After nearly a year of remembrance of the 1st World War most of us already know the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when British, French and German troops sang carols together across ‘No Man’s Land’ and rose from their trenches to play football and exchange gifts. It has been written about and dramatised in plays and films, pop videos and songs. This year the truce even provided the theme for a Sainsbury’s TV commercial.
But there was another Christmas Truce that is less well known. It took place the following year in 1915 in the front line trenches at Laventie in Northern France and we know this because of two men who were there.
Fusilier Bertie Felstead was by his own account an ordinary man who experienced an extraordinary event - a moment in history in 1915 when the guns fell silent for the second time and British and German troops emerged from their trenches to play football in the mud and snow.
Bertie was 21 years old when he spent his first wartime Christmas Eve in the front line near the village of Laventie. On that night he heard the carol ‘Stille Nacht-Silent Night’ drifting over from the German lines 100 yards or so away.
“It wasn’t long before we were singing as well. ‘Good King Wenceslas’, I think it was. You couldn’t hear each other sing like that without it affecting your feelings for the other side.
The next morning, Christmas Day, there was some shouting between the trenches. ‘Hello Tommy, Hello Fritz,’ that sort of thing and that broke a lot more ice. As far as I can remember, a few of the Germans came out first and started walking over. I do remember a whole mass of us just getting up and going out to meet them. Nothing was planned. It was spontaneous.
There was a bit of football; if you can call it that. Someone suggested it and somehow a ball was produced. I don’t know were from. It wasn’t a game as such - more of a kick-around and a free-for-all. There could have been 50 on each side for all I know. I played because I really liked football. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably half an hour and no one was keeping score.”
Fusilier Felstead’s Truce ended when an irate British major ordered the men back to their trenches. “We are here to kill the Hun, not make friends with him,” he shouted. To enforce the point the British artillery then fired a salvo into ‘No Man’s Land’ driving the soldiers, friend and foe alike, back to their lines.
The same event is also recorded in the papers of Bernard Adams who was on the same section of front as Bernie Felstead…
It was quite cold, almost frosty and the sound came across 100 yards or so of No Man's Land with a strange clearness in the night air. The voices sounded unnaturally near, like voices on the water heard from a cliff... "Tommee-Tommee. Allemands bon - Engleesh bon." "We hate ze Kronprinz. Damn the Kaiser. Deutschland unter Alles". Then they would yodel and sing like anything. Tommy replied with 'Tipperary... Then 'Abide with Me' rose into the night air and starlight. This went on for an hour and a half... It was the strangest thing I have ever experienced. The authorities now try and stop our fellows answering. The 'entente' of last year (1914) is not to be repeated! One of the officers in the battalion has shown me several German signatures on his pay book given in friendly exchange in the middle of No Man's Land last Christmas Day.
A lieutenant in the Welsh Regiment. He was wounded in June 1916 and sent home. He returned to the front in January 1917 and was fatally wounded leading a charge on February 26th 1917. His papers and diaries, first published in 1917, are available in “Nothing of Importance” - a fascinating and detailed account of everyday life in the trenches.
Wounded during the Battle of the Somme and like Bernard Adams sent home. In 1917 he shipped to Salonika were he caught acute malaria and was evacuated home again. When Bernie died on 22nd July 2001 he was 106 years old, the second oldest person in Britain and the only living survivor of the night when men laid down their arms and gathered together in friendship. To the end of his days Bernie Felstead always believed the Germans to be “All right!”
Nobody really knows why they did it, putting up their weapons and going out to meet the enemy. Was out of respect or curiosity or boredom? Was it out of common humanity or is it that on those rare occasions when such things happen fighting men are suddenly reminded of an angel’s wish from long ago
‘et in terra pax hominibus, bonae voluntatis’ Peace on Earth. Good Will to Men - a message that we should all remember.
God bless Us, Every One!”
TINY TIM - ‘Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens
A short film made by Alan Starkie
About the Christmas Truce of 1914 with music by Mike Harding.
– from Martyn Day