Christmas in the Trenches
From the outbreak through to the end of the First World War the North Staffordshire Regiment saw service on the Western Front. In the first phase of the war up to January 1915 battalion casualties were horrific with a lost of 489 lives.
There is often told an almost mythical tale of a Christmas truce football match, but here from the History of the 1st & 2nd Battalions The North Staffordshire Regiment (The Prince of Wales’) 1914 – 1923 comes the reality of a temporary cessation in hostilities.
On December 2nd HM the King and HRH the Prince of Wales visited the 6th Division and shook hands with all Commanding Officers and Adjutants. On December 11th the 1st North Staffords took over trenches in the RUE DU BOIS area, generally known as the ‘Death Trap’ or ‘Dead Man’s Alley’, and remained there till relieved on December 31st. The trenches were in an even worse condition than during the last tour. They were well over knee deep in mud and water, and all relief’s had to take place over the open.
The 24th and 25th December 1914, saw the extraordinary spectacle of an unofficial truce between our troops and the Saxons who were opposite. Everything had been normal up to evening ‘Stand down’ and the Company Commander was having his supper in the Headquarters dug-out, when the Company Sergeant-Major put his head in and said ‘What am I to do, Sir? The Germans are sitting on their parapets, lighting candles and singing hymns!’ The Company Commander at once went out and mounting on the fire step saw small lights all along the German trenches and heard many voices uplifted in song.
He decided to consult with the Officer Commanding ‘A’ Company, who was the Senior Officer in the front line, and accordingly started to make his way down the trench towards ‘A’ Company Headquarters. On his way he surprised one of his men in the act of climbing out of the trench and discovered that there was a German soldier in ‘No man’s land,’ who wanted to speak to a British soldier, so ordering his own man back, he slipped out himself to investigate.
The German turned out to be a private soldier who had been a waiter at Brighton, and was anxious to exchange cigars for bully beef. The Company Commander asked to be taken to an Officer, and was conducted to the German front line, where he found a group of German Officers standing by the wall of a ruined farmhouse. Christmas greetings were exchanged and finally the suggestion was made that Christmas Day might be observed as a day of rest and that the Infantry should not fire on each other, though of course, neither side could answer for their Artillery.
It was then agreed that all Infantry fire should cease forthwith and that the informal truce should continue until 12pm on Christmas night.
The German spokesman then asked for permission to bury the dead, with whose frozen corpses ‘No man’s land’ was strewn. Burial parties then went out from both sides, leaving their trenches at 10am on Christmas Day, each side to bury the dead in their own half of ‘No man’s land.’
The remainder of the night passed in absolute peace, and at 10am on Christmas Day, parties of men, armed with only picks and shovels, sallied forth from either side. Then minutes later the inevitable corpse was found astride the half-way line and in no time the burial parties were merged in fraternal disorder.
Some Uhlan Officers, who had been transferred to the Infantry, came out and posed for their photographs in the centre of a group of British and German soldiery. They were magnificently polished and clean, which unfortunately, the British Officers were not.
During all this time sufficient men were kept posted in our trenches to check any attempt at treachery and to prevent any of the enemy entering our trenches. The Germans evidently took the same precautions, for when Captain Ewald tried to get a peep into their front trench, he was promptly warned off by an invisible sentry.
As soon as the truce started the Saxons advised our men to warn the Battalions on their right to stop in their trenches as they were opposed by Prussians, described as ‘Bosen Kerle’ (surly ruffians).
At dusk the men of both sides returned to their trenches, but no hostile act followed the expiry of the truce at 11pm.
Shortly after ‘Stand down’ next morning ‘C’ Company Commander was informed that a German Officer wishes to speak to him in ‘No man’s land’. On going out he found a very polite and spotless individual awaiting him, who, after an exchange of compliments, informed him that his Colonel had given orders for a renewal of hostilities at mid-day and might the men be warned to keep down, please? ‘C’ Company Commander thanked the German Officer for his courtesy, whereupon, saluting and bowing from the waist, he replied, ‘We are Saxons; you are Anglo Saxons; word of a gentleman is for us as for you.’
The troops were duly warned to keep down, but just before hostilities were due to re-open a tin was thrown into ‘A’ Company’s lines with a piece of paper in it bearing the inscription, ‘We shoot to the air’ and sure enough, at the appointed hour a few vague shots were fired over the trenches. Then all was quiet again and the unofficial truce continued.
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