Archive | December 2014

A very Western Front Christmas

The fabled football match of Christmas 1914 might never have happened, but there were certainly truces between British troops and the German units they faced. Often they began with competitive carol-singing, followed by shouted greetings and festive wishes. In places, men even met in no-man’s land and swapped small gifts and souvenirs.

Image © IWM (Q 11745) – British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914. Possibly Riflemen Andrew (middle) and Grigg (second from the right, background) of the London Rifle Brigade with troops of the 104th and 106th Saxon Regiments.

Image © IWM (Q 11745) – British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914. Possibly Riflemen Andrew (middle) and Grigg (second from the right, background) of the London Rifle Brigade with troops of the 104th and 106th Saxon Regiments.

The diaries are full of references to that first Christmas of the war. The 39th Garhwal Rifles recorded in detail the moment they came face to face with the enemy:

About 3 o’clock the Germans, who had since the morning been shouting and singing in their trenches, made signs to our trenches that they wished to communicate with us, and eventually they began to climb out of their trenches. We did the same, as did also the regiments on our right and left. Both sides fraternised for about an hour, several Germans coming over to our trench and talking and conversing by signs with officers and men. They gave our men tobacco cigarettes and newspapers, and for about an hour both sides walked about freely outside their trenches and in the open space between the 2 lines.

This moment of peace was not without its reminders of the violence and bloodshed which had preceded it. The Garhwalis took the opportunity to search for the bodies of the officers and men missing after a night attack made the month before.

Captain Burton found Captain Robertson Glasgow’s body lying on the parapet of the enemy’s trench. The bodies of several men were also found near the trench, but the situation did not admit of a careful search sufficient to identify them.

You can read their full diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0002yt7

While truces of this nature were widespread in 1914, they did not happen everywhere. The Christmas day entry in the diary of the 2nd Grenadier Guards says simply:

Considerable sniping, and lit up by star shells during early morning.

You can read the original entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD00023p1

This is the situation commanders would have preferred and they were quick to communicate this to the troops. After their friendly encounter with the enemy, the 39th Garhwal Rifles recieved orders that such mutual armistices must not happen in the future. The 1st Royal Fusiliers were sent notice that any man associating with the enemy would be court martialled. You can see the order here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0000ryb

Despite this, some truces lasted well into the New Year. The 1st Somerset Light Infantry reported on the 11th of January, 1915 that their:

…truce came to an abrupt end, sniping resumed. “Presumption is that our “friendly” enemy of the last fortnight has been relieved.

Have a read of their diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0002fy4

Image © IWM (Q 51524) – Sergeant Major Malins and 2nd Lieutenant Nicholl of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) checking for snipers from 'Cabbage Patch Trench' in the Rouges Bancs - La Boutillerie sector of the front line, 5 November 1914.

Image © IWM (Q 51524) – Sergeant Major Malins and 2nd Lieutenant Nicholl of the 1st Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) checking for snipers from ‘Cabbage Patch Trench’ in the Rouges Bancs – La Boutillerie sector of the front line, 5 November 1914.

By Christmas 1915 there were signs that the British attitude to the enemy had hardened. Perhaps the dire warnings from on high had had the desired effect, or maybe by then the men had suffered too much to be able to set it aside. Either way, the 1/16th London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) reported that there was no repeat of the previous year’s truce.

The Germans shouted across to our men this morning, but recieving no encouragement the conversation ceased. [A shell] hit the corner of [a] dug-out and knocked a bottle of whisky off the table on to the floor, but by the grace of God it did not break.

At least they still got their own little Christmas miracle! Read the full diary entry here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0000s9u

By 1916, there was even greater determination to avoid human contact with the Germans. On Christmas Eve, the 1st East Surrey Regiment recieved notice from their HQ that:

There are already signs that the enemy intends to fraternise during Christmas as he did in the winter of 1914 and 1915.

An artillery and trench mortar bombardment was ordered to prevent this. Commanders feared that it would be very difficult for young and inexperienced officers and NCOs to stop their men going out to meet the enemy if they were seen to leave their trenches in peaceable fashion.

