Tag Archives: Christmas

“Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas…”

This tale comes from a source which I have used quite frequently in the past, namely “The Date Book of Remarkable Memorable Events Connected With Nottingham and Its Neighbourhood”.

Imagine. It is December 12th 1786. Less than a fortnight to the Big Day. What will Santa bring you? Better make sure that Santa can get down those Georgian chimneys without a problem:

December 12th. “A remarkable escape from death at the premises of Mr Wilson, bookseller, of South-parade, Nottingham. Mr Stretton, a builder, accidentally met a Mr Ward of Eastwood, and stood on the pavement in front of the shop, conversing with him about Christmas.”

You can go nowadays and stand where exactly these two gentlemen stood, nearly 250 years ago. I have painted an enormous orange arrow on the pavement:

And I also found a photograph of the houses concerned. This was taken in 1874 and although the ground floors are very different today, the upper floors of some of the buildings are still quite similar:

In 2017, it is not just the ground floors which are different. The people are as well. Nowadays, all the people try to dress as much like each other as possible. A 21st century guerrilla army:

But what about Mr Stretton and Mr Ward the builder? Well, they were talking about what Santa was going to bring them, and Mr Ward was just saying that he had been repairing loads of chimneys in this area because all the little kids were worrying about Santa’s arrival, when suddenly…..

“…a violent gust of wind overthrew a stack of chimneys, which in their descent brought down with them a large proportion of the roof and a quantity of the brickwork of the front wall.”

It was a little bit like this…

But a lot more like this…

It was no laughing matter, because…

“Neither of the gentleman had warnings sufficient to run out of danger. An apparently solid mass fell upon the back and head of Mr Stretton, but chiefly upon his shoulders, beating him to the ground, and cutting the back of his coat into shreds . He endeavoured two or three times to get up, but the bricks continually falling upon him, prevented him.”

I think we’ve all seen Laurel and Hardy, or Tom and Jerry, in that situation, as the last two or three bricks of many fall individually and hit them one after another on the head. But it was no laughing matter at all…

“Mr Ward also received serious injuries. The two men were taken away in sedan chairs, and both of them eventually recovered, although not without great difficulty.”

So it all turned out well in the end. Cue a famous Shakespeare play.

Sedan chairs must have been magic. Ideal places for meeting your lover, at least, if you can persuade the servants to go and have a cup of coffee for half an hour. And take that magpie with you…

And here’s the ideal sedan chair for a collapsing chimney situation. That roof looks very well made, very robust. And those top hats would be brilliant. Just like the special zones that crumple up when modern cars crash into each other.

Mind you, I think if they were my servants, I might buy them a pair of shoes each for Christmas. Unless, of course, I could think of a really life changing present to give them.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under History, Nottingham

The Christmas Truce of 1916: my Grandad was there.

When I was a little boy in the late 1950s and 1960s, my Grandad used to mention to me how there had been a Christmas truce with the Germans during his time with the Canadian Army. The most famous truce of all had already taken place at Christmas 1914 of course.

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Having accessed my Grandad’s war records in later years, I knew that he hadn’t joined the Canadian Army until 1916, far too late for the famous Christmas Truce. I was also aware that he had fought at Vimy Ridge. How did I know that? Well, fifty or more years ago, he had told me so. Here are some Canadians at Vimy Ridge during the battle. Theoretically, my Grandad could be one of them, but I do know that he spent most of his time in the artillery. That was probably why he was so deaf when I knew him :Vimy_Ridge_-_Canadian_machine_gun_crews

And so it all remained a bit of a mystery, until I read in the media that:

“Evidence of a Christmas truce in 1916, previously unknown to historians, has recently come to light. German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines near Vimy Ridge to share Christmas greetings and trade presents.”
In his book Hitler’s First War, Dr Thomas Weber, a historian at the University of Aberdeen had previously recorded various attempts at a Christmas Truce in 1916. None of them, however, were thought to have been successful, Dr Weber’s book explaining that that this wonderful goodwill gesture had been a complete failure. A war diary from Adolf Hitler’s own Brigade reported:
“Attempts at initiating fraternization by the enemy (calling out, raising of hands, etc.) were immediately quashed by the snipers and artillery men who had been ordered in and had stood ready to fire.”

On the Canadian side, the official version of events, which was reported in the diary of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry tells the other half of a very similar, and very pessimistic, story. The Germans had made efforts towards a ceasefire but nobody on the Canadian side had responded to it.
The entire situation changed radically, however, in November 2010, when the historian, Dr Weber, whose great-grandfather fought with the German army during the Great War, travelled to Canada. After a public lecture, he was approached afterwards by a member of the audience whose uncle, Ronald MacKinnon, had been deployed at Vimy Ridge at Christmas, 1916:

