Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
Random Quote
Random Date
Old map of Ireland

HISTORY

IRISH HISTORY

THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE, 1914

By Turtle Bunbury

At 11pm on Christmas Eve, a British sentry in the trenches near Picantin rubbed his eyes and stared out across the narrow No-Man’s Land to the German trenches. Sure enough, clusters of lanterns were rising up all along the German parapets.

By the time word of this curious lightshow had spread down the line to the Royal Irish Rifles, German voices were echoing across the air.[i]

'English solders, English soldiers, Happy Christmas. Where are your Christmas trees?'

And then they started singing. It’s not known what these particular Germans sang but it may well have been ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘O du Fröhliche.’

The Irish were quick to respond, answering with both songs and jokes. [ii]

‘If you come out and talk to us – we won't fire’, shouted the Germans.

Lt. Col. George Brenton Laurie, the commanding officer of the Royal Irish Rifles, expressed caution. Born in Nova Scotia, he had been with the regiment for over 30 years. In his diary, he wrote: ‘8.30pm. Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and are wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.’ [iii]

His concerns were heightened when he received a message from Brigade headquarters urging ‘special vigilance’ because ‘it is thought possible that enemy may be contemplating an attack during Xmas or New Year.’ [iv]

Meanwhile, one of his Riflemen daringly ventured across to the German trenches and returned with a cigar. Shortly afterwards, a German appeared beside the Royal Irish Rifles trench requesting a two day truce.

‘Only one day’, countered Captain Arthur O’Sullivan, formerly of Greystones, County Wicklow.

At 11:45pm, a company from the battalion advanced out into No Man’s Land to converse with the enemy. ‘A good many Germans spoke English well,’ observed the diarist. ‘They were well clothed, clean shaved. Good physique, rather inclining to extremes of age.’ The Germans, clad in their grey uniforms and Pickelhaube (spiked helmets), gifted the Irishmen a cap, a helmet badge and a box of cigars, while one of them confidently declared that the war would be over in 3 weeks as Germany had already defeated Russia.[v]

Sapper J. Davey of the Royal Engineers watched this unlikely friendship take shape from the safety of his trench. ‘Our men were meeting the Germans in No Man’s Land, chatting, walking about together and exchanging what they could in the form of smokes and food. I saw a number of Irish, English and German soldiers chasing a rabbit or hare in No-Man’s Land, throwing clods of frozen soil at it. I don’t know whether it was caught.’ [vi]

When Colonel Laurie telephoned Brigade HQ with the update, he received a rather panicky reply at 12.35am. ‘No communication of any sort is to be held with the enemy nor is he to be allowed to approach our trenches under penalty of fire being opened.’[vii]

Fraternization (aka consorting with the enemy) was ostensibly a very serious breach of military discipline. A detailed study indicates that the general court martial rate for the Irish units who engaged in the Christmas Truce was over twice that of those who did not, suggesting that those who engaged were rather more prone to ill-discipline.[viii]

Before he went to sleep, Colonel Laurie wrote to his wife Florence, whose family hailed from County Louth.[ix]

‘I have told my people not to fire on Christmas Day if the enemy does not do so, but to trust him—not at all! So here I am spending Christmas Eve in the trenches—like my father did exactly 60 years ago in the Crimea. Only I think I am a good bit more comfortable than he was at that time. I used to be up at cockcrow when a small child on Christmas Day, to see what Santa Claus had brought me, and I shall be up early enough tomorrow in all conscience too, but for a different reason—standing to arms—so that I shall not get my throat cut.’

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has become one of the most iconic events of the war, not least with Sainsbury’s seizing the opportunity to mark the centenary with a controversial advertisement.

UEFA, the European football’s governing body, also joined the fray when its president Michel Platini unveiled a Christmas truce memorial in Ploegstraat, eight miles south of Ypres, on December 11th. The memorial comprises what appears to be an exploded shell capped by a period leather football.

The UEFA memorial commemorates a moment when British and German soldiers met in the killing fields of No Man’s Land to play a football match on Christmas Day. The only hiccup is that, sadly, historians are now unanimously agreed that this match never happened.

