View Full Version : The Christmas Truce

12-17-02, 09:06 AM
by Henry Williamson

The First Battle of Ypres was over. The
deluge in the second week of November
1914 decided that. Our battalion of the
London Regiment (Territorials) was out at
rest, leaving a memory of dead soldiers in
feld grau (field grey) and khaki lying in
still attitudes between the German and
British lines. 'Rest' meant no more fatigues
or carrying parties; it meant letters from
home, parcels, hazy nights in the estaminets
of Hazebrouck with cafe'-rhum and weak
beer, clouds of smoke and noisy laughter,
After 48 hours clear, a daily route march,
leading to nowhere and back again, with
new faces of the drafts which had come up
from the base. The war was now a mere
rumour from afar: a low-flashing, dull
booming beyond an eastern horizon of flat,
tree-lined and arable fields gleaming with
water in cart-rut and along each furrow.
In the first week of December 1914 the
King Emperor George V arrived at St
Omer in northern France, headquarters of
the British Expeditionary Force. Orders
were given immediately at all units to
prepare for a royal inspection.
The King in the service uniform of a
field-marshal, brown-booted with gold
spurs, brown-bearded, prominent pouches
under his blue eyes, passed with Field-
Marshal Sir John French and various
general staff officers down the ranks of
silent, staring-ahead, depersonalised faces
thinking that the gruff tones in which the
King spoke to the commander-in-chief
were of that other world infinitely remote
from what really happened.
Behind the King walked the Prince of
Wales, seeming somehow detached from
the massive power of red and gold, the big
moustaches and faces and belts and boots
and spurs all so shining and immaculate
between the open ranks of the troops stand-
ing rigidly at attention. The slim figure of
the Prince, in the uniform of a Grenadier,
appeared to be looking for something far
beyond the immediate scene-a slight,
white-faced boy in the shadow of Father.

The next afternoon the platoon sergeant
walked from billet to billet, with orders
that we were going into the line that even-
ing. A waning moon rode the sky, memento
of estaminet nights, moon-silvered cobble
stones, colour-washed house-fronts of the
Grande Place. The decaying orb was
ringed by scudding vapour; a wet wind
flapped the edges of rubber groundsheets
fastened over packs and shoulders of the
marching men. A wind from the south-west
brought rain to the brown, the flat, the tree-
lined plain of Flanders.
Going back was by now a prospect of
stoical acceptance, since marching in the
rain absorbed nearly all personal memory,
leaving little for coherent thought beyond
the moment. We marched along a road
lined with poplars towards the familiar
hazy pallor thrown on low clouds by the
ringed lights around Ypres -- called'
'Ypriss' by the old sweats who had been
out since Mons. As we came nearer, the sky
was tremulous with flashes: the night
burdened by reverberation of cannon heard
with the lisp of rainy wind in the bare
branches of trees above our heads.
At last we halted, and welcome news
arrived. The company was in reserve. We
were to be billeted for the night in some
sheds, and thatched lofts around a farm.
Speculation ceased when the platoon com-
mander said that we were taking over part
of the line the following evening. The Ger-
mans, he said, had attacked down south;
the battalion was to remain in brigade
reserve. It was a quiet part of the line.
There was to be diversionary fire from the
trenches, to relieve the pressure.

'Cushy, we said among ourselves as we
entered our cottage, to sleep upon the floor.
There was a large stove, radiating heat.
Bon for the troops!
The damp December dusk of next even-
ing was closing down as No 1 Company
approached the dark mass of leafless trees
at the edge of a wood. Through the trees lay
a novel kind of track, firm but knobbly to
the feet, but so welcome after the mud of
the preceding field. It was like walking on
an uneven and wide ladder. Rough rungs,
laid close together, were made of little
sawn-off branches, nailed to laid trunks of
oak trees. As we came near to the greenish-
white German flares, bullets began to
crack. The men of the new draft ducked at
each overhead crack; but the survivors of
the original battalion walked on upright,
sometimes muttering,'Don't get the wind-
up, chum,' as the old sweats had said to
them when first they had gone into the
line, many weeks before.
We came to a cross-ride in the wood, and
waited there, while a cock-pheasant crowed
as it flew past us. Dimly seen were some
bunkers, in which braziers glowed brightly.
The sight was homely, and cheering.
Figures in balaclava woollen helmets
stood about.

