A Day Unique in the World's History
PUBLISHED: 15:44 15 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:16 20 February 2013
New Year 1915. The soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment had lived through one of the most remarkable events of the First World War – the Christmas Truce in the Trenches.
A Day Unique in the World's History
New Year 1915. The soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment had lived through one of the most remarkable events of the First World War the Christmas Truce in the Trenches. Recently discovered documents reveal just how unique this event was, as Andrew Hamilton explains.
At dawn on Christmas Day 1914, my grandfather Captain Robert Hamilton of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment walked out alone over the snow covered icy mud of No Mans Land at St Yves in Belgium to meet an officer of the German 134th Saxon Regiment. He recorded in his diary: I pointed to his revolver and pouch. He smiled and said seeing I was unarmed, Alright now. We shook hands, and said what we could in double Dutch, arranged a local armistice for 48 hours, and returned to our trenches.
After four months of warfare of an intensity never experienced before and conducted in appalling conditions, soldiers on both sides spontaneously decided it was time to call a halt to hostilities the Christmas Truce.
When I first read my grandfathers account, I could scarcely believe that he had been a prime mover in such an extraordinary historical event. The content of the diary formed the basis of the book Meet at Dawn, Unarmed, which also including nine witness accounts by soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, recollections by a Royal Field Artillery officer 2nd Lieutenant Cyril Drummond and a map and description by a Saxon officer, Leutnant Kurt Zehmisch.
Since the book was published, six more accounts of the festive season at St Yves have emerged and a secret map drawn in late-1914 showing the trench lines and No Mans Land at St Yves was discovered in the National Archives, pinpointing the exact location of the meeting of the Royal Warwicks and Saxons.
Initial advances were generally made by the Saxons. Captain Hamilton wrote: We set off for the trenches at 6.30 pm a little sad at spending Christmas Day in them. Crossing the well worn danger zone, to our consternation not a shot was fired at us. The Dubliners (2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers) told us as we relieved them that the Germans wanted to talk to us. When we were settled down, we heard them shouting, Are you the Warwicks? To which our men replied Come and see. They said You come half way, and we will come half way, and bring you some cigars. This went on for some time, when Private Gregory, a former servant, came and asked if he might go out half way. I said Yes, at your own risk. Gregory stepped over the parapet, and got half way, and was heard saying, Well here I am, where are you? Come half way they said so on went Gregory, until he came upon two unarmed Germans, and one fully armed, lying down just behind, with his rifle pointed at him, typically German. Gregory was unarmed and alone. Typically British. He got his cigar and spun them some magnificent yarns about the strength of his company, which amused us all very much when he told us later. They wanted me to meet their officer, and after a great deal of shouting across, I said I would meet him at dawn, unarmed.
Private Dixon wrote home to say that we had a surprise Christmas Eve. The Germans shouted to stop firing. We had been at it all day and night and they said they wanted to have a quiet Christmas. The orders could well have come from Leutnant Zehmisch who, after his Company had held a Christmas service in what was left of a sugar factory behind their Front Line, ordered that no shot was to be fired unless in retaliation.
Music played an important part on Christmas Eve as an overture to meetings on Christmas Day. At
2.00 am a German band of concertinas played Home Sweet Home very touchingly Dixon felt and there was a great cheer when they played God Save the King. Private Charlie Pratt was impressed by a German cornet players skills and Private Layton remembered that we would sing a carol and then they would sing one and I can tell you, they can harmonise alright.
If there had been any suspicion amongst soldiers of the Royal Warwicks about enemy intentions, these were dispelled when they saw candles being slowly lit on Christmas trees that adorned their trenches,
at the behest of Leutnant Zehmisch. When the Germans sent up a star shell, Charlie Pratt was impressed that it lit up the place lovely. The star shells religious connotation was not lost on Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather who became famous for the cartoons and sketches he drew to entertain his colleagues.
Christmas Day 1914
Christmas Day dawned fine, frost and very cold wrote Regimental Sergeant Major Beck. Bairnsfather remarked on the cloudless sky and that snow lay on the ground: just the sort of day for peace to be declared. For Private William Cooke, the freezing conditions were a welcome change to the ceaseless rain and mud that soldiers had endured in the trenches. At times we have had the water above our knees all night in the trenches but it is a lot better now.
During the Truce English cigarettes were swapped for German cigars and souvenirs of all sorts like badges, buttons and postcards were swapped. Private Harry Morgan was delighted with the bargain he negotiated with a hungry German a cigarette case for a tin of bully beef.
The armistices offered an ideal excuse to engage in a sad but necessary job Private Alfred Smith wrote: we were able to bury our dead, some of whom had been lying there for six weeks or more.
The Christmas Truce is, of course, synonymous with games of football and ad hoc matches were played at St Yves. There was definitely a game involving the Royal Warwicks C Company on Christmas Day with caps as goalposts. Leutnant Zehmisch spoke of a couple of English who brought a football out of their trench and a vigorous match began.
There was some seasonal food. Private William Cooke tucked into a duck for Christmas dinner which he and others had bought from a Belgian farmer for five francs, having plucked and cleaned it themselves and then roasted it in bacon fat. And there were presents. Private Harry Morgan wrote: before dusk one of the officers came through the trenches presenting every soldier with a gift from HRH Princess Mary an embossed box which contained a pipe, six cigarettes, an ounce of tobacco, a tinder lighter, a Christmas card and a photograph of the Princess and
For all those who took part in the fraternisation at St Yves, it was a memorable occasion. Lieutenant Bairnsfather wrote: There had not been an atom of hate shown by either side . . . it was a punctuation mark on all the combatants lives of cold and humid hate. Leutnant Zehmischs Christmas Day had been marvellous and strange and he felt it was wonderful that the Christmas festival of love should have caused enemies to be friends for a short time.
Boxing Day 1914
Soldiers of all ranks were concerned about the reaction of the Generals. My grandfathers decision to meet an enemy officer in No Mans Land, unarmed, constituted a serious breach of discipline quite possibly deemed to be treasonable. He wrote: I am told the General and Staff are furious but powerless to stop it. Private Day was anxious for his commanding officer: the truce cannot last any longer or else our officer will get into trouble. Harry Morgan and others asked the question: If all the troops along the line had refused to fight on both sides, would the War have ended there and then?
Sure enough on Boxing Day, General Smith-Dorrien was seeking details of officers and units who had taken part in the truce with a view to disciplinary action.
The New Year 1915
On 28th December, the Warwicks were relieved by the Dubs and marched to new billets. Until 5th January, there was little action and to amuse himself on 4th January, Hamilton took out his trumpet, sat on the trench parapet and played the Austrian Anthem. Four shots were fired at me so I played Rule Britannia. I wonder why they didnt like the Austrian air?
A week later Captain Hamilton returned to England, never to return to the Front Line, invalided out because of his deafness which had been made worse by the noise and conditions. Many of his fellow soldiers like Captain Black and Private William Tapp were not so lucky; both were killed at the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915 along with nearly 500 other Royal Warwicks who were commemorated on the Menin
Gate in Ypres.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described the Christmas Truce as an amazing spectacle one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war. My grandfather could be accused of hyperbole but one cannot blame him for his diary entry for Christmas Day, which he wrote in capital letters: A DAY UNIQUE IN THE WORLDS HISTORY. n
Meet at Dawn, Unarmed, Captain Robert Hamiltons account of trench warfare and the Christmas Truce in 1914 by Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed, can be ordered from www.meetatdawnunarmed.co.uk and good bookshops.