Or at least there is no evidence of any such game in either the British or German archives. No record in any official war diary or regimental history. No photographs. There may have been some fraternization in which balls were kicked around, but not in any “organized” manner and it is thought far more likely that any such game was between men on the same side.[x]

The fact the UEFA memorial is located in Ploegstraat – or Plugstreet as the British nicknamed it - may be connected to the recollections of Lt Cyril Drummond of the Royal Field Artillery who was serving in the area. Drummond claimed that he chanced to meet a Sergeant Major on Christmas Eve whose ‘eyes were nearly standing out of his head.’

‘There’s Germans coming over to our trenches and our people going over to the Germans,’ exclaimed the Sergeant Major. ‘And I have shaken hands with a German!’

The Sergeant Major also told Drummond that ‘there was to be a football match between the Dublin Fusiliers and the Germans!’ The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were certainly in the Ploegstraat sector at this time but they had, in fact, been relieved earlier that evening so it seems curious that the Dubs were named as the German opponents.[xi] They certainly never lined out against one another.

That said, there were innumerable moments of tremendous bonding between the battle-weary Germans and their British and Irish counterparts on Christmas Day. It was clear by now that this was a war unlike any other. Nearly 500,000 men had already been killed across the battle fronts, including 16,200 British and Irish officers and men.[xii]

Indeed, some of the most flawed and costly attacks made by the British during the entire war occurred in December 1914, with failed attacks at Messines and Ploegsteert, and the truce came about, in part, to enable the two sides to bury large numbers of men who had been killed in those battles.

The truce, as such, was by no means a formal event although there had been widespread hope that such a possibility might occur.[xiii]

In early December 1914, Pope Benedict XV appealed to the warring nations to "cease the clang of arms while Christendom celebrates the Feast of the World's Redemption". However, the governments were unable or willing to cooperate and on December 13th the Vatican issued a statement conceding that the Pope's effort had failed.[xiv]

It may be relevant that the Germans who met with the Royal Irish Rifles were from the 158th (7th Lotharingian) Infantry, which was raised in Paderborn, a city with a predominantly Catholic population in the Rhine Province of the German Reich.

What took place on that snowy Christmas Day in 1914 was effectively a series of locally agreed armistices, usually initiated by the Germans, and it varied from temporary ceasefires to substantial fraternization. Such arrangements took place on every front, except the Serbian one, with Austrians and Russians having like encounters on the Eastern Front.[xv]

The regimental diary for the Royal Irish Rifles provides one of the most detailed accounts of the day. It began at dawn when the Germans shouted ‘Merry Christmas’ from their trenches and began to dance and sing in front of their parapets.[xvi] True to their word, Colonel Laurie and his men did not fire on them.

‘You have no idea how pleasant everything seems with no rifle bullets or shells flying about,’ wrote the Colonel to his wife. ‘I need hardly tell you that we have kept our men ready in the trenches all the same, as we do not trust our friends further than we can see them.’[xvii]

Mrs Laurie had not forgotten either her husband or his men at Christmas. She arranged for a large delivery that ensured the Riflemen were treated to a veritable banquet of pheasant, partridge, chocolate and plum pudding.

Brigade HQ had eased up a little. ‘So long as Germans do not snipe, there should be no sniping from our lines today but the greatest vigilance must be maintained as Germans are not to be trusted.’

Elsewhere along the frontline the British and Germans were becoming so at ease with one another that they began ‘to hang out their washing and mend their wire entanglements … [until] … this happy scene was suddenly upset by the bursting of a big shell, fired from a position many miles in the rear, and everyone scuttled back to his hole in double quick time.’[xviii]

At Festubert, two companies from the Royal Munster Fusiliers bowed their heads as Father Francis Gleeson prepared to give Mass. [xix] Among those who prayed was 19-year-old Limerick man Peter Fitzgerald. He had more reason to give thanks than most. Earlier that day, the Munsters had received some of the 426,000 decorative brass tins distributed to serving men at the behest of Princess Mary, the 17-year-old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. When Fitzgerald opened his tin, a card inside revealed that Princess Mary herself had packed it. Fitzgerald was fated to die on the Macedonian Front just over a year later. [xx]

Further to the north at Messines, the 6th Connaught Rangers celebrated Christmas Mass at Shamus Farm, a group of ruins 300 yards behind the frontlines. ‘It was the most impressive service I ever attended,’ wrote Lieutenant C. A. Brett. ‘There were perhaps 500 men there, all on our knees in the mud, and it was something not to be forgotten. During the service there was no gunfire, but the occasional shot could be heard during the day.’[xxi]

The Christmas Truce was by means standard behaviour all along the Western Front; at least eight British soldiers were killed on Christmas Day. Among those who saw no break from hostilities were the 1st Battalion of Irish Guards, known as the ‘Micks’.