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Having heard from Dr Weber during the lecture how there had been only an unsuccessful attempt at a truce in 1916, the man had in his possession a letter from Ronald MacKinnon, a 23-year-old soldier from Toronto which proved that both the Canadian and the German soldiers had put down their weapons on Christmas Day and obeyed the phrase from the Gospel, “on earth peace, good will toward men”. Christmas greetings were shouted across no man’s land and presents, just as in 1914, were exchanged between the two sides.
Dr Weber immediately announced, quite rightly, that this letter was a “fantastic find” and offered proof of a hitherto completely unknown Christmas Truce, an impromptu break in the hostilities by German and Canadian troops. The letter also clearly demonstrated that the top brass had made extensive and determined efforts to downplay any Christmas truces subsequent to the first one in 1914. Dr Weber explained that, as officers always had to report significant events to their higher chain of command, they always had a personal interest in downplaying what might be viewed as negative events when they wrote the official version in their war diaries.
Private MacKinnon’s letter home was to his sister who also lived in Toronto, and it certainly does not downplay the significance of what happened on that Christmas Day 99 years ago:

Dearest Sister,
Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. I had long rubber boots or waders. We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was “tray bon” which means very good.

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Do you ever write to Aunt Minnie in Cleveland? If you do, see if she can give you the address of any of our mother’s relations in England. Aunt Nellie was saying that some of them lived in Grangemouth, which is not far from Fauldhouse. If you could get me their address I would be very pleased to see them when I am in Blighty again.
I am at present in an army school 50 miles behind the line and am likely to be here for a month or so. My address will be the same, No. 3 Coy., PPCLI. I left the trenches on Xmas night. The trenches we are holding at present are very good and things are very quiet.
I have had no Xmas mail yet but I hope to get it all soon. How is Neil getting on in the city? I’ll write to him some of these days. Remember me to all my many friends at home.”

Ronald MacKinnon, like so many soldiers in the Canadian Army, had very strong connections with Great Britain. His father was a Scot from Levenseat, near Fauldhouse in West Lothian. Ronald was to meet his Scottish relatives for the first time while he was engaged in his basic training in Britain, before being sent to the Western Front.
Not long after he wrote his amazing letter back to his sister at home in Toronto, Private MacKinnon was killed at an unknown time between April 9th-10th 1917, during in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a bloody but successful attack up a strategic height of land in the northern French countryside, a great victory often remembered as Canada’s national coming of age. Here is the monument to the brave Canadians. It is at the top of the ridge:

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Nowadays, you can drive up the ridge effortlessly in a tour bus. There are no Germans around. Nobody shoots at you. Everybody is friends:

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Ronald is buried in Bois-Carré British Cemetery in Thelus, in the Pas-de-Calais in northern France:

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For some reason, his parents’ details are not listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
One last postscript is that, according to Dr Weber, Adolf Hitler’s own unit actually faced Canadian troops on Vimy Ridge throughout the period that I have been describing. Ever the sour fanatic, Adolf Hitler, of course, would never have participated in any truce, although as many as half of his fellow soldiers are thought to have done so. The Führer’s views on the previous Truce of 1914 were recorded by one of his fellow soldiers, Heinrich Lugauer, and there is no reason to suppose that he would have changed his ideas in two short years, filled, every moment, with hatred and anger:

“When everyone was talking about the Christmas 1914 fraternization with the Englishmen, Hitler revealed himself to be its bitter opponent. He said, ‘Something like this should not even be up for discussion during wartime.”

What a bitter loner Hitler was. More extreme than his colleagues, who were only too happy to fraternise with the young Canadian lads for a day. What a pity my Grandad didn’t have the chance to shoot the bugger:

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Last words should always be positive though: back to Dr Weber:

“The Christmas truce of 1914 involved 100,000 British and German troops on the Western Front in an exchange of gifts and food, to the horror of their commanders. But these displays of common humanity were much more frequent than suggested by official military histories, with evidence of similar festive get-togethers in 1915 and 1916, involving the Bavarian regiments. No doubt there were Christmas truces in 1917.

Soldiers never tried to stop fraternising with their opponents during Christmas.

This puts to rest the long dominant view that the majority of combatants during the Great War were driven by a brutalising and ever-faster spinning cycle of violence.”

I could not have written this article without accessing these websites.

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Filed under Canada, France, History, Personal

The Christmas Truce (a review, excerpts and my own thoughts)

I have decided to examine the Christmas Truce by quoting the words of the men who were there in that late December of 1914. I found these quotations in a book which I originally bought many years ago when it was first published, I should think, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Christmas Truce in 1994. The book is called, naturally enough, “Christmas Truce” and this is the edition I have…

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The authors are Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton. The volume is still there on Amazon in an updated edition and I would expect to find it on many other Internet book selling sites. It is a wonderfully written and extremely moving book which I would recommend to you wholeheartedly. It tells so very well the story of a brief poignant moment during the fire and fury of the Western Front. This book certainly inspired me to go deeper into this wonderful event. It is also now available in a more up to date edition, and is required reading for every student of the Great War, of whatever nationality.

