Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Somersets and the Christmas Truce

Not a shot or a shell...

Soldiers of the Somerset Light Infantry, had, over the years fought all over the world, most famously perhaps in Afghanistan, but also in Egypt and India. In the early months of the Great War, however, the men of the 1st Battalion faced a situation none of their predecessors had experienced as they became involved in one the most curious incidents of WW1

 The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is well known, images of enemies meeting in no-man’s land, trading cigarettes and (possibly) playing football provide a stark contrast to the other, more familiar, images of horror and destruction from World War 1. Less well known, perhaps, is the role played by local men of the Somerset Light Infantry in the truce and how much evidence still remains, both on the Western Front and perhaps in local family histories.

(Based on the War Diary of the Somerset Light Infantry held at the National Archives UK - the blog posts - CB Prowse - Le Cateau to Prowse Point & Welcome to Plug Street give the background by telling the story of the Somersets from August-November 1914)


By the end 1914 the men of the Somerset Light Infantry were in trenches in Ploegsteert Wood (known to the men as Plug Street). Travelling south from from Ypres you pass first Wyschaete (White Sheet) where a young Adolf Hitler served and drop down through Mesen, ( Messines Ridge). The War Diary of the Somerset’s, a day to day record of events during the conflict, which is held in the National Archives in Kew, records them battling the weather for much of the month of December, almost constant rain causing some areas of Trench to be abandoned and most  entries beginning with a typically English comment on the weather. They can have had no idea what a dramatic change the end of the month would bring. The 1914 front line is marked today by Prowse Point cemetery, the only cemetery in the area named after an individual; Major Charles Prowse, he led a heroic stand by the Somerset’s in October, winning both a D.S.O and a promotion as the British Expeditionary Force fell back in the face of a ferocious German advance, he was later killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, as he headed to the front line to support his men. By the middle of December 1914 he was on sick leave.

Ploegsteert Wood - as seen in early 1915 - from Times Illustrated History

Prowse Point Cemetery - water marks 1914 Front Line

 The events that may have provided the motivation for the truce actually began a few days earlier, on the 19th December. The Somerset’s launched an attack on German lines that was tragically typical of so many during the early years of the war. The target area, a heavily defended area known as the “Birdcage” due to the amount of barbed wire surrounding the fortified position was shelled in advance by the British artillery but, as so often happened during the early years of the Great War the bombardment failed to destroy the German defences. Worse was to follow as the attack began, men advanced out of sodden trenches across broken ground armed with improvised mattresses to cover the wire, but the war diary commented “ after the leading platoon on the right had advanced about 40 yards a howitzer shell of ours burst among them and did great damage “. The attack ended in failure and there were 35 casualties, including an unfortunate Captain Bradshaw who, the diary notes “died after about an hours suffering “. Less than a week after this disastrous attack the men who survived would be back in the same place, this time under very different circumstances.
No Man’s Land, the area fought over on 19 December and then the meeting point on Christmas Day 1914

Over the next few days some of the men killed in the failed attack were buried but many still lay in no-man’s land. Collecting the bodies would be impossible as snipers waited for anyone who placed themselves in the open; indeed a Lt Moore was killed while trying to inspect enemy positions in the aftermath of the attack. The fate of these men would usually be an unmarked grave and later an inscription on a memorial to the missing such as the Menin Gate. This was a constant fear of the men fighting in the trenches; they feared being “atomised” and their families having no certainty of their fate or grave to visit, a desire amongst the surviving soldiers to prevent this happening to their fallen colleagues would be a key factor in the events of the next momentous days.


After a few relatively peaceful days the diary for 25 December begins with a statement that bears no similarity to any other that month; “There was much singing in the trenches last night by both sides.” The Germans had brought up their regimental band and played a number of songs, including both national anthems. At this point the ordinary soldiers seized their chance “A truce was mutually arranged by the men in the trenches” The German and British officers then met and arranged to bring in bodies still lying between trenches. The diary states “The bodies of Capt Maud, Capt Orr and 2/Lt Henson were brought in also those of 18 NCOs’ and men. They were buried the same day.” This is where a visit to the area can help us walk in the footsteps of the men involved in the truce. The body ot Lt Maud was returned by the Germans - possibly as he had reached their wire and they did not want the Somersets coming too close. His original battlefield cross can be seen in the Somerset Museum, Taunton