Three days before Christmas, the Micks were posted to the Cuinchy Brickstacks on the Canal d'Aire. Their trenches had been dug by the 9th Gurkhas who were clearly rather shorter than the Irish guardsmen; the latter were compelled to grab their spades and dig down a further two feet.

It would have been exceptionally difficult to feel remotely Christmassy in this landscape. The clay in which the labyrinth of trenches had been dug could not compete with the heavy winter rains. With no drainage, they were soon knee-deep in porridge-like mud that stuck to their clothes, their rifles and their spades when they tried to clear it out. Inevitably the trenches teemed with rats and lice.

Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the history of the Irish Guards, described how the Christmas Truce reached them in ‘severely modified form’ so that ‘they spent Christmas Day, under occasional bombardment of heavy artillery, in exploring and establishing themselves as well as they might among these wet and dreary works.’ German artillery continued to pound away at their lines and eight Micks were wounded on Christmas Day.

The truce for the Royal Irish Rifles concluded, by prior arrangement, when Captain O’Sullivan fired a pistol shot into the night sky at midnight. A small group of Germans had approached his trench shortly before midnight, presumably seeking an extension, but they were told to turn back.[xxii]

The Germans were slow to fight back after the truce ended. ‘Though we shelled them and fired at them with rifles, they paid not the slightest attention,’ wrote Colonel Laurie. ‘Whilst the shelling was on, they dodged down in their trenches, and popped up again when it was over. We hit one with a rifle, but as they would not reply, we felt rather mean and fired over their heads.’[xxiii]

Ten weeks later, Florence Laurie learned that her husband had been killed while leading his men over the top at the battle of Neuve Chapelle.[xxiv] In May 1915, Mrs O’Sullivan of Greystones likewise received word that her son Arthur had been killed in action.[xxv]

The truce was largely over by December 27 when most of the 270,000 British and Irish soldiers on the Western Front returned to business as usual. A German was apparently shot dead at point blank when he arrived at a British trench to enquire if the armistice still held. Elsewhere a group of German officers were reportedly taken prisoner when they accepted an offer to have a drink with their British counterparts.[xxvi]

Lieut. Cyril Drummond was ordered to fire upon a farmhouse two days after Christmas. On account of the truce, he now knew that the farmhouse was a place where the Germans often went for coffee. He alerted the Dublin Fusiliers who duly sent word over the top so that by the time Drummond’s guns opened fire, there were no Germans in the farmhouse.

However, there were some places where the truce carried on long after Christmas. The 2nd Leinster Regiment, raised in Birr, County Offaly, was entrenched in open agricultural fields north east of Armentiéres in December 1914. On Christmas Eve they had initially rejected overtures of peace from the Germans; when lanterns were raised over the German trenches, they shot them to pieces. However, as dusk fell on Christmas Day, the battalions’ A, B and C companies opted to fraternize. A witness recalled how the enemies stood in the darkness ‘chatting and smoking cigarettes together midway between the lines’, after which ‘we remained the whole night through singing with the enemy song for song. “Give us Tipperary”, they cried. Whereupon an adjacent Irish regiment [ie: the Leinsters] let loose a tremendous “whoop,” and complied with the request in a way as only Irishmen can.’[xxvii]

Tellingly, the Leinster’s D Company held back and continued with its random sniping at the Germans lines. Like many battalion officers, German and Allied, the company commander welcomed the truce as an opportunity to repair and strengthen his trenches following the appalling weather. Nonetheless, by and large, the 2nd Leinsters managed to hold the truce until ordered to resume hostilities in mid-January 1915 [xxviii]

The 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers were not involved in the Christmas Truce as such. However, on 27 December, they took up the line along the River Douve sector near Ploegstraat and somehow they managed to sustain a ceasefire with their German counterparts that lasted several weeks. [xxix] As late as 13 January 1915, Captain Burrows noted, ‘No sniping, this has been the case since Christmas. Enemy seem to understand that we will not snipe them so long as they do not snipe us.’[xxx]

The Christmas Truce would not be repeated in 1915, despite another call from the Pope. The introduction of poison gas in the spring of 1915 changed the game drastically and made each side dig in for the long haul. By the time of the Somme and Passchendaele, the Christmas Truce already felt like an event of great antiquity.

