Gentlemen And Officers
An extract from K.W. Mitchinson's book on the London Rifle Brigade 'Gentlemen And Officers'.
The impact of war upon the LRB during its early months did of course manifest itself in many strange forms - whether mental, moral or physical - but one of the strangest was the truce that took place between elements of the opposing armies during Christmas 1914. The event produced such a remarkable reaction amongst the participants, and was well-documented at the time, that an account of the incident provides an interesting insight into how the men of the LRB viewed the war and their enemy.
The War Diary's entry for Christmas Day 1914 gives no clue to the peculiar events of the day; 'Weather was freezing. Very quiet day with practically no shelling'. In fact no mention of the incident appeared until 2 January 1915 when an order was received from Second Army that the 'informal truce' with the enemy was to cease and any officer or NCO found having anything to do on a friendly basis with the enemy would face Court Martial. This implies that the Staff had, if only tacitly, allowed it to continue for at least 8 days. The length of time that the truce did actually last in the Plugstreet sector is open to some dispute, but the fact repeatedly comes through in the memoirs that the men in the front area thought the incident had been given official sanction.
The sources agree that the initial stages of the truce began with the Germans erecting Christmas trees on their parapets and asking the troops opposite to exchange songs during the night of 24-25 December. Firing had certainly taken place during Christmas Eve because young Bassingham, the singer of 'Friend of Mine' during the heady days of September, was sniped and killed. As night fell, a German band, which Pocock thought 'seemed to require new instruments and a good deal of practice', struck up. During evening 'stand to' Wallis believes that the Germans called over and asked if the British would stop firing on Christmas Day. The request was, according to Wallis, passed back to GHQ and sanction was apparently given.
After swopping several songs, the men settled to sleep and the remainder of the night passed quietly. On Christmas morning parties of troops began emerging cautiously from their respective trenches. Which side appeared to make the first move is not clear, but Willie Fry thinks that it was begun by a corporal in the East Lancashires who was 'outstanding in a reckless (machine gun) crew and egged on by his companions, climbed up on the front parapet'. Once the initial contact had been made, the LRB and their German counterparts began heading across No Man's Land. Goode and Panton, both peacetime medical students at the London Hospital, somehow acquired a half a bottle of rum and took it with them as a present. Soon, the area between the trenches took on the appearance of a 'football pitch at half-time', and Latham even talks of a spontaneous, albeit 'disorderly football match', using a dead rabbit as the 'ball' taking place. The fraternization that followed is well known and was reported back to England in the letters of the participants. Many of their parents sent the letters to their local newspapers, and although the following appeared in the Manchester Guardian
, it is typical of the genre:
We had a splendid day yesterday under the circumstances. Our chaps were in the trenches, but some understanding was arrived at with the Germans and not a shot was fired, and the Germans came out of their trenches and we came out too, and met them halfway, and exchanged souvenirs and chatted, some of them knowing our lingo and some of us knowing theirs. They weren't half a bad lot really. You should never think we were flying at one another's throats a few hours previously.
Wallis thought that the truce had not originated among the front line troops, but most of the accounts agree with Lydall and the Signaller Pocock; '...the truce was arranged verbally and unofficially between the various regiments then occupying the Front Line on either side...It was agreed that neither side should shoot during Christmas week...these revelries more or less continued until the New Year when hostilities recommenced'.
The troops, like Wallis, believed that once the truce had started, High Command was prepared to allow it to continue and even, from at least Brigade level, actually seem to have encouraged it. The opportunity was taken by both sides to collect and bury the dead who had lain out in No Man's Land since the attack of 19 December. 2Lt Johnston, who had spent some time training as a parson, recited a passage from the burial service over what some remember as a mass Anglo-German grave, while another source records that the dead were carried back to their respective lines. Captain Bates, commanding No 4 Company, wrote to his sister that he had been ordered not to fire unless the Germans did, but Fry remembers that there was a great deal of apprehension during the day in case the artillery had not heard that a truce was in operation. He is mistaken, though, by stating that when Corbie was shot in the head and killed during the afternoon the truce was brought to an abrupt end; Corbie was not in fact shot until either 4 or 5 January.
