Henry Williamson and the Christmas Truce
THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE, 1914
As Christmas Day dawned on the Western Front in 1914, British and German soldiers put down their rifles, climbed out of their trenches and met in No Man's Land, that narrow strip of land between their lines, where they chatted, exchanged gifts, took photographs, and even kicked a football around together. This astonishing and totally unofficial truce, which has become legendary, lasted in some cases for several days. To the young Henry Williamson, who was then a private in the London Rifle Brigade, a Territorial battalion in the front-line trenches at Ploegsteert (popularly known as 'Plugstreet') Wood, and who was present at the Truce, the experience came as a revelation that changed his life.
Henry Williamson wrote about the Truce several times over the course of his life; two descriptions are reproduced below. The first is a letter that he wrote to his mother immediately after the event, giving an eyewitness acount; this is the first time that the letter has been reproduced in full facsimile. There is a transcript given after the letter. Note the patriotic pin that his mother used to fasten the pages together.
If there were further sheets to the letter, they have been lost. The envelope itself is of interest, for the pencilled name is that of the censor, Second Lieutenant G.E.S. Fursdon, Henry's platoon commander.
Dec 26 1914,
I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say.
But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench.
Oh dear, no!
From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it? Yes.
This is only for about a mile or two on either side of us (so far as we know). It happened thuswise.
On Xmas eve both armies sang carols and cheered & there was very little firing. The Germans (in some places 80 yds away) called to our men to come and fetch a cigar & our men told them to come to us. This went on for some time, neither fully trusting the other, until, after much promising to 'play the game' a bold Tommy crept out & stood between the trenches, & immediately a Saxon came to meet him. They shook hands & laughed & then 16 Germans came out.
Thus the ice was broken. Our men are speaking to them now.
They are landsturmers or landwehr, I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking. I have some cigarettes which I shall keep, & a cigar I have smoked.
We had a burial service in the afternoon, over the dead Germans who perished in the 'last attack that was repulsed' against us. The Germans put 'For Fatherland & Freedom' on the cross.
They obviously think their cause is a just one.
If you get a Daily Mail of Dec 23 & turn to the letter page you will see an article entitled 'Snapshots from the Front' & in the second snapshot an account is given of what we, with others, have done, and the identical apparatus is mentioned.
When you find a sentence or word 'blacked out' & not initialled by me, it is the work of the censor.
Many of the Germans here are, or were, waiters. [i.e. in England before the war.] Thank Efford for his chocolate. Auntie Belle for the cigarettes. I have had an awful time with swollen feet and my toes are frostbitten now.
But it is all in the days work, as is working all night at digging or etc & sleeping in wet and mud. Where we are billetted (8 of us in a cottage in a town which is shelled now and again) we have a good time. There is a family of Belgians here whose house has been destroyed, and the old mother, about 56 yrs old, is very jolly and resourceful, as well as comical. [Any further pages are missing.]
Unknown to Henry, his father sent this letter to the Daily Express, which printed a part of it; the cutting still exists in the literary archive. The cutting, and its reverse, are shown below. The full Daily Express article, which appeared on Monday, 4 January 1915, is reproduced in Stumberleap, and other Devon Writings: Contributions to the Daily Express and Sunday Express 1915-1935 (HWS, 2005; e-book 2013).
There are two studio photographs of the young Henry, taken after he returned home from hospital, having been invalided home in January 1915; the first shows him wearing the greatcoat from which he had roughly cut the skirt, as it became too weighed down with frozen mud:
In later years Henry made a note on the envelope in which he kept the first photograph:
On the reverse of the second photograph is written: 'After returning with dysentery and red puffy feet from being frozen (wet greatcoat hard & heavy as board) in the flooded trenches & woods of Flanders [Ploegsteert Wood] under Messines Ridge 4 November - [19 January 1915]. Uniform washed & ironed in hospital at Ancoats, Manchester.'