Away from the trenches, the idea of a Truce was non-existent in the mind of Erskine Childers on Christmas Day 1914 as his bomb-laden seaplane zoned in on the German port of Cuxhaven. The best-selling spy novelist had become a household name in Ireland just before the war when he sailed his yacht Asgard into Howth with a cargo of 900 Mauser rifles and 29,000 rounds of black powder for the Irish Volunteers. However, following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, he enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and was appointed as an Intelligence Officer on board HMS Engadine, a seaplane carrier operating in the North Sea.

One of Britain’s greatest fears in the early days of the war was an aerial bombardment by German Zeppelins, many of which were housed in sheds at Cuxhaven on the coast of Lower Saxony. Childers, who was intimately acquainted with the region through his pre-war yachting excursions, managed to whip up such a detailed picture of what Cuxhaven looked like that, on Christmas Day, the Royal Navy launched the first combined sea and air strike in history. The mission was commanded by Cecil L'Estrange Malone, captain of the Engadine, and a cousin of the Hamiltons of Hamwood, County Meath. Malone would one day join the Communist Party of Great Britain and become the first communist to be elected a Member of Parliament.

The Cuxhaven Raid began when seven of nine seaplanes managed to take off from Engadine, including one in which Childers gamely sat as an observer. Poor weather and alert German anti-aircraft gunners prevented the Yuletide raiders from reaching their target but, as Childers wrote in his diary, ‘it marks a new era in war; the first regular battle between the ships of the sea and the ships of the air.’ The Admiralty was certainly impressed to learn that, following the raid, the Germans had relocated the bulk of their High Seas Fleet from Cuxhaven to the distant Kiel Canal in the Baltic Sea. If nothing else, such raids could scare the enemy into a retreat.

If the British needed any reminders of the importance of ensuring the German fleet were kept faraway from their shores, they received one on Christmas Day when SS Gem, a cargo ship, struck a mine which had been dropped off the Yorkshire coast during a German naval raid nine days earlier. Ten of the ships’ 12-strong crew were killed including six sailors from County Antrim, three from Cushendall, three more from Carnlough and Glenarm.

The safest place for an Irishman to be on Christmas Day 1914 was probably Ireland. However, even then, duty came at a cost. Colonel Lewin of the Connaught Rangers spent the morning of Christmas Day visiting the various men’s and sergeant’s messes at their barracks in Kinsale. ‘There were 22 in all’, noted one of his officers. ‘At each he had to drink half a tumbler or more of whiskey. In consequence he was quite unable to bite his little finger when half round, but he did the complete round and was then put to bed by his wife.’[xxxi]

FURTHER READING

· G.A. Burgoyne, 4th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, Private Papers of G.A. Burgoyne, Imperial War Museum Collection No. 12484]

· Why do we still romanticise the 1914 truce? David Boyle, The Guardian, Friday 12 December 2014 via http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/12/first-world-war-romanticise-1914-christmas-truce

Thanks to Myles Dungan, Gordon Power and Alan Cleaver (www.christmastruce.co.uk),

FOOTNOTES

[i] The 1st Royal Irish Rifles – based near Laventie - had not been greatly involved in the attack of 18th December but it had still lost 95 men during the previous five weeks. On 23 December, the battalion left billets and went to the frontline trenches at E Lines.

