Christmas 1914 - in the trenches. And, yes, there's food involved

At the time of the Great War, the 6th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment was my town’s unit in the Territorial Army. Like an American National Guard unit, these were part time soldiers but had been mobilised on 4 August 1914, going to France the next month. Within weeks, they would take part in one of the most memorable and enduring events of the whole war. This is the story of their Christmas 1914.

Christmas Eve was relatively quiet for most of the day, although John Carruthers and Henry Roberts were both killed during the morning. Tom Wadsworth, a wheelwright from Tintwistle, was fortunate to escape injury and wrote home to tell what had happened:

We were together in a dug-out. Henry, E Harrop, H Mitchell and myself, when shells started coming. Several dropped round the trench and, when one dropped in front, shrapnel flew, hit Henry and a man named Carruthers and killed them straight out. Then it threw earth on them and buried them, Ellis and a corporal got wounded but we managed not to get hit. We had to let them stay there until dusk and then we had to bury them at night. We were with the 1st Cheshires. Tom Boucher was with us and he helped us to bury him. We made as nice a grave as we could under the circumstances and we were shot at several times whilst digging the grave. The awful
event happened about 10 o’clock in the morning. I must say, it fairly knocked the heart out of us, seeing a dear pal killed and then having to bury him.

Over the course of the war, the location of the two burials was lost, or the graves were destroyed by subsequent artillery fire. The two men are now commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing at Ypres.

William Seed was serving with A Company, attached to the Dorsets. He had been a member of the Stalybridge Territorials since 1912 and worked as a piecer at Alger Mill in Ashton under Lyne. As dusk fell, he and three of his comrades were sent out
to a listening post hidden in No Man’s Land about a hundred yards from the trench. Needless to say, they had to keep very quiet and avoid making any noise by moving about. There was deep water and mud in the shell hole that formed the post.

I was practically three hours in one place. It was freezing very hard and, when I came to get my boot out, I found it frozen into the ground. In struggling to get free, I must have fractured my
ligament, but I did not feel it so very bad, with my foot being numbed with the frost

William received treatment in France and was evacuated back to Britain on 1 January. He had suffered significant and, presumably, permanent damage, as he was discharged from the army at the end of January. It was, however, late in the day when Seed reported to the medical officer. Before that, he was going to be part of one of the most extraordinary events of the whole war and one which is still talked about today, most recently during the centenary commemorations in 2014.

I spent the most agonising night, I ever remember, owing to the cold.It was freezing terribly hard & as we were in support trenches were not allowed fires. I was so cold & my feet so painful that I got out of the dugout & walked about, there was not much danger, stamping my feet till 4.30 A.M. then was so fagged out I fell asleep but kept
on waking owing to the pain of my feet, I quite thought I was frostbitten. 7.0 A.M. it was beginning to grow light but as there was a lot of mist I told the men they could light fires. They did not need telling twice.

(Second Lieutenant Charles Brockbank. Diary entry,
25 December 1914)

George Blease was another trained soldier but one ordinarily underage for
overseas service. He was serving alongside his older brother, Leonard. Both lived at the family home at Chatham Street, Stockport. It was very foggy, so we were able to have a short run on top of the trenches to get warm. Eventually, the fog lifted and our men, as well as the Germans, were exposed to fire. None took place

There was a deserted farmhouse a little way behind the front line. It was known to the Tommies as ‘Stinking Farm’, because of the number of animal corpses killed by shellfire that were lying around. There was still livestock from the farm wandering around the whole front line area. Brockbank and two of his men went back to the farm to see if they could catch some chickens.

They fly like pheasants so took some catching & in about ten minutes there were about 60 men in the hunt. The fog lasted till about midday so we had good fun, getting in all eleven hens, one of which I brought back for tomorrow’s dinner. Now for the extraordinary incident……