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There are many soldiers quoted in the book and I have used a good number of them, with a few abridgements here and there. Quite simply, the tales they told were so moving that I found it virtually impossible to select only a tiny few to use. The book, of course, provides many, many more of them and goes into great detail about what exactly transpired that cold and frosty day in late December 1914. I do hope, though, that you will enjoy these brief extracts from a book that I still look at regularly today, some twenty years after I bought it:

“Several of my chums had been able to get hold of two small Christmas trees complete with candles, to be mounted on the parapet of the trenches, while others dragged planks with them, usually used in the battle against water and mud. As was usual at that time, having settled in the trenches, we just fired the occasional shot from our outposts to let the enemy know we would not let ourselves be surprised.”

*****

On Christmas Eve we got the order to go into the trenches. The day before we had celebrated Christmas in our rest quarters with the civilian people and their children who were presented with chocolate, bonbons and cake. It was all in good humour.
Then at darkness we marched forward to the trenches like Father Christmas with parcels hanging from us. All was quiet. No shooting. Little snow. We posted a tiny Christmas tree in our dugout – the company commander, myself the lieutenant, and the two orderlies. We placed a second lighted tree on the breast work.
Then we began to sing our old Christmas songs “Silent Night Holy Night” and “O Du Fröhliche”, a German Christmas carol.

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It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about seven or eight in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches. And then they sang “Silent night”, “Stille Nacht”. I shall never forget it.  It was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, “What a beautiful tune”.

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Suddenly a man from my company reported, “The English are letting off fireworks”. And sure enough across the way from us, the enemy trenches were lit up with fires and rockets and so on. We then made a few banners reading “Happy Christmas” with a couple of candles behind and a couple on top.

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I was gazing towards the German lines and thinking what a very different sort of Christmas Eve this was from any I have experienced in the past. In the ordinary way of things, my father would have been making rum punch from an old family recipe, which had been written out by his grandfather, and was kept, of all places, in the Family Bible! Earlier, after the evening meal, we would have decorated the living rooms and hall with traditional greenery, and would now be looking forward to wishing one another a Happy Christmas, and toasting the occasion in the results of my father’s labours. Instead of this, here was I, standing in a waterlogged trench, in a muddy Flemish field, and staring out over the flat, empty and desolate countryside, with no signs of life……
Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently makeshift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles!  Then our opponents began to sing “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”. They finished their carol so we sang “The First Nowell”, and when we finished they began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, “O Tannenbaum”. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O come all ye faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words “Adeste fideles”. And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.

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When I got back to the trenches after dark on Christmas Eve I found the Germans had got little Christmas trees burning all along the parapet of the trench. Meanwhile, unknown to us, two officers  got out of their trench and walked halfway to the German trench and were met by two German officers. They talked away quite civilly and actually shook hands!

*****

I have just been through one of the most extraordinary scenes imaginable. Tonight is Christmas Eve. Firing was going on all the time and the enemy’s machine guns were firing at us. Then about seven o’clock the firing stopped. I was reading the paper and the mail was being dished out. It was reported that the Germans had lighted their trenches up. I went out and they shouted “No shooting” and then somehow the scene became a peaceful one. All our men got out of the trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English. I got onto the top of the trench and talked German and asked them to sing a German folk song, then our men sang and each side clapped and cheered the other. Pope and I walked across and held a conversation with the German officer in command. He presented me to his officer. I gave permission to bury some German dead and we agreed to have no shooting until midnight tomorrow. We talked together, ten or more Germans gathered around. I was almost in their lines within a yard or so. We saluted each other, he thanked me for permission to bury his dead, and we fixed up how many men will do it, and that otherwise both sides must remain in the trenches.

Then we wished one another good night and a Happy Christmas and parted with a salute. I got back to the trench and the Germans sang “Die Wacht am Rhein”. Our men sang “Christians Awake”, and with a good night we all got back into our trenches. It was a lovely moonlight night, the German trenches with small lights on them, and the men on both sides gathered in groups on the parapets. At times we heard the guns in the distance  but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German or two halfway. They exchanged cigars and smoked and talked. The officer I spoke to hopes we should do the same on New Year’s Day. I said “Yes if I am here”.

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I felt I must sit down and write the story of this Christmas Eve before I went to lie down. If one gets through this show it will be a Christmas Time to live in one’s memory. I am just going for a walk round the trenches to see all is well. Good night.

*****

The Germans came out, and we gravely saluted each other. I then pointed to nine dead Germans lying in midfield and suggested burying them. We gave them some wooden crosses, and soon the men were on the best of terms and laughing.

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 There was no firing, so each side began gradually showing more of themselves and then two of their men came halfway and called for an officer. I went out and found they were willing to have an Armistice for four hours and to carry our dead men back halfway for us to bury. Then both sides came out, shook hands, wished each other compliments of the season, and had a chat. A strange sight between two hostile lines.

*****

I was in the 2nd Battalion of the Westphalian Infantry Regiment 15. On Christmas Day, at about eleven o’clock, there was a continuous waving of a white flag from the English trench. Soon afterwards a number of Englishmen climbed out and came towards our front. My commander, Baron von Blomberg, ordered me to find out what the Englishmen wanted. I  went out of the trench and we heard that it was the wish of the Englishman to bury their dead and they asked us to cease enemy action for an adequate period. What were we to do? Time was short. Major von Blomberg therefore decided that there should be a local Armistice until one o’clock in the afternoon, telling the Englishman that their dead must be buried by that time.