The Regimental War Diary of the 1st Royal Irish Rifles for Christmas is one of the most detailed of all the battalions who served in the trenches. ‘Nothing of importance occurred up to 8pm when heralded by jovialities from their trenches the Germans placed lamps on their parapets and commenced singing. Various remarks such as “If you English come out and talk to us – we won't fire, etc etc" were shouted out on which our men came out and both British and Germans met half way between their respective trenches and conversed. A good many Germans spoke English well. They were well clothed, clean shaved. Good physique, rather inclining to extremes of age. ‘

[ii] Quoted in ‘Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914’ by Malcolm Brown, Shirley Seaton (Pan Macmillan, 2011). ‘The Regimental History of the 13th London Regiment recorded: "It was the first Christmas of the war and the enemy, no less than ourselves, felt very homesick. The Germans gave the first sign. A tired sentry in our battalion, looking out over the waste toward the German lines spread the exciting news that the enemy's trenches were 'all alight.' He had hardly uttered the words before other sentries took up the cry and we all looked at the enemy's line, which was dotted here and there with clusters of lights. From behind the lines came German voices crying 'English solders, English soldiers, Happy Christmas. Where are your Christmas trees?' And faint but clear, the songs of the season accompanied their voices. We were a little embarrassed by this sudden comradeship and, as a lasting joke against us, let it be said that the order was given to stand to arms. But we did not fire, for the battalion on our right, The Royal Irish Rifles, with their national sense of humour, answered the enemy's salutations with songs and jokes and made appointments in No Man's Land for Christmas Day. We felt small and subdued and spent the remainder of Christmas Eve in watching the lights flicker and fade on the 'Christmas Trees' in their trenches and hearing the voices grow fainter and eventually cease.’

[iii] George Brenton Laurie was 17 when he was first commissioned into the Royal Irish Rifles. See ‘Letters of Lt.-Col. George Brenton Laurie (commanding 1st Battn Royal Irish Rifles) Dated November 4th, 1914-March 11th, 1915’. Edited by Florence Vere-Laurie. See http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24862/24862-h/24862-h.htm See also ‘The 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War’ by James W. Taylor (Four Courts, 2002)

[iv] Letters of Lt.-Col. George Brenton Laurie (commanding 1st Battn Royal Irish Rifles) Dated November 4th, 1914-March 11th, 1915. Edited by Florence Vere-Laurie. See http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24862/24862-h/24862-h.htm See also ‘The 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War’ by James W. Taylor (Four Courts, 2002)

[v] 11.45pm. germans before my regiment state they will not fire until midnight 25/26 unless we fire. No shot has been fired since 8pm. A small party of one Company met Germans half way and conversed. 158th Regiment, fine men, clean and well clothed. They gave us a cap and helmet badge and a box of cigars. One of them states the war would be over in 3 weeks as they had defeated Russia (!). A large number of Germans came out of their trenches, which appeared quite as strongly held as ours. Digging and erection of wire continued. All Companies have been cautioned to be doubly alert. German trenches still illuminated.

[vi] The Western Front: The Irishmen Who Fought in World War One, by William Sheehan

[vii] Letters of Lt.-Col. George Brenton Laurie (commanding 1st Battn Royal Irish Rifles) Dated November 4th, 1914-March 11th, 1915. Edited by Florence Vere-Laurie. See http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24862/24862-h/24862-h.htm See also ‘The 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War’ by James W. Taylor (Four Courts, 2002)

[viii] Timothy Bowman, ‘Irish Regiments in the Great War: Discipline and Morale’ (Manchester University Press, 2006), p. 48-52.

[ix] Lt. Col. George Brenton Laurie wrote to his wife Florence from a farmhouse on the Rue Tilleloy. Letters of Lt.-Col. George Brenton Laurie (commanding 1st Battn Royal Irish Rifles) Dated November 4th, 1914-March 11th, 1915. Edited by Florence Vere-Laurie. See http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24862/24862-h/24862-h.htm See also ‘The 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War’ by James W. Taylor (Four Courts, 2002)

Florence Clementina Vere Skeffington, eldest daughter of the late Hon. Sydney William Skeffington. Her grandparents were the 10th Viscount Massereene & 3rd Viscount Ferrard, and Olivia Grady (d. 10 May 1874), 4th dau. of Henry Deane Grady, of Lodge, co. Limerick, and Stillorgan Castle, co. Dublin. She subsequently married, as his second wife, her cousin Algernon William John Clotworthy [Skeffington], 12th Viscount Massereene and 5th Viscount Ferrard. She had Fitzgerald relatives in Collon, County Louth, and Grady relatives in Limerick, Ross of Rostrevor. See Massereene, Viscount (I, 1660) in Crawcroft’s Peerage at http://www.cracroftspeerage.co.uk/online/content/massereene1660.htm

[x] Chris Baker, The Truce – The Day the War Stopped’ (Amberley Press). Peter Suciu in ‘The Christmas Truce of 1914 – Facts Vs. Fiction’ (http://www.armchairgeneral.com/the-christmas-truce-of-1914-facts-vs-fiction.htm) goes one step further, suggesting that in the absence of any actual balls, the men may have simply kicked about a ration tins or a similarly sized object.