One of the fullest accounts of the Truce written by Henry appeared many years later – also in the Daily Express. It was printed, appropriately, in the issue published on Christmas Eve, Friday, 24 December 1937. Earlier that year, Henry had moved with his young family to Norfolk, where he was endeavouring to reclaim a derelict farm at Stiffkey, on the north coast.
They saw the same star rising . . .
The frost glitters in the starlit grasses; the horse pond is frozen; wild geese pass overhead.
When I open the granary door, I see bare trees dark against the sky.
It is Christmas again, and I have a rendezvous in ancient moonlight, with you and you and you, unknown comrades of that first Christmas . . . when for myself and my friends a miracle broke into the near-hopelessness of our youthful lives.
The human facts of that marvellous and (in retrospect) poignantly beautiful time still live, for my generation, with the hope that its knowledge-feeling may increase, that eventually all men in Europe will be inspired by its truth. A long time ago, Christmas 1914 – twenty-three years ago – nearly a quarter of a century.
Yet we still hope – those who were there – the living and the dead – that the vision of peace we lived during those few rare hours may be made real and everlasting.
Geese are flighting overhead as I write this, sitting in the granary of my Norfolk farm.
Overhead, up the worm-eaten stairs, my little children sleep on a heap of sacks and rugs. They are warm and snug; they dream of Christmas.
The cries of the wild geese bring sharply before me a bare and frozen wood of Flanders, charcoal braziers, bearded men in woollen balaclava helmets, rifles piled, starlight, and wood smoke.
For weeks we had lived in flooded trenches. The Germans were eighty yards away. Our trench was enfiladed; we lost many men, shot by snipers.
Night after night since the tailing-off of the battle for Ypres we had toiled on the parapets, filling sandbags with clayey mud; squelched through the muddy lagoons of woodland tracks, carrying rations, duckboards, pumps, ammunition.
We were volunteers, rushed out to help General French’s shattered Expeditionary Force. A few weeks before we had been schoolboys, bank clerks, undergraduates, medical students.
Now our lives were ravaged. Some of us (the young ones who thought of their mothers) were near to despair. We were without hope, without horizon.
At first trench life had been interesting, even enjoyable.
It was fun cooking our own bacon and making tea in the wood, while shrapnel cracked overhead; good sport stalking the wild geese in the marshes; satisfying to feel the soft hairs of our unshaven chins. The regulars were decent chaps, heroes of Mons.
But the rains fell, and the trenches filled almost waist-high. After a few days we could scarcely move our legs; nor did we seem to need food.
At night we dragged ourselves out of the ditches, and moved about, uncaring of bullets aimed at random in the dark.
All night we worked: carrying parties, pumping fatigues, parapet-building; at dawn we slid into water again, and set ourselves to endure the grey daylight.
Even now, so long afterwards, when I hear the rain on the tiles overhead, the ghost of that time makes me draw the blankets closer round my neck.
On Christmas Eve of 1914 we were in the support line, about 200 yards inside Ploegsteert Wood.
It was freezing. Our overcoats were stiff as boards, our boots were too hard to remove, but we rejoiced. The mud was hard, too!
Also, happy thought, we would be able to sleep that night – inside a new blockhouse of oak-boughs and sandbags called Piccadilly Hotel. No bed but the cold earth, no blankets even; but sleep. Sleep!
Then came a message from brigade headquarters, brought, I think, by Second Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather, of the Warwicks. Wiring parties were required in No Man’s Land all night. And there would be a moon.
We would have to work only fifty yards from the German machine-guns in the White House opposite the eastern edge of the wood.
Two hours later we filed out of the dark trees, into the naked, moonlit terror of No Man’s Land, holding shovels beside our faces, in hope of protection against the expected mort-blast.
The moon was high and white among frozen cloudlets. We were visible. Some one slipped, with a clank of spade or rifle.
We flung ourselves on our faces. We waited. The battlefield was as silent as the moon.
For an hour we worked in silence, in a most mysterious soundlessness. What had happened?