*****

We then had a most wonderful joint burial service.  Our padre arranged the prayers and Psalms and an interpreter wrote them out in German. They were read first in English by our padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officer standing in front, every head bare. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again. The ground between the two lines of trenches was soon swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a Happy Christmas.

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“No Man’s Land was full of parties of British and Germans laughing and talking together.
By breakfast time, nearly all our men were between the trenches, and were the greatest pals. In the middle of the war we had a Merry Christmas.”

*****

When morning came both sides shook hands and exchanged gifts. We were given corned beef, tea and cigarettes. They were mad about our cigars. I thought it would be a good idea to get rid of my uniform’s black metal shoulder titles, so I swapped them for very nice German belt with brass buttons and the words “God mitt Uns” on it, and I used that all through the rest of the wall to keep my trousers up.

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I spotted a German officer, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I’d taken a fancy to some of his buttons. We then agreed to do a swap. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons. I then gave him two of mine. One soldier swapped bully beef for a pointed German helmet.

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The helmet achieved fame as on the following day a voice called out “I want to speak to the officer.” He continued, “Yesterday I swapped my helmet for the bully beef. I have an important inspection tomorrow. You lend me my helmet, and I will bring it back afterwards.” The loan was made and the agreement kept, sealed with some extra bully beef. I had a drink of rum off one of the Saxons and then I drank his health. He nearly shook my hand off.

*****

All the morning we have been fraternising, singing songs. I have spoken to and exchanged greetings with a colonel, staff officers and several company officers. We have just knocked off a dinner, and have arranged a meeting afterwards.

*****

Captain Berryman came running up with the news that the Germans were out of their trenches  Sure enough I found a number sitting on the parapet of No. 2 Company’s trench, and also out in front of No. 1 Company. They were trying to converse with our men and giving them cigarettes, biscuits and boxes of cigars. As I could speak German I conversed with them. They all belonged to the 16th Regiment. They seemed very jolly as if they had just had a good dinner. One of them said to me that there must be “Friede auf der Erde”,  “Peace on Earth” on this day, being Christmas Day.

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In the middle of No Man’s Land I met two English, one Indian and one German officer of the neighbouring company; we shook hands, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and then we exchanged some small presents like plum pudding, cakes, whisky, brandy, and so did our men. For an hour both sides walked about between the two lines of trenches, talking and laughing, swapping tobacco and cigarettes, biscuits etc….You would never believe that we have been fighting for weeks.

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One of the Germans asked me if I would like to bury a few dead Indians that were lying about their trenches. My chum and I set to work and buried about a dozen of them. All the Germans looked very fit. They were also very well clothed and looked well fed. One of their officers, a captain, clasped his hands together and looked towards heaven and said, “My God, why cannot we have peace and let us all go home!”

*****

A couple of bright sparks from the Staffordshire Regiment appeared – one clad in a tail coat, black trousers, and an old battered silk hat , the other decked out in blouse and skirt, an old bonnet and a broken umbrella. They paraded up and down and were joined by another joker who had found a broken bicycle with almost square wheels, which he trundled up and down. Many of the Germans had costumes on which had been taken from the houses nearby, and one fellow had a blouse, skirt, top hat and umbrella. My own platoon sergeant added a good deal to the Christmas party by going out to meet the Germans wearing a large skirt; this led to some earthy Teutonic byplay and caused plenty of laughs.

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We heard them singing and shouting in their trenches, and about midday they began lifting up hats on sticks and then they showed their heads, and then their bodies and finally they climbed out of their trenches into the open! Of course we could not shoot them in cold blood like that. We could hardly believe our eyes; we were just about to open fire when one of our officers gave us the order to unload our rifles. Seeing the Germans without any rifles, we stood up and answered them. Then they started to cheer. One of their men shouted out, “Here’s some cigars for you. Come and fetch them.” They shouted, “Come on, we will not fire on you.” The fellow who threw the cigars then came down off the top of his trench and picked up the box again, and started to walk over towards our trenches. Seeing this I climbed over the parapet of our trench to meet him. When we met in the middle he handed me the cigars and said, “A Happy Christmas to you”. I hardly knew what to do at first, but I shook hands with him and wished him the compliments of the season.
As soon as the Germans saw us shake hands they cheered like mad. They then started to come towards our trench.

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Our boys, all Indians by the way, started out to meet them as well. The scene that followed can hardly be described. To see our greatest enemy shaking hands with our Indian troops and giving them cigars and cigarettes was a sight I shall never forget.

Captain, come out, the British have started waving. There is no shooting, and our men are doing the same”. I rushed out and saw a strange unforgettable picture. The soldiers who were standing upright on top of their trenches without their weapons, shouting “Merry Christmas”. Some soldiers had advanced into No Man’s Land. They met in the middle, shook hands, talked and strolled about.…… They were trying to talk to our men and they were giving them biscuits and boxes of cigars.