[xi] On the evening of Christmas Eve, the 2nd RDF were relieved and sent to reserve billets at Point 63. Lt Cyril Drummond also tells how when one of the Dubs was shot dead by a bullet fired from Ploegstraat Wood one day, Drummond said ‘the Saxons immediately sent over and apologised, saying it hadn’t been anything to do with them but [was] from those so-and-so Prussians on their left’.[xi]

[xii] Allied: One million casualties, including about 850,000 French, 100,000 British and 50,000 Belgians. Of these, approximately 300,000 were killed in action or died from wounds, most of them French who apparently lost 27,000 dead on August 22nd alone. This alludes to battle casualties only, and does not include deaths from disease or accident, or those evacuated sick. The British casualties broke down into approximately 16,200 officers and men killed as well as nearly 50,000 wounded and at least 16,746 missing or taken prisoner. Forty seven heirs to noble titles were among the dead.

By the same criteria as those above, German battle casualties were in the order of three quarters of a million, of whom perhaps 200,000 were killed in action or died from wounds.

Included in the Allied casualties are some 200,000 PoWs; the Germans probaly lost fewer than one third of that number.

There were also now over 3 million refugees in Belgium and NW France.

[xiii] Partial or total truces took place on every front, except the Serbian one, with Germans meeting French and Austrians and Russians doing likewise. On the Western Front, it was more of a pause, following a major French counter attack in Champagne that began on 20 Dec. A singing contest began (somewhere?) between the French and the German 2nd Guards Division when the latter sang ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘O du Fröhliche’, as well as hoisting a Christmas tree on their parapet. The French then sang their own carols back, before the competition became decidedly more jingoistic with the ‘Marseillaise’ being bellowed from one trench and ‘Deutschland über alles’ from the other.

[xiv] One of the more practical problems with the Pope’s appeal was that while western European countries agreed on December 25th as Christmas Day, Russia and Serbia adhered to the older date of January 6th.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was also spurred on in part by the “Open Christmas Letter,” a public message for peace that was addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria” and signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists.

[xv] The Germans on the Western Front were still recovering from a major French counter attack in Champagne that began on 20 December. And yet, somewhere, a singing contest began between the French and the German 2nd Guards Division when the latter sang ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘O du Fröhliche’ and hoisted a Christmas tree on their parapet. The French then sang their own carols back, before the competition became decidedly more jingoistic with the ‘Marseillaise’ being bellowed from one trench and ‘Deutschland über alles’ from the other.

Adolf Hitler, wherever he was at the time, apparently refused to take part in the Christmas Truce.

[xvi] RIR Diary: ‘At dawn on 25th the Germans shouted out "Merry Xmas" from their trenches and danced and sang in front of their parapets.’