The incident was being repeated up and down the sector. Troops were calling out to the men on the other side of No Man’s Land, wishing them Happy Christmas. Little Christmas trees were appearing on the tops of German trenches. The sound of hymns being sung could be heard in English and German. Soon after daybreak, someone in the British lines played ‘Christians Awake’ on a mouth organ. The Germans responded with ‘Come Over Here’ – a popular song of the times.The British continued to fire at the German trenches but there was no reply. At about 2.30pm, Brockbank recounts that the Germans started to shout ‘Come out and have a drink’. Shortly after, one of them got out of the trench, without any weapon and started to walk slowly towards the British trench. The official report on the day, from the Cheshires’ brigade commander, Brigadier General Edward Gleichen, said that the man, an officer or NCO, was holding up a box of cigars. The Cheshires and Norfolks shouted at him to stop but he kept walking. So, one of the British soldiers got out and started walking to meet him in the middle of No Man’s Land. It was the start in this sector of what has become known as the ‘Christmas Truce’. The two men met and shook hands and that seems to have been the signal for most of the troops in the sector to leave their trenches and come into No Man’s Land. Soon, several hundred men were shaking hands and swapping souvenirs. There were more Germans than had been thought holding their trench. The Cheshires’ machine
gunners were ordered to remain at their posts ‘just in case’. Brockbank
recorded that he got a cap-badge, belt buckle, whistle, rifle cartridge purse & tea
tablets, not to mention getting about four Germans’ names and addresses in their own handwriting on field service postcards, as a positive proof that it all really did happen, because it will naturally sound a very tall story when it gets told in the billets.

Sergeant Thomas Knott found the Germans …thinly clad in a grey uniform with the number 35 on their collars, which I took to be 35th Regiment Landsturm. They were all elderly men, between 45 and 55 years of age. They were all friendly disposed and they all seemed to wish urgently for peace. Cigarettes were exchanged for cigars and the Germans handed cough drops all round. Both sides parted with much hand shaking after about an hour’s conversation.

William Seed had still not been to the medical officer and, like his comrades, was out in No Man’s Land. One of the German soldiers saw
him limping and asked if he had been hit. When he told him what had happened, the German gave him a cigar and a cigarette, both of which he took back to Britain as souvenirs.

As reported by the Cheshire Observer, 9 January 1915, John Higham
said he was a bit timid but …I shook hands with about sixteen Germans. They gave us cigars and cigarettes and toffee. They told us they didn’t want to fight, but they had to. Some could speak English as well as we could and some had worked in Manchester. All the Cheshires and Germans were now together by this time and we sang ‘Tipperary’ for them and they sang a song in German for us.

There was nobody better than the Cheshires to be singing ‘It’s a Long Way
to Tipperary’. It was a very popular song in 1914 and the men would have
been proud that it had been written in Stalybridge on 30 January 1912 and
first performed the next day at the town’s Grand Theatre. Frank Naden, now a company sergeant major, was also in No Man’s Land. Shortly after New Year he returned to Britain on leave and gave an interview to the Evening Mail, the local newspaper in Newcastle under Lyme.

We fraternised, exchanging food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes and we had a rare old jollification. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack knives and other articles.

The Scotsmen mentioned by Naden were possibly the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders who, at only two kilometres away, were the nearest Scottish
unit to him.

The Battalion’s later report to Brigade noted that the Germans were aged between forty to fifty and were big and healthy men, well fed, well clad and clean. An officer said that they were from the 5th Konigslieber Landwehr Infantry Regiment, from Berlin. Several of the men had the number 20 on their shoulders, while others had 35, confirming what Thomas Knott had said. The Landwehr were second line militia troops, comprising older, less fit men than the main German army Men from Charles Brockbank’s unofficial foraging party had caught a pig as well as the chickens. That was cooked in No Man’s Land and shared out with the Germans. There was also an opportunity to bury a number of French soldiers who had been lying dead for some considerable time.Before returning to their own trenches, the men sang hymns in their own languages. The Germans said they were not intending to fire for the following three days and expected the war to be over within two months (although there is no record of them saying who they expected would have won it). My word! The Germans can’t half sing songs…. When the time of parting came, we shook hands and saluted each other, each party going back to the trenches. (Private George Blease)

Of course, it was only half of the Battalion who were in the front line who were able to participate in the truce. Sergeant James Boardman wrote I spent my Christmas Day in the Priest’s House at Wulverghem. We had a young pig between eight of us, and also plum pudding and plenty of rum.