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An officer amused us very much by clearing some soldiers away from his machine gun emplacement, but he finally had his photo taken arm in arm with one of our officers.

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Coming across from the German trenches was a solitary German, carrying a white flag high above his head. Having come about halfway he suddenly stopped and waited. Then one of our men went out to meet him, to bring him into our lines. Unfortunately the German had not been blindfolded, and he had to be made a prisoner of war. He protested and was awfully upset, but he had seen behind our lines. (The luckiest man I have heard of for a good while. The whole of 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918 in a British POW camp!)

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The Germans sent in a party with a white flag. Our bloody fool of a sentry brings one German in without blindfolding him and, of course, he had to be made a prisoner-of-war.

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The German officers were taking photographs of mixed groups. One German brought us copies to send to the English newspapers. We  had our photographs taken by a German who was the proud possessor of a small camera. There were Indians and Germans shaking hands when he pulled the shutter.

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He took a photograph of three of our officers and three of their officers; our officers were placed between theirs. Suddenly one of the Germans ran back to his trench and presently appeared with a large camera. I posed in a mixed group for several photographs. No doubt framed editions of this photograph are now on some German mantelpiece!.

*****

“Dear Mother, 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?”

*****

Suddenly a Tommie came with a football and then began a football match. We marked the goals with our caps. Teams were quickly established and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3-2.

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The regiment actually had a football match with the Saxons, who beat them 3-2.

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“A” company played against the enemy with an old tin for a ball: they won 3-2!

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Some of our boys tied up a sandbag and used it as a football, while a party of Germans enjoyed themselves sliding on a little frozen pond. Soon there were dozens kicking a made up football about in No Man’s Land.

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In the sector of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, “it was recorded that a game was played and according to a letter  published by the Glasgow News, the Scots won by  4–1.

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He toured Britain last year with the Leipzig team and beat Glasgow Celtic 1-0. All day we walked to and fro with newspapers and our little photographs and parted, regretting that it was our duty to fight each other.

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Men from the 1st Battalion came out from their trenches to play football. The Royal Welch Fusiliers played the German Battalion 371. The Germans won 2–1.

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As the fog lifted the Germans were playing football. We  climbed out of the trench armed with an entrenching tool handle and a jam tin and played rounders.

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We had a football out in front of the trenches and asked the Germans to send a team to play us but it had been freezing all night and it was a ploughed field so their officers stopped them doing it.

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A match against a German team (described as “Prussians and Hanovers”) was played near Ypres near the border of Belgium and France.

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The Lancashire Fusiliers, based near Le Touquet on the northern French coast, played a match against German soldiers using a ration tin as the “ball”.

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Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported “a sing-song which ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!

*****

The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side, it wasn’t from our side. They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part. I had a go at the ball. I was nineteen. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no ill will between us. There was no referee, and no score. It was simply a mêlée. We had a rare old jolly vacation, which included football, in which the Germans took part.

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On Christmas Day 1914 there was an Armistice between us and the enemy. A comrade of our company held up a sign with the inscription “Fröhliche Weinachten” (Merry Christmas). The English immediately responded in like manner. An English soldier shouted to us in imperfect German, asking if we wanted to remove the dead between the lines. We came to an agreement and our men climbed over the parapet, as did some of the English. Afterwards the Englishmen asked us to sing some Christmas songs. An English soldier came towards as and exchanged cigarettes and chocolate. The sight of opposing troops chatting to each other along a stretch of several hundred metres was a very strange one. As darkness fell both sides went back to their trenches. Such attempts at fraternisation have hardly been approved by the High Command; they remain, however, a wonderful testament to the human spirit.

*****

I gave them cigarettes and was given a box of tobacco which I will send home as a souvenir of  the most extraordinary event of the whole war – a soldiers’ truce without any higher sanction by officers and generals. We strolled up and down for about half an hour, shook hands, said goodbye, saluted and returned to our lines.

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And finally, the  very best one of all…

It was just the sort of day for peace to be declared. It would have made such a good finale. I should have liked to have suddenly heard an immense siren blowing. Everybody to stop and say “What was that? Siren blowing again: the appearance of a small figure running across the frozen mud and waving something. He gets closer – a telegram boy with a message! He hands it to me. With trembling fingers I open it: “War off, return home – George. King” Cheers! But no, it was a nice, fine day, that was all.

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For me the Christmas Truce has always been the most wonderful achievement ever by ordinary working-class men, many of whom would never have even seen a German or an Englishman before the Great War broke out. And despite all the appalling self-serving jingoism in the newspapers, after just four months of  slaughter, both armies of ordinary men were ready to recognise that they had far more in common with their so-called enemies than they might previously have been allowed to know. The warmth and humanity of these men shines through still, even a century after the event. “Merry Christmas” or should I say “Fröhliche Weinachten”?

SportTo commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the impromptu football matches played in No Man’s Land during the Christmas Truce of December 1914, both English and German football supporters have come together this year, 2014, in the spirit of Christmas friendship. The highlight of the weekend-long meeting was a seminar entitled “The Referee”.