'What's it like, mate?' came the inevit-
able question. 'Cushy,' came the reply, as a
cigarette brightened. These were regulars,
the newcomers felt happy again. Braziers,
lovely crackling coke flames!
The relief company filed on down the
path, and came to the luminous edge of the
wood, beyond which the German parachute
flares were clear and bright, like lilies. The
trench was just inside the wood. There was
no water in it, thank God! One saw sand-
bag-dugouts behind the occupants standing
by for the relief. It was indeed cushy!
Thus began a period or cycle of eight
days for No 1 Company: two in the front
line followed by two days back in battalion
reserve in billets, two in support within the
wood and two more again in the front line.
It was not unenjoyable: danger was neg-
ligible-a whizz-bang arriving now and
again-object more of curiosity than of
fear-news of someone getting sniped;
work in the trench, digging bv day, revet-
ting the parapet, and fatigues in the wood
by night; for the weather remained fine.
One trench had a well-made parapet with
steel loopholes built in the sandbags, and
paved along a length of 50 yards entirely
by unopened tins of bully-beef taken from
someof the hundreds of boxes lying about
in the wood. These boxes had been chucked
away by former carrying parties, in the
days before 'corduroy' paths. The trench
had been built by the regulars, now no
longer bearded, though some of their toes
showed through their boots. It was said
that a cigarette end, dropped somewhere
along it, was a 'crime' heavily punished.

Water to the waist
All form, and shape even, of the carefully-
made trenches disappeared under rains
falling upon the yellow clay which retained
them, One was soaked all day and all
night. The weight of a greatcoat was
doubled by clay and water.'We volunteered
for this!' was an ironic comment among
those in water sometimes to the waist.
After the rains, mist lay over a country-
side which had no soul, with its broken
farmhouse roofs, dead cattle in no man's
land, its daylight nihilism beyond the
parapet with never a movement of life,
never glimpse of the Alleyman (Allemand
-German)-except those who were dead,
and lying motionless in varying attitudes
of stillness day after day upon the level
brown field extending to the yellow sub-
soil thrown up from the enemy trench,
beyond its barbed wire obstacles.
At night mist blurred the brightness of
the light-balls, the Very lights or flares as
they were now generally called. The mists,
hanging heavier in the wood, settled to
hear, which rimed trees, corduroy paths,
shed and barn; and clarified into keener
air in sunlight. Frost formed floating films
of ice upon the clay-blue water in shell-
holes, which tipped when mess-tins were
dipped for brewing tea; the daily ration of
tea being mixed in sandbags with sugar. It
was pleasant in the wood, squatting by a
little stick fire. Movement was, however,
laborious now upon the paths not yet laid
with corduroy by the sappers. Boots became
pattened with yellow clay. Still, we said,
it might be worse-for memory of the
tempest that had fallen on the last day of
the battle for Ypres, of the misery of cold
and wet, the dereliction of that time, was
still in the forefront ofour minds.
One afternoon, towards Christmas, a
harder frost settled upon the vacant battle-
held. By midnight trees, bunkers, paths,
sentries' balaclavas and greatcoat shoul-
ders became stiff, thickly rimed. From some
of the new draft came suppressed whimper-
ing sounds. Only those old soldiers who
had scrounged sandbags and straw from
Iniskilling Farm at one edge of the wood,
and put their boots inside, lay still and
sleeping. Lying with unprotected boots
outside the open end of a bunker, one en-
dured pain in one's feet until the final
agony, when one got up and hobbled out-
side, seeing bright stars above the treetops.
The thing to do was to make a fire, and boil
some water in a mess-tin for some Nestle's
cafe'-au-lait. There were many shell-
fractured oak-branches lying about. They
were heavy with sap, but no matter. One
passed painful hours of sleeplessness in
blowing and fanning weak embers amid a
hiss of bubbling branch-ends.