One of the enduring stories of the Christmas Truce is of a football match being played in No Man’s Land between teams of Britons and Germans.The story often has the Germans winning 3 – 2. And yet there is no hard evidence that any such game took place. Although battalion war diaries often refer to the truce, some describing the day in detail, none mention football. Although there are numbers of letters written home mentioning a football match being played, these are all hearsay – no one writes saying they played in a match or even watched a match, but they had heard of one being played. There are accounts of matches between the two sides being discussed, perhaps to take place on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day,if another truce could be arranged – but none of these actually took place.There is, of course, evidence of football being played behind the lines by British troops, but only amongst the British. It is probable that a combination of these aspects led to the creation of the myth about a match being played. If so, it is a myth that has struck a chord in the public imagination.What of something less formal than a match as we might understand it, with a marked out pitch and goals at each end, a referee and eleven a side?

Here there is contemporary evidence and corroboration that there was a kickabout involving the Cheshires. Second Lieutenant Charles Brockbank wrote of it in his diary on Christmas Day. Someone produced a rubber ball so, of course, a football match started. And this was not just amongst the Cheshires, Frank Naden confirming in his account in the Cheshire Observer in January 1915 that the Germans joined in.
Late in his life, Ernie Williams recounted his experiences of the day in a television interview. He had been a Territorial since 1911. The ball appeared from somewhere. I don’t know where, but it came from their side – it wasn’t from our side that the ball came. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was pretty good then, at nineteen. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves.There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee and no score, no tally at all. It was simply a melée – nothing like the football you see on television.

Frank Naden recalled that, on Boxing Day, orders came that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease, but we did not fire at all that day and the Germans did not fire at us. Naden’s memory is slightly awry. The two opposing infantry units may not have fired but the German artillery was active and, during the day, Frank Croft was badly injured in the stomach and thigh. Croft, aged 19, was a machine fitter from Stalybridge. He was evacuated to a hospital on the Channel
coast, where he died on 7 January. Frank is buried at Boulogne Eastern War Graves Cemetery, along with 5812 other men who died in hospitals around the town, during the war. His family paid for his headstone to be inscribed “For he has joined that glorious band who perished for the Motherland”,

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Fascinating. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it up for us John.

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Thanks so much for this write-up, John. Your detailed research into this time during war is extraordinary, giving those of us here 100+ years later a glimpse into the past.

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I just read “Part 1” (ie the first few paragraphs) to Spring Onion for bedtime. He’s of the age where guns/fighting/wars/etc are intriguing to him but we always remind him of the terrible consequences. This is the perfect history lesson for us. We will continue with Part 2 tomorrow night. And Parts 3 onward until we finish.

Thank you @Harters. Happy Everything to all.

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Thank you for this.

In turn, I offer:

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This is a photo of the area. My camera position is at the German trench lines on top of the Messines Ridge, looking down onto the British positions.

Stinking Farm was where the modern buildings on the far left of the photo. The road on the right leads to Wulverghem (just out of shot), where Sgt Boardman spent his Xmas Day in the support positions. So, my local lads were in trenches between the road and a bit further left and in front of the Farm.

Digga - it may be of significance to Spring Onion about the terrible consequences that at least 6000 men served with the Battalion (and its home service units) during the war. Some 750 were killed or died of illness/wounds and perhaps 4000 wounded.

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These stories re-enforce that the people who fight wars are human beings. The miscreants are the failed statesmen and politicians, safe at home, who make war.

Delete is inappropriate.

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in which category do we put the people who voted them into office?

The international politics of the Great War is an historical study in its own right. I’m happy to discuss it, although I have no more expertise than the next person. The intricacies of international agreements that came to the fore between late June and early August 1914 makes for fascinating reading. As do the issues surrounding America’s initial public neutrality stance and subsequent involvement in the conflict.

I’m not doing modern politics though - forum rules, doncha know.

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@digga , what did Spring Onion think about the rest of John’s Christmas in the Trenches narrative?

I’m also interested, digga.

I’m really of the last generation to have known a Great War veteran. My grandfather served and two great uncles were killed in action. So, it’s interesting to know how younger generations take in the events, without that personal connection. I have an e-friend who acts as a guide for school trips to the battlefields which quite a number of schools offer, as the War is part of the national history curriculum. I remember my niece going on one such trip and me getting a very excited phone call as she’d found a war grave of someone with her surname and wondered if it was a family member. It’s a common surname and there was no evidence that this man was local to our area, so I had to tell her that he probably wasnt. But she was still excited by it all.

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Thanks so much Harters – you really brought this to life for us. Very well-written and thought-provoking.

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Bessarabsky Market, Kyiv. Ukraine
Credit: Juan Antonio Segal, Flickr