[xvii] ‘Here we are, on Christmas Day! We have had a curious time of it. Last night, about eleven o'clock, the enemy (100 yards only from us) put lanterns up on the parapet and called out: "Do not shoot after twelve o'clock, and we will not do so either." One of our men ventured across; he was not fired upon, and was given a cigar and told to go back. A German officer came out next, and asked for two days' truce from firing, but we said, "Only one day." Then we saw both sides, English and German, begin to swarm out to meet each other; we thought it wiser to keep our men in, because we did not trust the Germans, so I rang up the General to tell him this. We had to station sentries on the trenches to keep the men back; they were so eager to talk to the Germans. Then I offered to go across myself and learn what I could, and finally the German General asked me to send one of our officers over to them. This I did, and gave the latter as an ostensible reason the Daily Telegraph of December 22nd, which I had got hold of, and which contained a very fair account of the troubles in Austria-Hungary and Berlin. He went out with this paper, met some German officers, and discovered a certain amount. They were very anxious to know if the Canadian Division had arrived, whether our trenches were very muddy, and told him that our rifle fire was good. We said that our rifle fire in general was our weak point, etc., etc. So now this is the queer position of affairs: we fire a pistol shot off at 12 midnight to-night by arrangement, and they reply with some shots over our heads, after which things continue to hum as before. You have no idea how pleasant everything seems with no rifle bullets or shells flying about. I need hardly tell you that we have kept our men ready in the trenches all the same, as we do not trust our friends further than we can see them. As to other matters. (1) The pheasants and the partridges arrived in time, and we lunched off them sumptuously to-day; many thanks. (2) The chocolate arrived, and was distributed this afternoon to the men. (3) I enclose three Christmas cards. They are very hard to get, and you had better keep them as mementoes of this war. I am sending one to my Mother. (4) Only 500 lbs. of plum pudding arrived for our men this afternoon. If more does not turn up to-morrow, I will write to the A.D.C. of General Rawlinson to find out what has happened to the remainder. Whilst we are peaceable, the guns are booming out now and then some miles away on our left and right where the French are fighting. I suppose we all thought from the Germans' behaviour that they had something up their sleeves and are looking out for squalls. They said that their army was in Moscow, and that the Russians were beaten, and, moreover, that the war would be over in two, or at most three weeks, so we are expecting a push....’

Letters of Lt.-Col. George Brenton Laurie (commanding 1st Battn Royal Irish Rifles) Dated November 4th, 1914-March 11th, 1915. Edited by Florence Vere-Laurie. See http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24862/24862-h/24862-h.htm See also ‘The 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War’ by James W. Taylor (Four Courts, 2002)

[xviii] Morning Post, “Christmas At The Front/An Interrupted Truce”, December 31 1914. Quoted In ‘“A Remarkable Instance”: The Christmas Truce And Its Role In The Contemporaneous Narrative Of The First World War’ By Theresa Blom Crocker University Of Kentucky, Ma 2012, Tbcroc2@Email.Uky.Edu)

[xix] The 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers were in reserve west of Festubert but sent two companies to the frontline on Christmas Eve. The trenches were not involved in the Christmas Truce so Father Francis Gleeson, the Tipperary born army chaplain, was taking a risk when he chose to conduct a mass in one of the trenches that was frequently under fire. ‘Where he had his little altar, was peppered with bullets,’ marvelled one communicant. ‘He is a grand priest and shows no fear’. The battalion diary reports that Christmas and St Stephen’s Day passed quietly. See Ryan, Des. "The Second Munsters 1914–1918 Part One". Limerick City Council. Via http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/Media,3979,en.pdf

[xx] ‘Pte 9790 Peter Fitzgerald of the 2nd Munsters was the lucky recipient of a unique tin, for it included a card saying it had been packed by Princess Margaret herself.’ Chris Baker, The Truce – The Day the War Stopped’ (Amberley Press). He was born in Rockhill, near Bruree, County Limerick. He is probably the same person noted on the 1911 census at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Limerick/Rockhill/Howardstown_South/619301/ He was living at Drumaconner, County Limerick, when he enlisted at Ennis, County Clare. He died of his wounds while serving with the regiment’s 6th (Service) Battalion in Greek Macedonia on 17 January 1916.

For details on such tins see http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/items/1329146/tin-princess-mary-s-christmas-gift-1914

[xxi] The Western Front: The Irishmen Who Fought in World War One by William Sheehan. The 1st Connaught Rangers were in the trenches at Cuinchy but were relieved on 22 December by the 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps; their relief would lose four dead and 13 wounded between the 22nd and Christmas Day.

[xxii] The regimental diary for the Royal Irish Rifles also recorded the following notes:

1. The truce is sought entirely by the enemy

2. The enemy have asked for two days of this which has been refused by the officers of the battalion in the firing line

3. The neutral arrangements is that if either side construct works or carry out such repairs to works that the other consider not playing the game they will fire shots over the other side's heads

4. Captain O'Sullivan commanding B Company of the battalion will fire his revolver as 12 mn tonight at which signal the truce ends.