English supporters were able to show their German friends how it is possible for the referee to award a goal even though a tiny and almost insignificant proportion of the ball may not have completely crossed the line.

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Our German friends were able to show how a referee, if he decides the ball is of the wrong colour or has been made by the wrong manufacturer, can refuse to award a goal, even though the ball may have crossed the line by several metres.

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At the end of a wonderful day of comparing beers and consuming Christmas food, a collection was taken to fund methods of helping the referees of England-Germany games during the next century.

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This sepulchre of crime

Today is the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a date which, in this country is celebrated, if that is the right word, as Remembrance Day. In the United States I believe that it used to be called Armistice Day but is now renamed as the more inclusive Veterans Day. I always feel rather guilty at this time of year because I have never been able to see the “First World War”, or what we used to be able to call,  unfortunately, “The Great War”, in any really positive light. I am now of such an age that in earlier years I was able to speak personally to at least two veterans of the Great War, both of whom were able to give me their highly critical points of view.
It is not my intention to offend anybody by what I say in this blogpost, but it has always been my firm conviction that there are fundamental truths about the Great War which are always quite simply ignored because they are so unpalatable, and it is far more convenient just to forget them. Because of this, I would fully concur with the writer whose article I read in a newspaper recently, who called “The Great War”, “ineptitude followed by annihilation”.
I have never been able to see The Great War as anything other than the story of, literally, millions of well intentioned, patriotic young men whose idealism was taken advantage of by older men of a supposedly better social class, but who were in reality buffoons who signed treaties, and then declared wars which other people had to fight. And when the conflict itself was fought, the way in which it was carried out guaranteed unbelievable levels of casualties, most of which as far as I can see, were considered as merely inevitable by the top brass as they enjoyed constant  five star cuisine in their châteaux five or six miles behind the lines. In the trenches the average life expectancy of the ordinary soldier was about six weeks. An average of at least 6,000 men were killed every day, as the two sides fought over an area about the size of Lincolnshire, or Delaware, or half the size of Connecticut.
You may think that I am being appallingly cynical, but I have always seen these young men as having been robbed of their lives for little real purpose, victims who, if they had been given the choice, would have ultimately rejected a government gravestone in France or Belgium in favour of an ordinary life in their own home town or village, with a wife and children and all the usual cares and happiness which we now, a hundred years later, see as a basic right. Most of all, I would not take particularly kindly to criticism of my point of view from anybody who has not been to visit the cemeteries of the Great War which are scattered in great profusion across the areas where the battles took place.

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This piece of land is perhaps as large as a medium-sized house with a medium-sized garden. It contains the remains of just fewer than 25,000 men. They were for the most part killed in the very first few weeks of the war, when, having joined up straightaway so that they didn’t miss any of the excitement or the glory, they were worried in case it was all over by Christmas. A very large number of them are now known to have been university students, who were soon to find that war had its negative side. At least one of these young men is not forgotten, though.Here is a little remembrance offered to his brother, Friedrich Stieme from Halle, who was killed in 1915.

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Here are the names of just some of the young men who are buried in that plot of land.

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Here are the names of some British and Commonwealth troops. They are recorded in enormous number on the Menin Gate in Ypres as the soldiers who were killed in fighting around the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. There are 54,896 of these men and they were killed before August 15th 1917, a date chosen as a cut-off point when the people who designed what Siegfried Sassoon  called this “sepulchre of crime” suddenly realised that they had not built the monument big enough for all the casualties to be recorded. These, of course, are just the men with no known grave. If every death is counted, then the total Allied casualties exceeded 325,000.(the population of Coventry or Leicester). German casualties were in excess of 425,000.(the population of Liverpool)

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This whole area is dotted with cemeteries whose names, like this one, I have now forgotten. Some of them have just twenty or thirty graves, whereas some of them have a number that would take you a very long time indeed to count.

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Too many of these men were unable to be identified because the British Army would not pay for their soldiers to have metal dog tags. The soldiers’ dog tags were made of leather, so that if their bodies remained in the wet ground for very long, the dog tags would rot away. This is why so many of them can be identified only as “A soldier of the Great War”. In addition, the fact that sixty per cent of casualties on the Western Front were caused by shellfire often made identification of casualties difficult. Notice too how nearly all the graves are covered in green slime, almost inevitably, given the rainfall totals in north western Europe.

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These graves are in a cemetery containing 300 British Commonwealth and 300 French graves which lies at the foot of the Thiepval Memorial.

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More important, though, is the enormous building itself wherein are recorded the names of the fallen who have no known resting place.

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A large inscription on an internal surface of the memorial reads:

“Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme battlefields between July 1915 and March 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”

On the stone piers are engraved the names of more than 72,000 men who were slaughtered in the Somme battles between July 1915 and March 1918. More than 90% of these soldiers died in the first Battle of the Somme between July 1st and November 18th 1916. Here are some of the names.