We began to talk naturally as we drove in stakes, and pulled out concertinas of prepared wire.
There was no rifle-fire either up or down the line, from way up north beyond Ypres to south beyond Armentières and the French Army.
At midnight we heard laughing as we worked. We heard singing from the German lines – carols the tunes of which we knew.
I noticed a very bright light on a tall pole, raised in their lines. Down opposite the East Lancs trench, in front of the convent, a Christmas tree, with lighted candles, was set on their parapet.
The unreal moonlight life went on, happily. Cries of ‘Come over, Tommy! We won’t fire at you!’
A dark figure approached me, hesitatingly. A trap? I walked towards it with bumping heart. ‘Merry Christmas, English friend!’ We shook hands, tremulously.
Then I saw that the light on the pole was the morning star, the Star in the East. It was Christmas morning.
All Christmas Day grey and khaki figures mingled and talked in No Man’s Land. Picks and spades rang in the hard ground.
It was strange to stare at the dead we had only glimpsed, swiftly, from the trenches.
The shallowest graves were dug, filled, and set with crosses knocked together from lengths of ration-box wood, marked with indelible pencil. ‘For King and Country.’ ‘Für Vaterland und Freiheit.’
Fatherland and Freedom! Freedom? How was this? We were fighting for freedom, our cause was just, we were defending Belgium, civilisation . . . These fellows in grey were good fellows, they were – strangely – just men like ourselves.
‘How can we lose the war, English comrade? Our cause is just, we are ringed with enemies, the war was thrust on us, we are defending our parents, our homes, our German soil.’
A most shaking, staggering thought: that both sides thought they were fighting for the same cause! The war was a terrible mistake! People at home did not know this!
Then the idea came to the young and callow soldier that if only he could tell them all at home what was really happening, and if the German soldiers told their people the truth about us, the war would be over. But he hardly dared to think it, even to himself.
The next day was quiet, and the next. Waving hands from the trenches by day; singing and reflected blaze of trench bonfires at night. It was a lovely time.
On the third afternoon came a message from the Germans. ‘At midnight our staff officers visit, and we must fire our automatic pistolen, but we will fire high, nevertheless please keep undercover.’
At 11 p.m. – Berlin midnight – we saw the flashes going away into the air.
Two days later an Army Order came from G.H.Q., to the effect that men found fraternising with the enemy would be court-martialled, and, if found guilty, would suffer the death penalty.
And again in that place the Véry lights soared over No Man’s Land at night, and bullets cut showers of splinters from the trees, and sometimes human flesh and bone.
So Hope sank into the mud again, but did not die, despite a withering anew as each poor human unit fell in machine-gun mort-blast and colossal reverberating rending of the shells of those four years – the years whose truth seems to be incommunicable.
Sometimes, as one listens to what people say, here in the England a generation died for, it seems almost like pre-war again; can it be that we lack imagination, to see the other fellow as ourselves?
The geese cry as they pass high under the moon, flying for the marshes, my little children stir in their sleep, and the morning star of Hope, of the wise men in the story is rising again.
This moving piece was incorporated by Henry with very little revision as a chapter in The Story of a Norfolk Farm (Faber, 1941). The original article has been collected in Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer: Contributions to the Daily Express 1937-1939 (HWS, 2004; e-book 2013).
The heavily revised original typescript of this Daily Express article has recently been found in the Literary Archive – pure serendipity – and it is reproduced below as an example of the care and consideration with which Henry drafted and wrote not just his books, but even ephemeral pieces for newspapers:
Henry also wrote 'The Christmas Truce', a 4000-word account of his experience of the Truce for History of the First World War (Purnell, 1970), edited by Barrie Pitt, which appeared in 128 weekly parts. This too is well worth reading.
Henry's fictionalised version of the Truce, seen through the eyes of his young protagonist, Private Phillip Maddison, appears in the fourth volume of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, A Fox Under My Cloak (Macdonald, 1955), chapters 3 and 4.