The grave of Captain C. C. Maud, Ploegsteert Wood Cemetery

 Apart from a few sections of front line preserved for museums very little evidence remains of the battlefields of the First World War, the sections of no-man’s land between trench lines where enemies met in 1914 are now quiet fields, the only reminder a commemorative post marking the point where the cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather experienced the Truce. Ploegsteert Wood, though, remains just that and as you leave Prowse Point and head in to the woods the evidence of conflict is still there if you look closely; bricks from buildings shattered by shells, curving ditches that could be the outline of trenches and sticking out of the mud the spiral posts that were used to support the miles and miles of barbed wire that dominated the Western Front.

Possible trench line in Ploegsteert Wood

 On that Christmas Day in 1914 the bodies of the men recovered were carried from the front line about a mile back through the lines. A cemetery had been created earlier in the month near a ruined building the men had called Somerset House, today it forms part of the tranquil Ploegsteert Wood cemetery. Unlike many on the Western Front these graves were never moved during or after the war and so when you visit the cemetery you are standing in the same spot as the men involved in the truce. Here you can find the men mentioned in the diary, Captain Maud, Captain Orr and 2/Lt Henson as well as the other “18 NCOs’ and men”. To have buried their friends and comrades and then return to the front and fraternise with the men responsible for their deaths must have been nearly impossible, but that is what happened on Christmas Day 1914; “not a shot or shell was fired by either side in our neighbourhood; and both sides walked about outside their trenches quite unconcernedly…. a very peaceful day.”

Ploegsteert Cemetery – The men buried on Christmas Day 1914
There is little detail recorded as the actual events of the Truce in this area, certainly no football, even though UEFA have placed their memorial in the area, this may have been an attempt to avoid censure for the men involved, it is, though, certain that the men involved took the Truce as far as any group of men could have. Indeed the truce continued for some time for the men of the Somerset Light Infantry, the opportunity was taken to strengthen and improve the sodden trenches and observe enemy strengths and weaknesses, the chance to leave the mud of the trenches in safety must also have been gratefully received. On December 30th a note was received from the German soldiers in almost flawless English that shows how deep rooted the ceasefire had become in this part of the front line;


“Dear Camerades,


I beg to inform you that it is forbidden us to go over to you but we will remain fond camerades. If we shall be forced to fire we will fire to high. Please tell me if you are English or Irishmen. Offering you some cigars, I remain yours truly camerade


X.Y “


The British made no reply to this, many in the British upper staff were alarmed by the refusal to fight and threatened severe punishment for those found to have fraternised with the enemy, but the peaceful mood remained until early in the New Year, with one unfortunate exception. The Germans celebrated the turn of the year with considerable enthusiasm, including singing and lights. The time difference seems to have been a problem though. The Germans began firing guns in celebration at 11pm UK time rather than midnight, leading British gunners to fear an attack and replying with a less than festive barrage of shells.


Despite this, the Truce continued until well into the New Year, only ending on or around the 9th of January when the “friendly Germans” appear to have been replaced, either through a routine rotation of men or through concern that fighting spirit had ebbed away.


Is there more to be added to the story by people living in the west? Did any local men involved in the truce send letters or return home with stories? Are there surviving relatives of the men whose bodies were recovered on that day? Many of the graves have poignant messages added at the bottom, these were added at the request of families and although many died tragically young the ages of some men indicate they were old enough to have had families. Records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who main the cemeteries on the Western Front give us some basic information on the men killed in the failed attack of 19th December that may provide a starting point. 2nd Lieutenant Stanley Henson was married to Minnie Henson, of Elmsett Hall, Wedmore, Somerset. Private H Miller, only 18, of Marston Road, Frome is buried in the same plot. 39 year old George James with the rather confusing address of Regent St, Spring St, New Cut Bristol and Lieutenant George Parr, son of Major General Henry Hallam Parr and Lady Parr, of Minchinhampton Glos are also there. Major General Parr had fought with the British army in South Africa and passed away in April 1914. Can more personal details be added to the existing account of the Truce?

Inscription on a gravestone – Ploegsteert Wood Cemetery







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