The Christmas truce of 1914 tends to be looked at in a romantic light rather than one of any political significance. The war had been raging for almost five months and all sides had suffered heavy casualties. With a heavy winter looming, both sides dug in and static trench warfare became the norm and with it in places a ‘live and let live’ policy existed where the British didn’t bother the Germans and vice versa and so all were left in peace.
A number of truces had taken place between the opposing forces and can be dated back to early November. But it is the truce that began on Christmas Eve 1914 in the trenches around Saint-Yvon (called Saint-Yves, in Plugstreet/Ploegsteert) in the region of Ypres, Belgium, that everyone remembers and refers to.
The 1/Royal Warwick’s four day stint in the trenches began on the evening of the 24th and it was with a heavy heart that they marched into the trenches to relieve the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Among their ranks was Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, creator of the legendary ‘Old Bill’ character. The thought of spending Christmas in the trenches filled them with dread. The post had come and some took their cards and parcels from home with them.
A Company marched from Plugstreet Wood along Mud Lane to St Yves and into the trenches. Upon arriving, their commanding officer, Captain Robert Hamilton, was informed by the Dublins that the Germans wanted to talk with them. When they had settled in they heard the Germans call “are you the Warwicks?” To which the Warwicks replied “come and find out”. The reply was “you come half way and we will come half way”. This went on for a while until Private Gregory, the late servant of Captain Hamilton, asked if he could, and was allowed to at his own risk.
Gregory left the trench unarmed and alone and walked across ‘No Man’s Land’ until he came across two unarmed Germans and another lying down behind them with a rifle pointed at him. Gregory spoke with the Germans and received a cigar. He spun them a terrific yarn about the strength of the British lines. This yarn always reminds me of the painting Blackadder and George produced for General Melchett of the German lines and stated he may have over done it on the elephants and armament factories. This was the first interaction that can be construed as fraternization between the two warring sides.
Before long both sides were leaving the trenches and meeting in the middle of ‘No Man’s Land’. As well as exchanging pleasantries they exchanged gifts such as cigarettes and cigars. Drink was passed around from British Rum to German schnapps. One large drunken German was found in the British trench with a bottle of beer in each hand offering everyone a drink. He only left when threatened with being taken as a prisoner of war.
The truce enabled a British Padre and a German divinity student to bury the dead in ‘No Man’s Land’ and perform a small service over them. A number of strange meetings also took place. Captain Hamilton who had attended a regimental dinner in 1912 at the Trocadero met the chef who cooked their meal and was now serving with the Germans. Jack Reagan, a machine gunner with the Warwicks was seen giving a German soldier a haircut. Bruce Bairnsfather turned this into a memorable cartoon.
But why did these first meeting take place here around Ypres and the Plugstreet region. Well, the Germans in this part were Saxons. They believed that they had a lot in common with the British as we were Anglo Saxon and so a truce seemed only right.
What is associated with the Christmas Truce is the famous football match. Unfortunately this did not take place at St Ives. Although undoubtedly a ball was kicked around in this area, the famous football match took place elsewhere near the small village of Frelinghien situated on the Franco-Belgian frontier just to the north east of Armentières. Here the Royal Welch Fusiliers manned the trenches and opposite them were Prussian Jäger (light infantry) and Saxon infantry.
The Germans, celebrating their Christmas on the evening of the 24th had decorated the parapets of their trenches with lights and trees. They also began singing carols, the most famous being ‘Silent Night’ to which the British joined in.
There are several accounts as to what happened at Frelinghien. With the Germans holding the small town which housed the Lutun Brewery a number of barrels of beer were offered to the Welsh and rolled across ‘No Man’s Land’ in exchange for cigarettes and plum pudding.
It is certain that no football match took place at this point on the line but there is an account from Leutnant Johannes Niemann, which suggests a match between the Saxon Infantry Regiment Nr. 133 and a Scottish battalion, possibly the Seaforths took place slightly south of where the monument stands today. Whether it really took place or not is up for conjecture but the accepted official score was a win for the Germans: 2 – 3 (no penalties). Other reports say the Scots won 4-1!
Eventually this truce had to come to an end. British and German Generals were against this fraternization and went with the thinking that how can these two sides fight and kill each other when they are drinking together. Certain acts along the line brought the truce to an abrupt halt on the 27th December when a German was shot dead. The perpetrator was a 17 year old Lance Corporal fired up on Rum. In retaliation two British soldiers were wounded. By the 30th the truce all along the line was over.
Plugstreet and the scene of the Christmas Truce is visited by Rifleman Tours regularly. With a little imagination you can sense the atmosphere of this historical truce.
Lest we Forget.