Only a few shots fired by the enemy, after the midnight signal was fired by Captain O'Sullivan from our trenches. Shortly before midnight a party of Germans came over towards B Company's trenches ands was ordered back.

This tallied with Colonel Laurie’s remarks: ‘‘We fire a pistol shot off at 12 midnight to-night by arrangement,’ wrote Colonel Laurie, ‘and they reply with some shots over our heads, after which things continue to hum as before.’

[xxiii] ‘Our strange sort of armistice continued throughout yesterday,’ wrote Laurie. ‘The Germans told us they were all Landwehr men, and therefore not obliged to fight outside Germany except as volunteers, and that they did not intend to fight at present. Sure enough, though we shelled them and fired at them with rifles, they paid not the slightest attention. Whilst the shelling was on, they dodged down in their trenches, and popped up again when it was over. We hit one with a rifle, but as they would not reply, we felt rather mean and fired over their heads.’

Letters of Lt.-Col. George Brenton Laurie (commanding 1st Battn Royal Irish Rifles) Dated November 4th, 1914-March 11th, 1915. Edited by Florence Vere-Laurie. See http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24862/24862-h/24862-h.htm See also ‘The 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War’ by James W. Taylor (Four Courts, 2002)

[xxiv] On 12 March 1915, 48-year-old Colonel Laurie led his men over the top at the battle of Neuve Chapelle, calling out "Follow me! I will lead you!" Moments after he sprang over the parapet, revolver in hand, a bullet slammed into his head and he fell.

[xxv] For more on Captain Arthur Moore O'Sullivan, 1st Royal Irish Rifles, see http://ourheroes.southdublinlibraries.ie/node/16197

[xxvi] On December 27, Major Jack Trefusis, acting commander of the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards, wrote in his diary: ‘I hear that on Christmas Day in one part of the line, some Officers were invited by the Germans to come and have a drink. They went and asked the Germans to come back. They refused but two or three hours afterwards, they came over and were taken prisoners. So complications may arise, and we have been told not to hold any sort of Armistice, but I don't suppose any sensible man would.’ Quoted in ‘Irish Regiments in the Great War: Discipline and Morale’ by Timothy Bowman, p. 51.

[xxvii] This comes from a letter written by Sergt. A. Lovell, A Company, 3rd Rifle Brigade, to relatives at Walthamstow and published in the Essex County Chronicle, Friday, 15th January, 1915, quoted at http://www.christmastruce.co.uk/essex.html. The Leinsters were based at L’Epinette but some accounts suggest they were relieved on Christmas Day.

Perhaps this was also the occasion that prompted an unnamed captain to report singing on Christmas evening, courtesy of an “Irish captain with a turn for music”. The same captain observed that it was “a pity the German press vilify us so much, for here the British soldiers and their adversaries mutually respect each other. And our officers certainly admire the Germans for putting up such a great fight, and this is quite the common opinion.” [Morning Post, “Christmas At The Front/An Interrupted Truce”, December 31 1914. Quoted In ‘“A Remarkable Instance”: The Christmas Truce And Its Role In The Contemporaneous Narrative Of The First World War’ By Theresa Blom Crocker University Of Kentucky, Ma 2012, Tbcroc2@Email.Uky.Edu)

[xxviii] Quoted in ‘Irish Regiments in the Great War: Discipline and Morale’ by Timothy Bowman, p. 51.

[xxix] The 1st RIF were actually in the trenches on the River Douve sector until 23 December when relived by a battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. On Christmas Eve, the Seaforths noticed that the Germans had drawn a halt to their bombing and sniping and were now engaged in ‘singing and shouting’. According to the Seaforths war diary, ‘Some of our men went right up the trenches and obtained a certain amount of information. We put up a lot of wire during the night. Christmas Day: hard frost, misty. Not a shot fired, and we were able to walk about in the open, even after the mist rose. Had some trouble keeping the Germans away from our lines.’ The SH were relieved again by the RIF on 27 December. Chris Baker, The Truce – The Day the War Stopped’ (Amberley Press), p. 19.

[xxx] Quoted in ‘Irish Regiments in the Great War: Discipline and Morale’ by Timothy Bowman, p. 51.

[xxxi] Quoted in ‘The Western Front: The Irishmen Who Fought in World War One’ by William Sheehan

 


Articles