Read the full account here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0000r2i

Sadly, the widespread coming together of opposing units during the winter of 1914 was an anomaly, a brief respite before the full, brutal horrors of trench warfare became the norm. Yet in that moment, we see the spark of humanity which binds us all together, the ability to find common ground in even the darkest of places. Who knows what friendships could have sprung from those handshakes made 100 years ago, how different things might have been if the two sides had not returned to their lines. Perhaps that would have been the greatest Christmas gift of all.

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A beginning, a middle and an end – the story of the war

The war diaries are never more emotionally engaging than when they show the effect the First World War had on the men who fought in it. Whether on individuals, or on the units as a whole and their attitude to the conflict, the weight of the long years of toil and sacrifice can be felt in the tone of the words, the brief glimpses into their innermost thoughts that some diary authors allow us.

Like all stories, the First World War has a beginning, a middle and an end. How closely these intersected with the personal beginnings, middles and ends of the men we read about was often down to blind luck. For some, the end came all too quickly. Others saw out the whole story.

Image © IWM (Q 66223) – The 1st Life Guards parading before leaving for France.

Image © IWM (Q 66223) – The 1st Life Guards parading before leaving for France.

In narrative (as well as actual) terms, mobilisation was where it all began. Whether in India or the UK, the diaries are crisp, efficient. You get a sense of the great military machine grinding into action – reservists arriving at their depots, kit being issued, travel arrangements made. Then there’s almost a drawing of breath, a moment’s respite before we get to the middle of the story. For some it’s a day or two, a boat ride across the channel and a train trip to the battle area. For others it’s a crossing from another continent. Either way, the destination is the same. Barely suppressed excitement leeches from the pages of some diaries, trepidation from others.

Image © IWM (Q 730) – Battle of Albert. Men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment resting in reserve; Jacob's Ladder, opposite Beaumont Hamel, July 1916.

Image © IWM (Q 730) – Battle of Albert. Men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment resting in reserve; Jacob’s Ladder, opposite Beaumont Hamel, July 1916.

The middle part is the longest, of course. The four years of fighting, mobile at first, becoming bogged down in the trenches later on. This is where the changes are most noticeable – the switch from intrepid expeditionary force to hardbitten veterans of a war that must have seemed endless, life after life eaten up in the giant mincing machine. Each diary author deals with it in their own way. Some produce dry accounts of death and loss – casualty lists, terse descriptions of the circumstances in which their comrades died. Others turn to humour, describing the blackest of days in wry tones. Sometimes the official veneer slips – the army record becomes a more personal narrative, a snapshot into the mind of a man caught in the midst of hell.

Some of the most moving accounts appear in the diary of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, one of the Indian Army battalions which made the crossing to France. After moving back from the line, the author writes of how the

numerous green fields with hedges and trees bursting into bud make a most welcome change to the desolation left behind.

He goes on to describe the physical deterioration of the troops after six months of trench warfare.

Those who have gone right through it…march with a shuffle, bent knees and backs beat with the weight of the…constant fatigues.

You can see the original diary page here: http://talk.operationwardiary.org/#/subjects/AWD0002xfr

Image © IWM (Q 7545) – Demobilized men handing in their rifles before boarding the Rhine steamer. The steamer took them to Rotterdam on their way to England. Cologne, 23 April 1919.

Image © IWM (Q 7545) – Demobilized men handing in their rifles before boarding the Rhine steamer. The steamer took them to Rotterdam on their way to England. Cologne, 23 April 1919.

Finally, for those who made it through the long, gruelling middle the story came to an end: Demobilisation and the return home. In many of the diaries, this was preceded by a period which many of the adjutants seemed almost bored by – a fighting army becoming a garrison, days filled with drill and training and lectures. After what had gone before, just imagine what a blessed relief that boredom must have been!

Stay tuned to the blog – in future posts we’ll have a look at the German Army of the First World War and try and build up a picture of the enemy the authors of our diaries were facing. The National Archives will also be doing a series of posts on their ongoing digitisation of the war diaries – we hope to have some pictures of the original diaries to show you – pretty incredible to see the original documents we’re all tagging!

Here’s to a succesful week, Citizen Historians! Keep tagging! (or join us at http://www.operationwardiary.org/ if you’re new!)