In the Bleak Midwinter: the Surrey Regiments and the 1914 Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce enjoyed by the 2nd Battalion of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment was a far cry from the chocolate, football, booze and carols which some other units shared with the Germans elsewhere on the Western Front. The 2nd Battalion was in the line around La Boutillerie, just north of Fromelles and a few miles south of the Belgian border. On the 18th December two companies of the battalion had supported the 2nd Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment in a disastrous attack on the German lines, the Queen’s losing 97 officers and men, either killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner. The dead and wounded lay scattered in front of the enemy lines overnight.

A first truce occurred at daybreak on 19th December 1914, when the Germans opposite beckoned the 2nd Battalion out to collect its wounded and bury its dead. Several officers, the Medical Officer and around 30 men went out to meet 60 Germans in No Man’s Land. The rival officers talked as the burial parties got to work, the Germans assisting in burying many of the British dead, many of whom lay close to their front line. They did not, however, play entirely fair: two British officers and seven stretcher bearers were enticed into the German trenches and taken prisoner. This truce was captured in photographs by 2nd Lieutenant J B Coates, who, though only aged 17, found himself commanding a company.

Unofficial Armistice, 19th December 1914 2nd Bn The Queen's Royal Regiment (SHC Ref: QRWS/1/16/11 p2 1of2)

Unofficial Armistice, 19th December 1914 2nd Bn The Queen’s Royal Regiment (SHC Ref: QRWS/1/16/11 p2 1of2)

Unofficial Armistice, 19th December 1914 2nd Bn The Queen's Royal Regiment (SHC Ref: QRWS/3/11/3 p17)

Unofficial Armistice, 19th December 1914 2nd Bn The Queen’s Royal Regiment (SHC Ref: QRWS/3/11/3 p17)

Despite this somewhat inauspicious armistice, as many dead still lay unburied, a further truce was agreed on Christmas day at 11am negotiated by the Wiltshire Regiment on the Queen’s right. The 2nd Battalion’s war diary reported that ‘many German officers and men came out of their trenches to midway between the two lines’ and more graves were excavated. However the frozen earth meant progress was very slow and a third armistice was agreed for Boxing Day to begin at 9am. A number of immaculate German Staff officers appeared in fur lined coats ‘of quite a different class to the infantry officers who were of a very low class’. While the men hacked at the hard as iron ground, they chatted with their counterparts, sharing with the British their sanguine views on the war’s progress: ‘All professed themselves as confident as to their being able to end the war in their favour. They had no opinion of the Russians who they considered already beaten. All gave the appearance however of being fed up with the war’. Finally, at 1pm, with the graves all now completed, the British chaplain read the burial service, in the presence of the digging party, some officers of the Queen’s and 8 or 10 German officers. The proprieties observed, both sides returned to their trenches.

By contrast, the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment was ordered into the line at Christmas by GHQ to take over from a battalion which had been fraternising with the enemy far too eagerly. The offending unit had actually issued an invitation to the Saxons opposite to come into their trench, the Germans being particularly keen to obtain British newspapers to find out what was happening in the world. The East Surreys had regretfully to tell the Germans when they approached that this arrangement had been cancelled, but even so exchanged a few words and a copy of the ‘Times’.

As the experience of the 1st Battalion of the East Surreys testifies, the spontaneous coming together of the two sides during December 1914 was frowned upon by the high commands. In 1915, the British top brass was determined that there should be no reoccurrence of 1914’s fraternisation because of its supposed effect on morale and fighting spirit. The 7th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment rejected an initiative by the Germans opposite on Christmas Day: ‘No fraternising this year, although the Germans tried to make peaceful advances by showing the white flag. Our Artillery consistently pounded their trenches all day and night. A certain amount of retaliation took place but not nearly as much as we put over’. The 8th Battalion were swiftly disabused of any notion that the enemy might again seek a convivial truce: ‘All thoughts of fraternising on Christmas Eve was put an end to by Trench Mortars, Sausages, Rifle grenades and whiz-bangs on the part of the Germans’.

The fragile flowering of peace and goodwill during the first Christmas of the war was never to be repeated.

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