion Headquarters and tired of the long, monotonous hours when there was nothing much to observe, Heath chose to vary the routine by sending in a report in verse. Re-printed in 1921 by The London Evening News as part of its collection of “The Best 500 Cockney War Stories”, Heath’s situation report read as follows:
There is nothing I can tell you
That you really do not know -
Except that we are on the Ridge
And Fritz is down below.
I'm tired of "situations"
And of "wind" entirely "vane."
The gas-guard yawns and tells me
"It's blowing up for rain."
He's a human little fellow
With a thoughtful point of view,
And his report (uncensored)
I pass, please, on to you.
"When's old Fritzie coming over?
Does the General really know?
The Colonel seems to think so,
The Captain tells us 'No.'
"When's someone going to tell us
We can 'Stand-to' as before?
An hour at dawn and one at dusk,
Lor' blimey, who wants more?"
Not perhaps one of the greatest war poems but
much to Heath’s credit that he was able to find humour at a time when nerves were on edge and a testament to his standing in the regiment that his irreverence seems to have been tolerated. The long-expected German attack started two days later, when the front line was almost completely rolled up and over 250,000 British and French troops were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
Frederick Heath survived the German onslaught and was given the substantive rank of Captain the following August, seeing out the rest of the war with the Kensingtons in France before resigning his commission in November 1921.
Little is known about Heath’s life between the wars but he remained in the Territorials and, on 1 September 1939, was given an Emergency Commission in the Corps of Royal Engineers, serving throughout the Second World War and retiring by virtue of his age on 8 June 1949 with the honorary rank of Major.
Major Frederick William Heath MC and Bar died in London on 30 June 1962.