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Here are some of the graves in another, fairly large cemetery whose name I am afraid I cannot remember …

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It is an insane thought that the Great War still continues to kill people nowadays. I was told by our tour guide that on average usually one person is killed every week as they explore the old battlefields looking for souvenirs.  This shell has been found by the farmer and has been left at the side of a country lane so that the regular patrols by the local council lorries can take it away. Only idiot foreigners, of course, touch these unstable objects. The French and the Belgians leave them alone.

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This graveyard too I am afraid is one whose name I have forgotten. I remember that we went there because one of the other people on the coach had a relative who was buried there and he laid some poppies on his grave.

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This is one of the few places where I saw French graves. France had approximately 1,397,800 men killed in the war, with a further 4,266,000 wounded, giving a total of 5,663,800 casualties. Nowadays there are many areas of the country, particularly in central and southern France, which remain unfarmed wilderness because of this conflict a century ago which left whole provinces chronically short of men. The population of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire added together is approximately 5.7 million.

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This is part of the Tyne Cot Cemetery which is a burial ground for those who were killed in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front. It contains 11,956 men, of which 8,369 remain unidentified.

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This is the “Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.” As mentioned above, the builders of the Menin Gate discovered it was not large enough to contain all the names, so the casualties after August 15th 1917 were inscribed on the Tyne Cot memorial instead. The memorial contains the names of 34,949 soldiers of the British and Commonwealth armies. The panels on which the names are written stretch away, seemingly  to the horizon.

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Sadly, at Tyne Cot cemetery, there are always relatives looking for members of their family who fell during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

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It is very difficult to find a neat conclusion to all this, but I am happy to leave the last word to His Majesty King George V, speaking in Flanders in 1922…

“I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”

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And the Hallowe’en winner is………..

Around ten or fifteen years ago, I was a teacher of Religious Studies as well as my main subject of French. We were  studying the Afterlife, so, towards the end of, I think, the Christmas term, I asked the boys to write down for homework their own ghostly experience or a ghostly encounter that either their parents or anyone close to them had had. Here is a selection of the stories they came up with.
And, of course, yes, boys can tell lies just like everybody else, but by then I had taught this class for four months, seeing them for an hour and a half every week and I did not really think that anybody was lying. They may have been mistaken in their interpretation of events, but I’m sure they were sincere in what they thought was happening. This effort came from the parent, or even grandparent, of one of the pupils…

“My ghost story”

from Daniel J Furse who lived in the Old Manor House from 1956 to 1964.

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“I bought the house from one of the printer Milward family and he told me that when he moved in there was a row of wire operated bells hanging in the passage by the kitchen, although they were all disconnected. Every now and then, at night, these bells would ring wildly. On investigation, no one was ever seen but the bells were all swinging on their springs!
Our own contribution was fairly mundane but baffling. In what was the dining room – next to the kitchen where there now appears to be a door, we had a very large Jacobean oak sideboard tight against the wall, and above it hung a picture. Sometimes, when coming down in the morning, we would find the picture neatly stowed under the sideboard, with the hook still in the wall, and the cord intact.”
I live in the Old Manor House in Lenton regularly referred to as haunted. We have some accounts of manifestations of the ghost in the past one of which I have quoted above. There is one room that is thought to be the “haunted” room. It was in this room that someone was so frightened by what they saw or heard that it caused the previous owners to have an exorcism in the house. We ourselves have had some strange experiences. We seem to have a “Visitor’s curse”. More often than can be explained, something has happened with our lighting, heating or kitchen appliances when a guest was either there or coming. Sometimes just one system fails, but the most dramatic was when a bar of spotlights fell down from the ceiling near some guests. Another time when we were expecting guests for Christmas, all lighting, heating and cooking appliances, including the Aga which runs on gas and the electric cooker which relies on electricity, refused to work.
Hopefully we can have a ghost- free Christmas this year!”

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This was a very popular topic indeed with boys of fourteen and fifteen.
One young man told me the story of how he had seen a ghost when he met up with one of his friends who attended another school in, I think, Grantham. The boy went from Nottingham to spend the whole weekend as his friend lived quite a long way out in the Lincolnshire countryside. They stayed in the friend’s house which was very large with a very large garden. On the Friday evening, as soon as the visitor had unpacked, both boys went outside to see if they could see the phantom which the host had already explained could often be seen as it walked in the garden. The visitor from Nottingham was very excited that the garden was haunted and that he might actually see a real ghost.
The young man told me that as he stood there with his Lincolnshire friend in the early evening they saw not a sharply defined ghost, but a pale blue patch of mist or smoke, shaped like a human form. It moved across the end of the garden from right to left and by the time it reached the left-hand edge it was beginning to disappear.
Supposedly, it was the ghost of a Second World War Luftwaffe flier whose aircraft, a Heinkel III bomber had been shot down, and he had been killed.

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Previously, I had been told about a slightly similar ghost by a now retired school technician called Frank. When he was young he used to live on the southern side of the Humber Estuary in Lincolnshire. Naturally, as a boy, he was keen to explore, and on one occasion he went with two of his friends out onto the salt marshes south of the estuary. He told me that there was a lookout tower right on the edge of the land, overlooking the waters of the estuary and of the North Sea. It had been put there for military purposes, probably either in the First or the Second World Wars. It was now in ruins but the shell of the brick built building was still there.