12-17-02, 09:09 AM
The winter agony
As soon as I sat still, or stood up to beat
my arms like a cabby on a hansom cab, the
weak glow of the fire went dull. My eyes
smarted with smoke, there was no flame
unless I fanned all the time. My arms were
heavy in the frozen greatcoat sleeves, mud-
slabbed and hard as drainpipes; while the
skirts of the coat were like boards. I went
back to sleep, but pain kept me awake;
so I crawled out again and was once more
in frozen air, bullets smacking through
trees glistening with frost. I was thirsty,
but the water-bottle was solid. Later, when
it was thawed out over a brazier, it leaked,
being split, but there were many lying
about in the wood, with rifles and other

We were issued with shaggy goatskin
jerkins. Did it mean that the battalion was
intended to be an Officers' Training Corps?
That there would be no more attacks until
the spring? The jerkins had broad tapes
which cross-bound the white and yellow
hairy skins against the chest. Officers and
men now looked alike, except for the ex-
pression of an officer's face, and the fact
that one appeared to stand more upright:
an effect given, perhaps, by the shoulder-
high thumhsticks of ash many of them
walked about with.
Senior officers also wore Norwegian type
knee-boots, laced to the knee and then
treble-strapped. I thought of asking my
father to send me a pair, but a thaw came
at the beginning of the third week of
December, and the misery of mud returned.
And then, with a jump of concealed fear,
orders were read out for an attack across
no man's land to the German lines. It was
two days after the new moon. We were in
support. The company lay out on the edge
of the wood, shivering and beating hands
and feet, in support of a regular battalion
of the Rifle Brigade. The objectives were a
cottage in no man's land called Sniper's
House, and thence forward to a section of
the enemy front line that enfiladed our
dangerous T-trench.
The assault of muttering and tense-
faced bearded men took place under a
serried rank of bursting red stars of 18-
pounder shrapnel shells, and supporting
machine gun fire. Figures floundering
across a root-field in no man's land, with
its sad decaying lumps of dead cows and
men. Hoarse yells of fear became simulated
rage; while short of, into and beyond the
British front line dropped shell upon
shell to burst with acrid yellow fumes of
lyddite from the British Long-toms of the
South African war of 1902, with their
worn rifling.
The order came for the company to carry
on the attack. Survivors, coming back
through the wood, wet through and cover-
ed with mud, uniforms ripped by barbed
wire, were stumbling as they passed
through us. When they had gone away --
away from the line, death behind them-a
clear baritone voice floated back through
the trees, singing Oh, for the wings, for
the wings of a dove-far away, far away
would I roam. They were wonderful, re-
marked a sergeant, a rugger-playing Old
Blue in peacetime. Yes, because they were
going out, I thought; they were euphoric,
hurrying to warmth and sleep, sleep, sleep.
This local attack failed on the uncut
German wire; but Sniper's House was
taken. Our colonel, one heard later, had
protested against the carrying on of the
attack by our company. Later, it was re-
ported in 'Comic Cuts', or Corps Intelli-
gence sheets, that the attack had been
ordered to aid the Russians hard pressed
on the Eastern Front.
We laughed sceptically at that; a begin-
ning of disillusion with 'the well-fed Staff'.
I had no fear at night, and used to wan-
der about in no man's land by myself, to
feel some sort of freedom. One night I
was sitting down by the German wire
when a flare hissed out just by my face, it
seemed, followed by another, and another,
while machine ·guns opened up with loud
directness, accompanied by the cracking
air-shear of bullets passing only a few
inches, it seemed, above my neck. Then
up and down the line arose the swishing
stalks of white lights, all from the German
lines, by which one knew that they were
not going to attack, but feared an assault
from our lines. This was remote comfort,
as I felt myself to be large and visible,
sweating with fear of sorts, while bullets
from our lines thudded and whanged away
upwards in ricochet. The sky above me
appeared to be lit by the beautiful white
lilies of the dead, as I thought of them.

