THE STORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE of 1914: the singing of ‘Silent Night’ in the trenches on Christmas Eve, the shaking of hands in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day, between German and British troops, was told me by my father, when I was quite small, but he did not say he witnessed it himself.
That British and German troops did sing Carols together on Christmas Eve and meet in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day, 1914, exchange names and gifts of chocolate & cigarettes, even play football together, is now accepted as historical fact. In the years leading up to the Centenary of the First World War, increasing numbers of soldiers’ letters and diaries have come to light. They contain eyewitness evidence that such a Truce did actually occur, for varying lengths of time – at least along some Sections of the Front Line – if perhaps not the whole of it.
THE LETTERS of Pte BERTIE HIBBETT & his brother, SYDNEY, 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment, provide no first hand evidence of this extraordinary event for the brothers were still in England, training with Kitchener’s New Army – though everyday expecting to be sent to France.
BERTIE’S CHRISTMAS LETTERS OF 1914 (as regular followers will know) give happy details of Christmas in the Army at Saffron Walden: Christmas Dinner, Hampers of Food and Presents from Home, Church Services and Sing-Songs. Officers served the men and made speeches hoping ‘the men would spend next Christmas at Home ‘.
‘I hope you have Syd and me with you next year‘ is Bertie’s wish to his sister, Ida, on her Birthday, 28th Dec. 1914.
THIS HOPE WAS NOT TO BE for CHRISTMAS 1915 saw the Trio, Bertie, Sydney and their QMS pal, Vernon Evans, in Hospital.
On 5th December 1915 the 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment, after holding the line at Neuve Chapelle Trenches (B Section), marched to Loretto Road, Brigade Reserve and from there marched to billets in Rue Des Vaches, Reuilly-Sauvigne, Picardie. On 8th Dec. Sydney, suffering from catarrhal jaundice, was sent from Hospital in Rouen to the Red Cross Hospital, Cirencester, Their pal, Vernon Evans, was already in Hospital in Bologne.
Finally, on 19th, Dec. during or after the march to billets in Isbergues, Pas de Calais, Bertie was sent to the Casualty Clearing Station at Merville, Nord France.
It was at MERVILLE that BERTIE learned of a CHRISTMAS TRUCE on CHRISTMAS DAY, 1915.
FOLLOWERS of the HIBBETT LETTERS will see, in the extracts below, a somewhat different Christmas for the brothers & their friend Vernon, than that of Christmas 1914 – in separate Hospitals with NO PARCELS and NO LETTERS FROM HOME!
Pte BERTIE HIBBETT to his Mother, MARIE N. HIBBETT, 95, Foden Rd. Walsall.
4th Sunday in Advent ‘The Coming of the Lord’. Dec. 19th/ 15
My Very Dear Mother,
. . . On Thursday night your two Christmas parcels had not yet come & on Friday morning I was sent to the Field Ambulance with ‘pyoremia‘ – don’t be frightened by that word, ’tis not half as bad as ‘catarrhal j- – – – – – – oh! I don’t like to write it even. Tis only sore feet and a few other breakings out (boils).
And so this Sunday finds me at the Casualty Clearing Station, a kind of Hospital.
Do not be sorry for me, I am sorry for you, but then again the contents of your ripping parcels will be highly appreciated among my chums & especially the other chaps in my Section who have rarely had such luxuries as figs, dates and rich plum cake. I have told the Corporal over the Section to divide the parcels among them; – no parcel has been forwarded to me . . .
‘Poor Bertie will not have any of our Christmas gifts’ . . .
Pte BERTIE HIBBETT to his brother BASIL, 95, Foden Road, Walsall. In Hospital, Dec. 19/15
My Dear Basil,
How dare such a reflection of trench life reach as far as you on the muddy footer field last Saterdi! Had you waders on any of you? For us there were not enough to go round so some had to ‘grin and bear it‘. I was one on ’em & so in consequence (but chiefly through the march that Sunday, the day after we left the trenches) this Sunday finds me in Hospital with sore feet and other sores. . . .
Yes the Trio, that kept so long together at Luton – & out here – are parted for Christmas & I am sorry I could not convey your kind thoughts to Vernon . . .
Pte BERTIE HIBBETT to his sister IDA, 95, Foden Rd, Walsall, Sunday Dec 19th/ 15
My Dear Sister Ida,
My sincerest apologies for my inability to send you a proper Christmas Card . . .
I do feel sorry for you, Mum and all of you that such good Christmas luxuries have not arrived for the boys who would have appreciated them best. I can picture you all packing those two parcels & imagining all sorts of happy results. My shining face on seeing the cake, almonds and raisins, chocs, figs and dates.
Yes I remember all the things Dodger told me in his letters – how ‘wicked’ of him to mention them, it has had a somewhat tantalising effect upon poor I . . .