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As the three boys made their way across the absolutely flat landscape, a saltmarsh covered in vegetation which was no more than four or five inches high, they suddenly saw a figure on the top of the tower.
Apparently an adult man, he stood there for a little while, and the boys watched him. I do not remember from the account whether he seemed aware that he was being watched, but I suspect that he did not. Anyway after five minutes or so, the figure leapt off the top of the tower which was at least twenty or thirty feet high, exactly as if he was doing a parachute jump or, as they always say, something silly. The three boys certainly thought so because they ran along the path which led to the building, to see if they could help what they presumed would be a fairly severely injured man. When they got there though, the place was completely deserted. Nobody was there.
What makes it so strange is that the landscape was such that he could not possibly have run away across either the saltmarsh or to the distant sandy beach without the boys seeing him. In any case it had not taken the boys long enough to get to the tower for him to have disappeared. He had not passed them on any of the paths which led across the marsh. They searched the tower but he was not there. They presumed therefore that he was a ghost of some kind. Later on, Frank explained that tales had been told of an occurrence just like this having been seen before in the very same location, but nobody had ever been able to explain what it was.

Two other stories were very scary indeed…..

“The crippled Ghost that learns to walk

Every so often when I lie awake in my bed at night and I leave the door open I see an old man in a brown wheel chair. He has grey hair and a mutilated face like it’s been taken off and jumbled about and then stuck back on.
It moves towards me without using its hands to move the wheels at all. Then when it reaches the door it stops and stands up. It starts to walk towards me. At that point I turn away and face the wall and try to force myself to believe it’s not real, it’s not real.

Then when it reaches my bed, it reaches out to touch me. The reason I know this is because I see its shadow on the wall. But as soon as it touches my head it disappears and so does the wheelchair which disappears as soon as he gets out of it. The only other thing that is strange about the man is that he is extraordinarily long thin fingers and shoulder length white hair.”

This extraordinary tale is recounted more or less exactly as the boy wrote it down. I have not altered anything at all except to make the tense used the present tense, rather than a mixture of several different ones.
What would be really interesting would be to try and trace in the history of the house if there was anybody who ever lived there who had the long fingers and long white hair, perhaps of a musician, or the mutilated face and the wheelchair of, perhaps, a Great War victim. It is however, even with the Internet, extremely difficult to trace who has lived in any house, and what his job was, or the hardest thing of all, what he did during his life and what happened to him.
And the winner is…….
…….This very last final story, which was clearly connected with my preparations for Christmas with the class. It is dated November 4th 2005, and is entitled…

“The white man with no face”

Interview with my Dad:
What size and age did the ghost appear to be?
He was a six-foot male…age impossible to say.
But roughly did he look middle-aged or quite young?
He was oldish but that’s the most accurate description I could give.
Did you contact any spiritualists or mediums about the ghost?
No I didn’t; it never crossed my mind. It didn’t really bother me personally, but I never thought to ask my wife whether she thought we should get somebody in to try and sort things out.
What was the scariest thing about the ghost?
It would be that every time you were fast asleep, this ‘thing’ could be looking over you; I wasn’t frightened about it at all, but it didn’t do anything… just stared endlessly at you.
If only I had ever seen the ghost and you hadn’t, would you believe me about it being ‘around’ or not? Would you look out for it?
I would believe you, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to find something that could only be found if ‘it’ wanted to be.
How did the ghost appear and what did it look like?
I was in deep sleep and there was a wind as if all the windows were open, and my shoulders felt cold like ice. Both your mum and I woke up basically at exactly the same time, and we saw ‘it’. All it did was just look down at us. I can’t remember the curtains blowing just a fairly strong wind, so the windows were definitely not open. My wife asked me: “Tell me what you just saw?” trying not to put any ideas into my head, and her expression when I replied, confirmed this was not a dream. We both looked away, and after a period of time I cannot remember, I eventually look back to see ‘it’ had vanished.
Did you ever feel like you are being watched?
Well obviously you knew there was something around but you just had to ignore it. My wife at the time was so terrified; she nearly moved out of the house and lived with her parents for a short time.
Did you ever stay on your own in the house?
Yes, of course, it didn’t bother me that much, it was your mum who was worried about it the most. However, this was one of the reasons why we eventually moved house. My mum has told me that for weeks she was terrified of the ghost reappearing, and too many times felt her shoulders turn ice cold even during the summer (just like when she first saw the ghost).
Apparently I saw the ghost on many occasions – more than my parents – and that I asked them “Who the white man in my room was” more than once. The ghost could communicate with “the living” as it asked me what my name was.
Chloe my sister regularly saw the ghost – which was obviously concerned my mom, and on one occasion she told my parents “a white man with no face keeps waking me up and then just staring at me”. At the time she wasn’t afraid of ‘it’ as she was too young to realise what was happening. Chloe can’t recall any of this but my parents remember it all too well.

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