This was an occasion ofthat phenomenon
known as wind-up. As before a wind, fire
swept with bright yellow-red stabs of
thorn-flame up the line towards the light-
ringed salient around Ypres: bullets in
flight, hissing, clacking or whining, crossed
the lines of the hosts of the unburied dead
slowly being absorbed into Flanders field.
The wind of fear, the nightly wind of the
battlefield of Western Europe, from the
cold North Sea to the great barrier of the
Alps-a fire travelling faster than any
wind, was speckling the ridges above the
drained marsh that surrounded Ypres,
stabbing in wandering aimless design the
darkness on the slopes of the Commines
canal, running in thin crenellations upon
the plateau of Wytschaete and Messines,
sweeping thence down to the plain of
Armentieres, among the coal-mines and
slags of Artois, across the chalk uplands of
Picardy, and the plains ofthe rivers. The
wind of fear rushed on, to die out, ex-
pended, beyond the dark forest of the
Argonne, beyond the fears of massed men,
where snow-field, ravine, torrent and crag
ended before the peaks in silence underthe
constellation of Orion, shaking gem-like
above all human hope.

It was still freezing hard on Christmas
Eve. We had been detailed for what seemed
to be a perilous fatigue in no man's land-
going out between the lines to knock in
posts in a zigzag line towards the Ger-
man front line. Around the posts wire
was to be wound. On this wire, hurdles
taken from a shed were to be laid. Then
drying tobacco leaves, hung on the hurdles
(as the leaves had been in the shed), would
give cover from view should it be neces-
sary, in an attack, to reinforce the front line.
What an idea, I thought. It would draw
machine gun fire. It was about as sensible
as the brigade commander's idea for the
December 19 attack across no man's land,
f`or some men to carry straw palliasses, to
lean against the German wire and enable
men to cross over the entanglements. As
for the knocking-in of posts into frozen
ground, that was utterly wrong! And in
bright moonlight, 40 yards away from the

Stab of fear
After our platoon commander, a courteous
man in his early 20s and fresh from Cam-
bridge, had outlined the plan quietly, he
asked for questions. I dared to say that
the noise of' knocking in posts would be
heard. There was silence; then we were
told that implicit directions had come
f'rom brigade, and must he carried out. We
debouched f'rom the wood, and were ex-
posed. After an initial stab of fear, I was
not afraid. Everything was so still, so quiet
in the line. No flares, no crack of the
sniper's rifle. No gun firing.
Soon we were used to the open moon-
light in which all life and movement seem-
ed unreal. Men were fetching and laying
down posts, arranging themselves in
couples, one to hold, the other to knock.
Others prepared to unwind barbed wire
previously rolled on staves. I was one who
followed the platoon commander and three
men to a tarred wooden shed, to fetch
hurdles hung with long dry tobacco leaves,
which we brought out and laid on the site
of the reinforcement fence.
And not a shot was fired from the Ger-
man trench. The unbelievable had soon
become the ordinary, so that we talked as
we worked, without caution, while the
night passed as in a dream. The moon
moved down to the treetops behind us. Al-
ways, it seemed, had we been moving
bodilessly, each with his shadow.
After a timeless dream I saw what looked
like a large white light on top of a pale
put up in the German lines. It was a
strange sort of light. It burned almost
white, and was absolutely steady. What
sort of lantern was it? I did not think much
about it; it was part of the strange un-
reality of the silent night, of the silence of
the moon, now turning a brownish yellow,
of the silence of the frost mist. I was warm
with the work, all my body was in glow,
not with warmth but with happiness.
Suddenly there was a short quick cheer
from the German lines-Hoch! Hoch!
Hoch! With others I flinched and crouched,
ready to fling myself flat, pass the leather
thong of my rifle over my head and aim to
fire; but no other sound came from the
German lines.