Pte BERTIE HIBBETT to his Father, ARTHUR HIBBETT, 95, Foden Rd. Walsall. Sunday Dec. 19th/15
My Dear Sir,
. . . I am today in the Casualty Clearing Station, a Hospital, with sore feet, (suppose I left the comma out! Sydney said my letters are void of full stops, commas and all those things). but I have the advantage of writing and eating up the pages of a writing pad, one of the dry gifts I told Ida about.
Of course I was only joking – but I could do with a ‘snice smince spie’ not because it’s ‘snice, snice, so snice’ – especially one from Home. I suppose I shall get another slice of jam and bread for tea . . . & I could do with a little plum cake for Sunday’s tea at any rate. But then I am taking things ‘as a matter of course’ as you so often advised me to do – & I have the consolation that your parcels, if not already, will be appreciated by those in my Section.
Poor Vernon had no less that half a dozen while he was away until I left the Batt. too. All three of us are in Hospital now . . . ‘
Pte BERTIE HIBBETT’S 1915 CHRISTMAS EVE & CHRISTMAS DAY LETTERS show that he did have quite a good time in Merville Hospital, which he describes as a former monastery: the Chapel was beautifully decorated for Communion; there were the Carols he loved, a Concert & good Sing Songs with a record player, books and magazines to read; and ‘the Chaplain coming round with cigarettes every night when we are about to go to sleep‘
– AND a CHRISTMAS DINNER! – ‘A goodly feast forsooth’.
‘ Yes the Officers waited on the men and the Chaplain served us too;
– as for the courses – the first was beef, haricot beans and spuds, the second was plum pudding with white sauce – I put in few almonds from a dish of fruit just by, then jellies of all kinds, chocolate blancmange Ida yes!
The room which was downstairs held all the patients, numbering 200 in all. We were greeted by the Chaplain, who wished us all a ‘Merry Christmas!’ & told us that if we ate too much we would be sent to Base immediately, yes, get CB – not Confined to Barracks but Condemned to Base. . .
So we all had a bit of Christmas & Santa Claus is coming at 4. o’clock.
Oh! I am full, full inside & the Officers have stuffed our pockets with nuts and chocolates & all those things I’ve said. ‘Eight volunteers for washing-up‘ – I was one of them.
Ta Ta till after tea. I am at peace with all the world so said Dad once – & I hope you have all had a good dinner too.
I am at peace with Ye K – – – – r!
How grateful I ought to be that I have had such an enjoyable and happy Christmas Day. To think of those who are worse off than I was – I am speaking of those in the trenches.
THE 1915 CHRISTMAS TRUCE.
That there was a Christmas Truce in 1915, as well as in 1914, has been questioned, even denied but an officer’s account of what happened at Neuve-Chapelle appears in the Staffordshire Great War website. <http://www.staffordshiregreatwar.com >. And there is a brief reference in the following:
‘ I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone ‘ Miss E. Cavill (sic). (1).
My Dear Sister Ida,
. . . Although Sydney ran a great risk of having his letter mislaid it has brought a happy result & broke my spell of melancholia, which I had slightly this afternoon owing to the reaction – it is so quiet here – & strangers about.
I looked at the photo of you sitting on a camp chair with a book on your lap outside the Study window & tried to think of all your good advice.
I trust you had a Happy Birthday. I went to Holy Communion this morning & a lot of RAMC patients were there, considering (2). We went to pray for the wounded that came in on Monday evening.
I asked one of the casualties what sort of time he had on Christmas Day in the trenches & he said:
‘ We had nothing, but we went over the Top to shake hands with the Enemy‘ – a fact confirmed by the Chaplain (3) when he came round with the cigs that night – The British were the first to go over & the first to resume fighting. The Enemy also came over to play their Band.’
Do you blame our side? I don’t for, as far as shaking hands goes, what does the Collect for St Stephen’s Day say? (3)
. . . I shall see you all in God’s good time.
I am always your loving brother, Bertie.
PS Patients are directed NOT to have their parcels and letters addressed to them at this Hospital, so I advise you not to take the risk Sydney did. Wait till I get back to the Battalion.
(1) According to the Edith Cavell Trust website: ‘ Edith Cavell was a British nurse during the First World War. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without distinction and in helping over 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.
‘. . . In 1915, she was arrested for helping 200 allied soldiers to freedom. She was subsequently court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.’
(2) RAMC: Royal Army Medical Corps. (3) The Chaplain was often the first to interview casualties, about their story and for news of missing comrades. (4) Book of Common Prayer 1662: Collect for St Stephen’s Day, December 26.
Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth we may stedfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors, by the example of thy first Martyr, Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen. Thomas Cranmer.1662.