The Christmas Truce of 1914 remains a moment of enduring fascination more than a century after the day the First World War guns fell silent. Mike Hill, author of a fascinating new book, looks at what really happened in the words of the soldiers who took part

IN December 1914, hundreds of soldiers from across County Durham were preparing for the first Christmas of the First World War away from their loved ones.

For the men of the Durham Light Infantry regiment they were fortunate to be safely resting away from the battlefield in the French town of Armentieres on December 25.

But on Boxing Day, they moved into the trenches just a couple of hundred yards from the enemy’s frontline near Houplines, in northern France.

The area had been the site of remarkable scenes the previous day when German soldiers rolled two barrels of beer from a local brewery across No Man’s Land as a gift for the men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers.

The Durham soldiers arrived to hear tales from the departing Welsh soldiers of enemies singing together, swapping gifts and fraternising in peace.

Pte Frank Brown noted: “We were lucky enough to be out of the trenches a few days at Christmas, and instead of being in the usual barn or mill we generally get to, we were billeted in houses, four in each house, and the civilians in our house were very good to us.

“You ought to see the boys trying to make themselves understood in French. I think we’ll all be Frenchmen by the time we come back. It was good to get into a soft bed, and get your clothes off - the first time since leaving Newcastle on August 4. Think of it!

“The boys in the trenches had a decent day on Christmas Day as well. There was no firing that day. At parts of the line some of them were even meeting the Germans halfway, and having a crack with them. It is great to hear the tales they are taught to believe on the other side.

“They told our men all sorts of news, and everything was going against us, of course. We went into the trenches again on Boxing Day, and I thought we were going to speak to the Germans as on Christmas Day.

“Some of our lads started shouting over to them, and very soon they were doing the same. Then one or two chanced their heads up, and before very long everyone was up. In some cases one or two of our fellows were on top of the trench, and we were all whistling and shouting over to each other, but that was as far as it got.

“We weren’t quite so friendly on New Year’s Day as their snipers were all out for what they could get, but we were not to be caught on the first day of the year, so they had no luck.”

Second Lieutenant Mervyn Richardson was among the Welch Fusiliers who handed over over to the Durhams.

He wrote: “I will tell you of the extraordinary day we spent on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve we had a sing-song with the men in the trenches. We put up a sheet of canvas, with a large ‘Merry Christmas’, and a portrait of the Kaiser painted on it, on the parapet.

“The next morning there was a thick fog, and when it lifted about 12, the Germans who were only about 150 yards in front of us saw it, they began to shout across, and beckoning to our men to come halfway and exchange gifts.

“They then came out of their trenches, and gave our men cigars and cigarettes, and two barrels of beer, in exchange for tins of bully beef.

“The situation was so absurd, that another officer of ours and myself went out, and met seven of their officers, and arranged that we should keep our men in our respective trenches, and that we should have an armistice till the next morning, when we would lower our Christmas card, and hostilities would continue.

“One of them presented me with the packet of cigarettes I sent you, and we gave them a plum pudding, and then we shook hands with them, and saluted each other, and returned to our respective trenches.

“Not a shot was fired all day, and the next morning we pulled our card down, and they put up one with ‘thank you’ on it.”

Within days of the truce taking place the first reports started appearing in newspapers back home revealing the astonishing laying down of arms between enemies over the festive season.

Editors latched on to accounts of football games between foes but the fraternisation went far beyond a chance for impromptu kickabouts as men swapped souvenirs, shared food and drink, exchanged addresses, sang and joked together.

One month earlier the first action photograph of the war taken by a soldier’s camera was published, uncensored, in the British press prompting a ban on the use of private cameras by Army chiefs shortly before Christmas.

But the temptation to record the extraordinary events of the truce proved too much for some and a relatively small but fascinating body of photographic evidence still exists today.

Among the best known are two photographs of the Northumberland Hussars and German officers meeting in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day.

The pictures were taken by Captain Harold Burge Robson of the Hussars (who stood for Parliament for the Liberals in Berwick and South Shields after the war) which was attached to five Scottish regiments of the 20th Brigade at Sailly in northern France.

While Robson was capturing a moment in history on his pocket camera, fellow Hussars did enjoy a game of football on Christmas Day.

However, the match was not one of the fabled kick arounds with the enemy, but was a game against the Scots behind the frontline.

Captain John Stansfeld, 2nd Bn, Gordon Highlanders wrote: “I wished all the men in billets a happier Christmas next year! We then walked out to look for wood to make a roof to some new dug-outs we are making, en route, found ourselves at the Brigade Staff Office.

“We waited there and talked for some time, then returned to our farm, and started kicking a football about. A game was then arranged, between England and France and Scotland.

“France were represented by three French youths, who were having their dinner hour, after working at cleaning the ditches. Two gunners and one man of the Northumberland Hussars... We gave them such a beating, that the game was stopped.”

After the game Stansfeld headed to the trenches after hearing of the unofficial truce taking place and captured his own photographs.

He described how the ceasefire took place: “I waved for one of the Germans to come across and talk, which he did. We met in the middle but beyond shaking hands and laughing at one another, we could not say very much as we were both ignorant of the other’s language.

“Henry, who is my orderly with Piper Stuart, was with us and I had carefully left my camera in our trenches in case of raising suspicion, but as my friend seemed quite willing to be photographed, I sent Henry for it.

“Meanwhile in order to collect a few men for the group, I gave a couple of ‘View Halloos’. Effect marvellous. Heads popped up everywhere. They thought we were charging them, I think!

“When they saw what was happening, about 20 came across. I took two photos with Sprot in the group, and he took two with me in the group. It should be most interesting and quite unique. I should get into awful trouble if it was known, as we are not allowed to take photos. But what a chance to have missed.

“One man made a horrible face and slunk off like a frightened wolf and started to run to his trench. I honestly thought he was going to get his gun and shoot me.

“So Sprot and I walked quietly back to our trench, ready to jump in, if there was any trouble. Presently he came back with four pals and shouted to me to go back and photograph them as well.”

* Christmas Truce by the Men Who Took Part by Mike Hill has just been published on January 21 by Fonthill Media.