We stood up, talking about it, in little
groups. For other cheers were coming
across the black spaces of no man's land.
We saw dim figures on the enemy parapet,
about more lights; and with amazement
saw that a Christmas tree was being set
there, and around it Germans were talk-
ing and laughing together. Hoch! Hoch!
Hoch!, followed by cheering.
Our platoon commander, who had gone
from group to group during the making
of the fence, looked at his watch and
told us that it was eleven o'clock. One
more hour, he said, and then we would
go back.


12-17-02, 09:10 AM
'By Berlin time it is midnight. A Merry
Christmas to you all! I say, that's rather
fine, isn't it?', for from the German parapet
a rich baritone voice had begun to sing a
song I remembered from my nurse Minne
singing it to me after my evening tub
before bed. She had been maid to my Ger-
man grandmother, one of the Lune family
of Hildesheim. StiLle Nacht! HeiLige Nacht!
Tranquil Night! Holy Night! The grave
and tender voice rose out of the frozen
mist; it was all so strange; it was like
being in another world, to which one had
come through a nightmare: a world finer
than the one I had left behind in England,
except for beautiful things like music, and
springtime on my bicycle in the country
of Kent and Bedfordshire.
And back again in the wood it seemed
so strange that we had not been fired upon;
wonderful that the mud had gone; won-
derful to walk easily on the paths; to be
dry; to be able to sleep again.
The wonder remained in the low golden
light of a white-rimed Christmas morning.
I could hardly realise it; but my chronic,
hopeless longing to be home was gone.
The post arrived while I was frying my
breakfast bacon, beside a twig fire where
stood my canteen full of hot sugary tea. I
sat on an unopened 28-Ib box of 2-ounce
Capstan tobacco: one of scores thrown down
in the wood, with large bright metal con-
tainers of army biscuits, of the shape and
size and taste of dog biscuits. The tobacco
issue per day was reckoned to be 5,000
cigarettes at this time, or 'L4 Ibs of tobacco.
This was not the 'issue' ration, but from the
many 'Comforts for the Troops' appeals in
newspapers, all tobacco being duty free
to our benefactors at home.
There was a Gift Package to every sol-
dier from the Princess Royal. A brass box
embossed with Princess Mary's profile,
containing tobacco and cigarettes. This I
decided to send home to my mother, as a
'There's bloody hundreds of them out
there!' said a kilted soldier to me as I
sat there.

Face to face
I walked through the trees, some splin-
tered and gashed by fragments of Jack
Johnsons, as we called the German 5·9-inch
gun, and into no man's land and found
myself face to face with living German
soldiers, men in grey unif'orms and leather
knee-boots-a fact which was at the time
for me beyond belief. Moreover the Ger-
mans were, some of them, actually smiling
as they talked in English.
Most of them were small men, rather
pale of face. Many wore spectacles, and had
thin little goatee beards. I did not see one
piclzelhaube. They were either bare-
headed, or had on small grey pork-pie
hats, with red bands. Each bore two metal
buttons, ringed with white, black and red
rather like tiny archery targets: the Im-
perial German colours.
Among these smaller Saxons were tall,
sturdy men taking no part in the talking,
but regarding the general scene with de-
tachment. They were red-faced men and
their tunics and trousers above the leather
knee-boots showed dried mud marks. Some
had green cords round a shoulder, and
under the shoulder tabs.
Looking in the direction of the mass of
Germans, I saw, judging by the serried
rows of figures standing there, at least
three positions or trench lines behind the
front trench. They were dug at intervals
of about 200 yards.
'It only shows,' said one of our chaps,
'what a lot of men they have, compared
to our chaps. We've got only one line,
really, the rest are mere scratches.' He
said quietly, 'See those green lanyards
and tassels on that big fellow's shoulders?
They're sniper's cords. They're Prussians.
That's what some Saxons told me. They
dislike the Prussians. "Kill them all,"
said one, "and we'll have peace".'
'Yes, my father was always against the
Prussians,' J told him. One of the small
Saxons was contentedly standing alone
and smoking a new and large meerschaum
pipe. He wore spectacles and looked like
a comic-paper 'Hun'. The white bowl of
the pipe bore the face and high-peaked
cap of 'Little Willie' painted on it. The
Saxon saw me looking at it and taking
pipe from mouth said with quiet satis-
faction: 'Kronprinz! Prachtiger Kerl!'
before putting back the mouthpiece care-
fully between his teeth.
Someone told me that Prachtiger KerL
meant 'Good Chap' or 'Decent Fellow'.
Of course, I thought, he is to them as the
Prince of Wales is to us.
A mark of German efficiency I noted:
two aluminium buttons where we had one
brass button on our trousers. Men were
digging, to bury stiff corpses. Each feld
grau 'stiffy' was covered by a red-black-
white German flag. When the grave had
been filled in an officer read from a prayer-
book, while the men in feLd grau stood to
attention with round grey hats clutched
in left hands. I found myself standing to
attention, my balaclava in my hand. When
the grave was filled, someone wrote, in
indelible pencil, these words on the rough
cross of ration-box wood: Hier Ruht In
Gott fin Unbekannter Deutscher Held.
'Here rests in God an unknown German
hero', I found myself translating: and
thinking that it was like the English
crosses in the little cemetery in the clear-
ing within the wood.
I learned, with surprise, that the Ger-
man assaults in mass attack through the
woods and across the arable fields of the
salient, during the last phase of the Battle
for Ypres, had been made by young volun-
teers, some arm in arm, singing, with but
one rifle to every three. They had been
'flung in' (as the British military term
went) after the failure of the Prussian
Guard, the elite Corps du Garde, modelled
on Napoleon's famous soldiers, to break
our line. And here was the surprise:
'You had too many automatische pistolen.
in your line, EngLische friend!'

