By December of 1914 the war had taken to the trenches, talk of it being “all over by Christmas” was looking misguided, around 100,000 had already became casualties, and recruiting was in full swing to replace these men.
In the meantime men from local Territorial units such as the 8th Royal Scots, had made their way to France and had received their baptism of fire.
The 8th went ‘over the bags’ on 18th December at Fleurbaix, around 430pm, just as darkness was falling, the whistles sounded and off they went. For the next 45 minutes they exchanged heavy fire with the Germans in the shallow trenches.
Lt Andrew Burt, a mining engineer from Prestonpans, led forward his bombing platoon into the attack, he was killed soon after, and his men took a number of casualties who were left lying in the open.
Seeing this Pte William Cordery from Dalkeith sprang into action, he ran over to the first of the wounded men and carried him back to the British lines, he was then seen to repeat this feat twice more, as he went back for a fateful fourth time in the fading light, he disappeared, he was posted missing, and his Commanding Officer, Colonel Alexander Brook, recommended him for the Distinguished Conduct Medal for outstanding gallantry. However as William was missing at the time, it was presumed he was dead. As the DCM could not be awarded posthumously the recommendation was refused.
A number of months later however, William Cordery was reported alive in a German hospital, he had been wounded in the leg and captured attempting to rescue his fourth fallen comrade, sadly his leg had to be amputated to save him.
William Cordery was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal but not until 1918.
On the 20th of December an informal truce was negotiated with the Germans and some of the men who had been killed or wounded were recovered from No-mans-land but this was only a foretaste of what was to come, one of the most remarkable events in Military history.
On Christmas Eve 1914 singing could be heard from the German trenches which was reported by sentries, all along the line. The following morning, dawn broke and revealed a battlefield white with hard frost.
The Scots were suspicious of this, but as one man from Midlothian recalled
“On Christmas Day the greatest thing out took place here. Somehow or other a friendly feeling got up between the Germans and us, so we both left our trenches unarmed and exchanged greetings about 300 yards apart. We were all standing in the open for about two hours, waving to each other and shouting, and not one shot was fired from either side. This took place in the forenoon. After dinner we were firing and dodging as hard as ever; one could hardly believe that such a thing had taken place.”
Another man from East Lothian wrote home in amazement
“On Christmas Day they went a step further and at some parts a few came out of their trenches without arms, and exchanged greetings with some of our men. Two or three stood up straight opposite us. Private John Fraser and I went out and met them halfway and had a great “parlez-vous” with them. It was a rather singular and exciting experience, and I shall never forget it. One was an officer and the other two were privates, and for once there was no treachery.”
A popular image of the day is that football was played between the British and the Germans, in reality there is little evidence that this actually happened, No-mans-land was covered in standing crops such as turnips, the ground was ploughed and frozen solid.
The peace was however used for a more sombre task, a burial party was sent out to gather in the last of the men who had fallen a few days before, to give them a decent Christian burial.
Certainly the 8th Royal Scots did not play football, every account of their day speaks of a very short period of fraternisation, ending at lunchtime when both sides recommenced hostilities, indeed 18 year old Pte David Flockhart who hailed from Gorebridge, was shot and killed by a sniper on Christmas day, he is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial. He can be seen in the group photo sitting with his back to the trench wall.
Whatever the reality, it’s an enduring image, where for a few brief moments, foes met as brothers in the spirit of Christmas.
Captain James Tait (with staff, smoking pipe) from Penicuik was in the front line trenches, he was supervising the distribution of Princess Mary Tins, a gift to every soldier and sailor serving, and it contained tobacco or sweets for the non-smokers, pictures of the Royal Family and a Christmas Card.
At this point unarmed Germans were heard shouting and seen emerging from their trenches, at first many of the Royal Scots thought they were surrendering and stood to, however it became apparent that they were offering a truce for Christmas Day.
Copyright © All Rights Reserved