There is as much confusion over when the truce actually ended as there is over how it originally began. Henry Williamson thought it lasted four days, during which time the LRB frequently came out of the wood, waved and wandered over to the German lines for a chat. Some reports have it lasting less than that and cite as evidence the message received from the Germans by the officer in Hants Trench at 08.03 hours on 27 December:
Gentlemen. Our automatic rifle has been ordered from the Colonel to begin the fire again at midnight. We take it honour to award you of this fact'."
The Regimental History gives the date of this message as New Year's Eve rather than the 27th and it is clear that the truce did last into the New Year. No 3 Company went into the line again on 27 December and 'for three more days a sort of truce existed. Although strongly denounced by HQ conversations were carried on at night between listening patrols who met in No Man's Land and exchanged newspapers'. Whether the 'HQ' referred to was Battalion, Brigade or Division is not clear but incidents occurred during New Year's Day which appear to have again had the tacit approval of Brigade: 'A very drunken German was extricated from our wire. We relieved him of some cigars and sent him down to Brigade as a prisoner. Brigade returned him with thanks as they wanted the 'Peace' to continue until some important defensive work on the edge of the wood was completed. The German was taken to the edge of the British wire and dispatched across No Man's Land'.
Early on New Year's Day, Pte Brewster was apparently lolling casually and contentedly around on the fire-step. With head and shoulders above the parapet, he was more concerned with his breakfast bacon sizzling over the fire than with his safety. Suddenly, with a scream of 'I'm dying' and blood trickling from his throat, he collapsed into the trench. His comrades feared the worst but upon investigation the wound was found to be only superficial. 'Upon being told sternly not to be an ... idiot he at once seized his bacon, still happily intact, and ate with a relish which did credit to a dying man. No further firing occurred so we charitably gave our friend the enemy, the benefit of a considerable doubt.'
That same night a wiring party of the LRB out in No Man's Land reputedly ran out of wire, whereupon an obliging German threw over one of his reels so that the job could be finished. The German then announced that his unit, a Saxon Regiment, was being relieved in three days by the Prussians and as far as he was concerned the LRB could 'give them hell...So for yet three more days the unofficial armistice went on, an occasional rifle being fired in the air as a matter of form'. The War Diary records two men being wounded on 2 January with the 'usual sniping and intermittent shelling', but there were certainly no deaths until that of Corbie.
Neither the War Diary nor any other account mentions any disciplinary action or rebukes handed down following the truce. Fry put this down to the sheer number being involved as it could have been difficult to justify punishment to a few for the actions of many. By the same token, punishment, in theory, would have to have been meted out to the several officers who had taken part in the fraternisation, and that would have proved embarrassing. To officers and men of the LRB the truce symbolised the attitude they held towards the war and the Germans. Wallis regarded it 'very much as a sporting fight...with no bad feeling on either side'. That did not mean, of course, that their determination to win was not assured. The atmosphere of holiday excitement still prevailed despite their introduction to trench warfare, and by indulging in a truce during the season of goodwill the LRB were merely continuing the long tradition of cease-fires between enemies during religious festivals. Such a sporting thing as conversing and shaking hands with your foe appealed to the sense of fair play and gentlemanly behaviour with which the officers had been inculcated at the better known public schools, and which the other ranks had also acquired at their less famous ones. Although Wallis, ever the correct soldier, might partly condemn the affair as an episode not to be especially proud of, even he could excuse it on the grounds that it gave them the opportunity to bury the dead. To most of the men though, it probably just seemed the natural thing to do.
Once the festivities had ended, the business of trying to make life bearable in the trenches and killing the enemy recommenced. The official order of priorities was: construction of fire positions, wire etc., the safety of the garrison, and lastly, comfort of the garrison. Two new machine gun posts were in the course of construction during January and February, but both positions lay empty for some time awaiting the guns.