As a fact, we had few if any machine
guns left after the battle; the Germans
had mistaken their presence for our
'fifteen rounds rapid' fire! Every infantry
battalion had been equipped with two
machine guns, of the type used in the
South African War of 1902; with one ex-
ception. That was the London Scottish,
the 14th Sattalion of the London Regi-
ment, which had bought, privately before
the war, two Vickers guns. These also
were lost during the battle.
Another illusion of the Germans appear-
ed to be that we had masses of reserve
troops behind our front line, most of them
in the woods. If only they had known
that we had very few reserves, including
some of the battalions of an Indian Divi-
sion, the turbaned soldiers of which suffer-
ed greatly from the cold.
The truce lasted, in our part of the line
(under the Messines Ridge), for several
days. On the last day of 1914, one evening,
a message came over no man's land, car-
ried by a very polite Saxon corporal. It
was that their regimental (equivalent to
our brigade, but they had three battalions
where we had four) staff officers were going
round their line at midnight; and they
would have to fire their automatische
pistolen, but would aim high, well above
our heads. Would we, even so, please keep
under cover, 'lest regrettable accidents
And at 11 o'clock-for they were using
Berlin time-we saw the flash of several
Spandau machine guns passing well above
no man's land
I had taken the addresses of two German
soldiers, promising to write to them after
the war. And I had, vaguely, a childlike
idea that if all those in Germany could
know what the soldiers had to suffer, and
that both sides believed the same things
about the righteousness of the two national
causes, it might spread, this truce of Christ
on the battlefield, to the minds of all,
and give understanding where now there
was scorn and hatred.

I was still very young. I was under age,
having volunteered after the news of the
Retreat from Mons had come to us one
Sunday in the third week of August 1914.
Our colonel had made a speech to the
battalion, then in London, declaring that
the British Expeditionary Force of the
Regular army was very reduced in numbers
after the 90-mile retreat which had worn
out boots and exhausted so many, and was
in dire need of help.
And now the New Year had come, the
frost was settling again in little crystals
upon posts and on the graves and icy shell
holes in no man's land. Once more the
light-balls were rising up to hover under
little parachutes over no man's land with
the blast of machine guns, and the brutal
downward droning of heavy shells. And
the rains came, to fall upon Flanders
field, while preparations were in hand for
the spring offensive.