The Christmas Truce portrayed rather romantically by the Illustrated London News in January 1915
On Boxing Day 1914, Pte. 9689 of the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother Mrs Williamson at 'Eastern Road, Brockley, S.E.' :
"Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary . In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Ha, ha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh, dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench..."
Thus, teasingly, did Henry Williamson begin his first account of the Christmas Truce. Later in life as a famous author, he wrote again about the Truce both in fact and fiction for he was deeply affected by this fraternisation with 'the enemy' in No Mans Land, but for now he set down his experiences in letters to his family at 11 (now 21) Eastern Road.
"It happened thiswise. On Xmas Eve both armies sang carols and cheered & there was very little firing. The Germans (in some places 80 yards away) called to our men to come & fetch a cigar & our men told them to come to us. This went on for some time, neither fully trusting the other, until, after much promising to 'play the game' a bold Tommy crept out & stood between the trenches, & immediately a Saxon came to meet him. They shook hands & laughed. Thus the ice was broken..."
Williamson wrote mainly to his mother Gertrude who is now buried in Ladywell cemetery. Henry was her only son and barely 18 years old when in January 1914, he volunteered as a part-time Territorial, never dreaming that before the year was out he would be serving on the Western Front. After mobilisation in August 1914, he trained for several weeks at military camps in the English countryside. His biographer Anne Williamson describes him as 'a very emotionally young and raw youth in a wild flux of alternating excitement and trepidation...separated from his family for the first time'. He was keen for news from home and to know who else had joined up. "Does the Hilly fields seem desolate of fellows?" he asked his mother in a letter of 2nd September from Bisley.
HW aged 19 in March 1915. He had hacked off the bottom two feet of his trenchcoat to relieve the weight of wet mud
On 5 November, he and his company arrived in France and later that month began their service near Ploegsteert in Flanders. The First Battle of Ypres had just ended with victory for the Allies after heavy loss of lives. The conditions at the Front were chaotic, the weather abysmal, the state of the trenches appalling. And of course, they were continually in the firing line from German shells and rifle fire. In his letters home, Williamson played down the fear that he felt and the horrors that he witnessed, but on 13 December he wrote to his mother about the physical hardships:
"It has been awful in the trenches. For two days and nights we have been in nearly 36 inches of mud & water. Can you picture us, sleeping standing up, cold and wet halfway up to our thighs, and covered in mud. ..The people at home cannot imagine the terrible hardships we go through. Think of us in the River Ravensbourne at home in the mud & water for 50 hours on end!"
To young Williamson and his fellow soldiers, the Christmas Truce came as a surprise though historians tell us that earlier truces had occurred elsewhere. He continues his Boxing Day letter home by describing the Germans they met in No Man's Land::
"Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards and spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking...We had a burial service in the afternoon, over the dead Germans who perished...the Germans put 'For Fatherland & Freedom' on the cross. They obviously think their cause is a just one".
Forty years later in his novel 'A Fox Under My Cloak', Williamson remembers the Truce through his fictional alter ego Phillip Maddison:
'he walked into No Man's Land and found himself face to face with living Germans, men in grey uniforms and leather knee-boots...Moreover, the Germans were actually, some of them, smiling as they talked in English.'
Phillip learns that some of the German soldiers worked as waiters in London before the war, hence their knowledge of English. He notes the difference between the friendly, smiling Saxons and the tall silent Prussians who watch without taking part. Cigarettes and tobacco are exchanged and the troops show each other their official Christmas gifts: the Germans' pipe, which has the face of 'Little Willy' (the Crown Prince) painted on its white bowl and Phillip's gift box with a photograph of Princess Mary. And Phillip makes a point to one of the Germans:
'Deutscher, Kronprintz Wilhelm! Englischer, Princess Mary. Cousins!'
British and German soldiers in No Man's Land enjoying the truce. Mud but no snow!
Then, as Williamson had mentioned in his Boxing Day letter, the Germans dig a grave for one of their dead 'stiff as a statue that had been lying out in No Man's Land for weeks'. Phillip and two other 'Englischers' stand to attention at the graveside with some of the German soldiers while a short service is held .
And then came an event repeated elsewhere along the Front which has come to symbolise the fraternal spirit of the day:
'There was shortly afterwards another surprise in this day of surprises, when a football was kicked into the air, and several men ran after it. The upshot was a match proposed between the two armies, to be held in a field between the German lines'.
Historians are still debating whether the football games were proper matches or just kickabouts. Williamson's brief mention in 'A Fox Under My Cloak' suggests the former, at least where he was serving.
In Williamson's account, the truce (though not the fraternisation) lasted until New Year's Eve with each side taking the opportunity to repair their trench defences. Then, after an exchange of messages, the truce ended ('No more wavings, like children saying goodbye, no more heads above parapets') and at midnight Berlin time:
'the machine guns opened up all along the line, and from the British trenches the up-slanting flashes were seen. Flights of bullets sissed overhead...'
Thus the business of warfare was resumed. Not long afterwards, Williamson was invalided back to England and after medical treatment and convalescence returned home on leave in early March 1915. Sixty years later, his sister Kathie still remembered the occasion:
'He was a terrible sight; when he first appeared at the bottom of Eastern Road we could hardly recognise him. He was very pale and thin. He looked like a scarecrow; his uniform coat was torn and covered in mud. He had dysentry and red puffy swollen feet from being constantly wet and frozen.'
Williamson served again on the Front as a Lieutenant in 1917 and 1918 and continued to write home to 'Dear Mother', 'Dear Mum', 'Dear Mater' and even 'Dear Darling Old Mother'. But he had also heard the words 'Mother, mother' on the lips of dying British comrades and the words 'Mutter, mutter' from the lips of dying Germans. The horror and tragedy of it all, as well as the memory of that brief outbreak of friendship on Christmas Day 1914, stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Commemorative cross near Ploegsteert in Belgium where Williamson served
Footnote: a remarkable television interview with Henry Williamson from 1963 in which he talks about his experiences in WW1 and about the Christmas Truce ("all of No Man's Land as far as we could see was grey and khaki") can be found here.
The Christmas Truce website contains many more letters home from soldiers who took part in the Truce.
Many thanks to Anne Williamson for permission to quote from her book 'Henry Williamson and the First World War' and from Henry Williamson's novel 'A Fox Under My Cloak' and for providing the photograph of Henry Williamson used in this article. Details of all Henry Williamson's books can be found here.